Cup 45

Person: Steve Wozniak

Drink: Water while at lunch in Palo Alto, CA


This story begins in October.
Around Cup 16, I was talking about 52 Cups with Todd, a friend at work when an idea hit him, “You should try to set up a meeting with Woz, the co-founder of Apple! I know he’d do it—in fact, I bet he’d even fly to Michigan.”
I figured I had nothing to lose so I explored ways to contact him. I searched his website, tried Facebook, asked a few friends. Nothing worked. My last resort was to search Steve Wozniak on I called the phone number only to reach Steve Wozniak the pro fishing reporter, not Steve Wozniak the computer genius.
So I decided that it just wasn’t meant to be and moved on.

Then March rolls around and one day I wake up to this email from a good friend at Michigan State:

FYI, Steve Wozniak will be the June commencement speaker. I bet we could get a coffee date set for you.

A strange feeling washed over me. Todd was right, Steve Wozniak was flying to Michigan.

And we had coffee.

Well, we kind of had coffee. I found a way to get invited to a reception he was speaking at and stood next to him while drinking a cup of coffee. He was fascinating to talk to and very approachable so I explained my project and invited him to coffee. He said he’d love to but would have to take a rain-check because he was headed to Detroit to watch a hockey game before his flight back to California. He gave me his business card and told me to email him sometime.

So I did. I sent him an email from Budapest to let him know I was planning a trip to San Francisco to visit friends in July and I’d love to meet up if he was around. A half dozen email exchanges and a couple flights later, I was riding my friend’s green beach cruiser bike down the sunny, tree-lined, streets of Palo Alto to meet Woz and his wife for lunch.

It was a fantastic lunch that culminated with a piece of wisdom that emerged when I asked him how he and his family had stay grounded amidst the fame and success:

Be true to yourself. Find out who you are and what you value—then don’t let anything deter you.

For as long as Woz can remember he wanted to design computers. In high school, in college, in his first year working—Woz was designing computers during every spare moment he had. During his first year at Hewlett Packard, he designed the revolutionary Apple I and Apple II computer during his nights and weekends away from work.

Woz knew he was born to build computers. Not because he wanted to make a million dollars or start a revolutionary new company, but because nothing brought him greater joy than solving the complex computer problems. After he designed the Apple I he actually gave away the designs to anyone that wanted them.

When he designed the Apple II he was planning on doing the same thing until Steve Jobs approached him about starting a company to commercial the computer. At first Woz said no. He didn’t want to be a business man, he wanted to be a electronic engineer. At the time, Hewlett Packard was the most prestigious place for engineers so Woz saw no reason to leave.

But Jobs was insistent. He eventually won over Woz and they went on to found a company that revolutionized home computers and changed the future of technology forever.

Of course, it was much more complicated than that—but the bottom line is that Woz helped create a company that most entrepreneurs can only dream about.

Then he walked away from it.

One reason was a near-fatal plane crash that left him with retrograde amnesia. He had no recollection of the crash and also struggled with day to day short term memory (although his memory was eventually restored). The other reason was that he wanted to finish the college degree he abandoned when he went to start Apple.

Then he became a teacher. To fifth grade kids.

Could you imagine going to a Parent/Teacher conference with the genius behind the Apple computers? You probably can’t considering it’s not typical for successful innovators to leave great tech companies and head to the classroom. But Woz isn’t typical.

He knows himself well enough to trust his decisions even when they seems crazy to the outside world.

That’s what impressed me about Woz.

More than his fame, his mathematical genius and the fact that he co-founded one of my favorite brands—it was his self-awareness (and self-assurance) that impressed me.

To know exactly the who you are—and accept who you are—is rare quality.

Sitting down with Woz and hearing him talk so candidly, and in such a genuine and humble manor, was refreshing.

The good news for us is that it’s not a quality he was born with—and as his wife pointed out, not a quality I should expect to have at age 23. It’s a gradual progression that develops over time if you’re willing to work on it.

That was the most important take away from Cup 45: people aren’t born talented.

They are born with skill and the talent emerges with the practice and honing of those skills.

It’s undeniable that Woz was born with an incredible aptitude for computers. But it wasn’t the natural born talent that led to the Apple I and Apple II—it was was the hours and hours (and hours) of practice that gave him the ability to revolutionize the computer world.

If he hadn’t been devoted to the craft his skill would have been wasted.

Regardless of what your skills are and where you start—you can always get better. The people that are the leaders in the field weren’t born at the top, they worked their way to get there. I’m not saying natural aptitude isn’t important, it is, just probably not as much as you think.

Woz is a fantastic public speaker. His keynote at Michigan State’s graduation was a great blend of information, inspirational and entertainment. That’s why he is invited to speak at events around the world—and why you would assume Woz was born with a natural aptitude for public speaking.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. Growing up, Woz was so shy he wouldn’t raise his hand in class or talk to the other kids in his computer club. He feared public speaking. But as the co-founder of Apple people wanted to hear him speak so he had to face his fear of public speaking. With devotion and practice he developed a talent he never knew he had.

I understand this is a difficult idea to believe. It’s much easier to convince yourself you weren’t born with the right amount of talent than accept that success is attainable—it just requires a LOT of hard work and dedication. I know this, because I’ve done it many times.

But Woz showed me how wrong I was in that assumption—he ruined my excuse. Now I can’t take the easy way out and claim I’m not talented enough. I have to put in the hard work and develop the talent.

I have a feeling the lesson will pay off in the long run.

Because I could have easily convinced myself that getting a meeting with Woz was impossible.

But I didn’t.

And look what happened.