Steve Jobs Once Prank Called a Starbucks and It’s an Incredible Lesson in Emotional Intelligence

I recently wrote about Apple’s 2007 launch of the iPhone, and how the most consequential thing to come out of that keynote was easily the most overlooked. That happens because until we’ve experienced something we don’t know what to expect or to watch for. 

In the process of writing that, as I re-watched that keynote the other day, I realized I had forgotten another fantastic little moment. While demonstrating the iPhone on stage, Jobs was highlighting how you could use the Google Maps app to find Starbucks locations in a given area. (This was before your smartphone knew your precise location so you still had to tell it).

Jobs showed how you could tap on a location and it would give you the address and phone number. To highlight the ease at which the overall user experience was integrated, Steve tapped on the phone number to make a call to the closest Stabucks location. “Yes, I’d like to order 4,000 Lattes to go please,” Jobs said when a woman answered the phone. 

“Just kidding, wrong number,” he quickly added.

In front of 4,000 people, Steve Jobs prank called a Starbucks. The CEO of what would become the most profitable company in the U.S., during the launch of its most important product ever, made a prank phone call. 

One of the most brilliant aspects of Jobs’ presentation was an acute understanding of his audience. He knew how to capture their attention, how to connect with what they cared about, and how to make them laugh. That particular skill happens to be dramatically underrated.

Knowing how to illustrate the user experience in a way they can relate to, even when none of your users have ever had the experience yet, is a special kind of skill. Doing it with humor is a gift. 

Of course, you could write this off as the juvenille behavior of an idiosyncratic tech founder, but you’d be wrong. Instead, I think it was a remarkable lesson in emotional intelligence. 

You may remember this event took place four years after Jobs had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given only a few months to live. Two years later he gave his famous commencement address at Stanford University where he said this:

I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something…. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.

At the time, Jobs was in remission after having surgery to remove his cancer, but it was clear that the perspective gained had shaped the final years of his life. And, standing on stage, introducing the iPhone was clearly a man who loved what he did. 

The prank call to Starbucks was Jobs’s way of saying to his audience “isn’t this fun?” 

I don’t think anyone could argue Jobs wasn’t having fun, and I believe that’s because he had a sense of awareness about what mattered, and how his work mattered. Even if no one in the room at the time could really comprehend just how much that was the case.

I’m not suggesting that great leaders should necessarily start making prank phone calls. I will say that I absolutely think that laughter is the most effective way to connect with an audience and get them to care about what you’re saying. As a leader, that is, after all, the greatest gift. Oh, and, it probably goes without saying that right now, we could all use a little fun.

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