Like most employees, Tony Fadell used to silently rejoice when his boss went on vacation.
Then, Fadell joined Apple in 2001 and realized that Steve Jobs' downtime was different than most bosses' vacations. On a recent podcast episode of "The Tim Ferriss Show," Fadell – known as the inventor of the iPod and co-creator of the iPhone – said that when Jobs left the office, Apple's employees would get two or three days of relative silence. Then, often without warning, they'd start getting calls from Jobs with new ideas.
"Steve would be on vacation and he would be pondering ... the next product, the next direction for Apple, new technologies," said Fadell, a former senior vice president of Apple's iPod division who worked with Jobs for nearly 10 years. "He used that vacation as a time to expand his thinking and get outside of Apple's day-to-day."
Fadell says that when Jobs was off the clock, he'd read new books and seek out conversations about up-and-coming technologies to help him find inspiration in unexpected places. Even at work, Jobs used similar methods to incite creativity: Author Walter Isaacson wrote in his "Steve Jobs" biography that "taking a long walk was [Jobs'] preferred way to have a serious conversation."
In fact, Isaacson wrote, Jobs asked him to write the biography on a walk.
Jobs' vacation habits were sometimes challenging for the people around him: Fadell said Apple employees would hear from Jobs up to six times per day. "He would start thinking about, 'Oh, let's go buy a music company' or 'Should we go and do this kind of product?' 'What technology would it take to achieve this?'" Fadell said. "You would be like Google to him."
Typically, Fadell said, you'd need to quickly type up some research and send it to Jobs via email. Often, Jobs would call back within 15 minutes with another idea, Fadell added.
In some ways, Fadell said, the attention was flattering – an opportunity to brainstorm Apple's next product with Jobs himself. But the pressure could also feel overwhelming, Fadell noted, especially given that Apple's employees were often already working on high-pressure projects.
After leaving Apple, Fadell founded Google's Nest Labs and said he found himself adopting some of Jobs' vacation habits. Most notably, he said, carving out a couple of hours away from his desk per day improved both his productivity at work and his personal wellbeing.
"There's a way to do it – to be high-performing, do amazing things, but to also give yourself the right amount per day, as well as per year, of time off and time to think," he said, noting that he's personally benefited from working out, eating healthily and cutting out alcohol. "During that time, I was able to come up with great ideas and solve problems when I was quieting my brain."
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