Skip to navigationSkip to content

You’re never going to be Steve Jobs—but you could be Steve Ballmer

AP Photo/Gurinder Osan File
Look how much fun he's having.
Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

Type “How to be Steve Jobs” or “Steve Jobs lessons” into Google, and you’ll get page after page of tips. One trite homily after another explains how to imitate a few of the great dictator’s tics. But swap out “Jobs” for “Ballmer,” and you get almost nothing.

I bet you could learn a lot from former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer–way more than you can learn from Jobs. You’re not like Jobs. Jobs was a handsome, lustrous-haired genius who hooked up with another genius in his early 20s and formed a new, globally important (and immediately successful) company. Ballmer was a funny-looking, bald non-genius who joined a growing company as its 30th employee. Which is more like you?

Jobs’ net worth at death was $11 billion. But Ballmer is estimated to be worth $22 billion. He worked at Microsoft for 34 years solid. He wasn’t fired once.

If you’re a non-genius who hasn’t formed a globally important company in your early 20s — and especially if you’re funny-looking — you’ll probably learn more from Ballmer than you can from Jobs.

Go big or go home.

I loved learning how Ballmer got such a big share of Microsoft:

Read the whole article. But also, look at that photo. I mean, wow. Who’s in charge there? The genius founder, or the confident, ruthless, ambitious employee number 30? Staring straight at you, 35 years ago.

To be Ballmer, be big, even if you’re not.

Whatever cards you’re dealt, play them with gusto. Microsoft employee number 30 is a bum hand — you get the hard work of founding a business but little reward. Unless you’re Ballmer. Then you get 8% and end up one of the richest men in the world.

I don’t know what he said to engineer that deal. But somehow he turned the tables. He went in as a grad looking for a job opportunity, he came out as the man who could save Microsoft. I bet at some point he said “I’m giving you the opportunity.” To be Ballmer, be the opportunity.

Let’s talk about that face for a bit.

Search Steve Jobs on Google Image, and you’ll get a lot of photos that all look basically the same:

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
A lot to live up to.

Thoughtful. Solemn. Disappointed with us. Better than you. Pleased with himself. He’s pretty old in most shots but he basically wore that same face his whole professional life.

Now Ballmer:

AP Photo/Gurinder Osan File
Much more approachable.
REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
Embrace your weird side.
Hugs for everyone. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

There’s a face. The world is full of people who go around with a narrow palette of expressions like Steve Jobs. Go to the mirror and practice these faces. Widen your palette and use your ridiculous face to cheer, energize, and amuse the people around you. Big man, big ambitions, big expressions.

What would Steve Ballmer do?

Imagine a tech CEO gatecrashes your party.

Timeline 1, you’re gatecrashed by Steve Jobs. He’ll come in. Everybody will think he’s cool. He’ll put better music on the sound system. He’ll ask for, and perhaps bring, some much better drinks than you had. Everybody leaves thinking he was the coolest guest in the room, and they all feel a little less cool as a result.

Timeline 2, it’s Bill Gates. He’ll be friendly but awkward. He makes good conversation but somehow the party is a bit limper because he’s there. He apologizes because he forgot to bring anything, but he doesn’t really know the party etiquette.

Timeline 3: Steve Ballmer. You open the door to his enormous grinning face, and before you know it he’s in the hall handing over a bottle of something cheap (but with such confidence you don’t notice) and he’s giving you the handshake of your life. Then he’s in. Loving it. Loving the music. Loving the food and drink. He’s going up to everyone, saying hello. And after a while you realize he’s started saying “thanks for coming, great to see you man!” to your guests. By the end of the evening, it’s his party, and everybody had a great time. That’s Steve Ballmer.

It’s easy to mock Ballmer. You see videos. The Windows TV ad. The “developers developers developers.” What a loser. What a goofball. But that’s the point. Here’s somebody who’ll wear their mediocrity with such energy, with such boundless enthusiasm and unbridled passion, that nobody else even tries to compete.

You’re not Steve Jobs. You’re mediocre, like me. You’re reading shabby online articles about how to be like somebody else. Do you think Steve Jobs did that?

The world is full of Steve Jobs wannabes. Nobody’s trying to be like Steve Ballmer. Except me. And now you. Give it a try. Let me know how you get on.

Steve Ballmer mission pack

Ready to be more like Steve Ballmer? Here are five specific things to do today:

  1. In your next conversation with a colleague make a conscious effort to use these physical expressions: huge smile; tongue out; salute; claw.
  2. Next time you give a presentation, repeat the same key word or phrase at least five times. Preferably 10. Find a rhythm. Rap it.
  3. Imagine you are — or actually be — the tallest person in the room. (Perhaps create situations where you’re standing and they’re sitting?)
  4. When you sense a gap that’s closing, push yourself in with full energy. Love the party, get into it, then make it your own.
  5. Find a chance to turn the tables. To go from the person receiving an opportunity to being the person giving one. Say “I’m giving you the opportunity” at least once.

Good luck! There’s only once piece of advice I could find direct from Steve Ballmer. It’s what he said to Satya Nadella as his successor took over as Microsoft CEO:

“Be bold. But be right.”

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.