Steve Jobs, in a 1995 interview, was discussing the importance and impact of teamwork, and it was during that discussion that he shared a short parable of rocks and how they polish each other:
“When I was a young kid there was a widowed man that lived up the street. He was in his eighties. He was a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he may have paid me to mow his lawn or something.
“One day he said to me, ‘Come on into my garage I want to show you something.’ And he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler. It was a motor and a coffee can and a little band between them. And he said, ‘come with me.’ We went out into the back and we got just some rocks… some regular old ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder, and we closed the can up and he turned this motor on and he said, ‘come back tomorrow.’
“And this can was making a racket as the stones went around.
“And I came back the next day, and we opened the can. And we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this (Jobs clapped his hands), creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks.
“That’s always been in my mind my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about.
“It’s that through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these really beautiful stones.”
This is a valuable parable of stones and how we also are often polished by the agitation of powerful ideas and passionate people.
For truly high achievers who are dedicated to excellence, that means that the experience will often times be uncomfortable and you will need to both change others and be changed by them.
It is Proverbs 27:17 that tell us “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
Our purpose as committed teammates is to enter the coffee can as those common stones, and then to trust that our dedication to endure adversity and challenges and to succeed together will eventually find us transformed into the beautifully polished rocks that Steve Jobs described in his parable.
Sometimes, the sandpaper person in our group is the one individual that we most need to “rub up against.”
Being on a good team allows us to create a newer or better product.
Being on a GREAT team allows us to create a newer and better self.
As Steve Jobs mentions in the interview, “it’s that process that is the magic.”
Are you and your teammates in the coffee can and agitating each other? Are you truly committed to a shared and compelling goal? Are you and your teammates willing to share ideas and focus on WHAT is right rather than WHO is right?
If your team needs a boost of morale or communication, consider the positive impact that a fun day of team development can have on your organization’s productivity and culture.