In 1997, Steve Jobs returned to Apple, and among his first moves was to kill off most of its products. No more Quadras, Performas (Performae?) LCs, Newtons and OpenDocs. In the video above, from the company’s 1997 Worldwide Developers Conference, Jobs takes questions from the audience. This three-minute clip is his answer to why he killed OpenDoc.

But never mind OpenDoc. His answer is about focus. And focus is about saying no. That is what this post is about.

Steve Jobs had a singular goal in 1997: turn Apple into a company that matters. Why he succeeded is, to me, a crucial life lesson that we should take to heart. And it’s that focus is the only way to achieve your goals.

For me, goals matter a lot. Without something to achieve, I’ll feel like my life is passing by without meaning. It’s not enough to earn enough money to pay my mortgage and put my daughter through school. It’s my ambition, to use another term.

Right now, my goal is to become an indie Cocoa developer. It’s been my ambition for so long, that when I first identified it, I would have said “indie Mac developer” — since the mid-2000s, iOS has exploded on the scene.

For a guy with a background in writing and publishing, switching to development is no easy feat. It’s a long-term goal, years in the undertaking. And I can say there’ve been a lot of mis-steps along the way.

My wife talks about goals like a mountain. You can see it off in the distance, and every fork in the road either takes you closer to or further away from that mountain.

Saying “no” means taking another step towards the mountain. Saying “yes” to the wrong thing means heading away. Here are some examples of saying “yes”:

Saying No to these things means disappointing people. Because watching TV takes me away from learning more Cocoa, I cut it way back. Because writing a book basically consumed my life for six months, I decided to never do it again. Because preparing a two hour presentation every month took too much time, I resigned my post with the local MUG. In all those things, there was a lot of No going on.

People are disappointed when you say No to them. In fact, we seem trained to say Yes as often as possible; we don’t want to let anyone down. But Yes has a way of fracturing our lives, taking us in every different direction.

Yes, I’ll help organize this party. Yes, I’ll write a piece for that newsletter. Yes, I’ll help out that other person with their computer.

No. No means those people have to find someone else to do that stuff. And that’s hard. But if you want to get anywhere, you have to disappoint others.

Who are you answerable to? For me, my ultimate authority is Future Aaron, a crusty, geriatric version of me, rasping out my last breath on a hospital bed. Looking back and wondering what I’d accomplished. Did I build something worthwhile, or did I drift through life, starting things but never finishing?

Well, in October of this year, I launched Tiberius. It’s my first “real” Cocoa app, and the beginning of a new branch in my own road to that mountain over there. It took some five years of false starts, misdirection and reboots to get here. It involved me sitting in front of my computer for so many evenings, I began to associate Xcode (the Apple developer environment) with night-time; seeing it open during daylight was a strange and noteworthy occurrence.

If you have a goal, then, you have to do this:

  • Say what it is. Out loud.
  • View it as a mountain. Admire how beautiful it is at this distance.
  • Vow to get there.
  • Say Yes to what gets you closer.
  • Say No to what takes you further away.

Do those things, and crusty, geriatric Future Aaron will approve. What greater motivation is there?