Career strategy: Don’t sell sugar water

Zat Rana
Steve Jobs and John Sculley pose with the new Macintosh personal computer, on January 16th, 1984.
Marilyn K. Yee | New York Times Co. | Getty Images

It shouldn't have happened, but it did. Today, the story is told like a legend.

In 1983, John Scully was the President of Pepsi. And up until that point, the company had been his life's work. He had helped turn it into one of the world's most recognizable brands.

People noticed, and among them was a founder of a Silicon Valley startup.

At the time, this founder was grappling with a dilemma. He was driven, but he was also young and inexperienced. Nobody doubted his intellect, but the board of directors of his company wanted to hire somebody more seasoned to manage the day to day operations alongside him.

When they made the decision, the founder set his sights on Scully. He'd been impressed by the work at Pepsi. He wasn't going to take "no" for an answer.

Except, that's precisely the answer he got. More than once.

From Scully's point of view, it made sense. He was leading a great company. Why put it on the line for a startup that might not be around in five years?

He got his response in the form of a final pitch.

"Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?"

Scully left that year. The startup was Apple. His partner was Steve Jobs.


We spend about 80,000 hours of our life at work. Yet, the work that most of us commit our lives to isn't the kind of work that we're actually inspired by.

It might be fun at times. We might set aspirations of doing more of the same thing in bigger and better ways, and that might momentarily spark a dose of excitement, but ultimately, it's just a routine of chasing moving carrots.

Though short-sightedness isn't optimal, neither is long-term compromise.

Now, I'm not going to sing that you should follow an ambitious dream or to quit your job without an idea of how to pay the bills. That's short-sighted.

It's just about understanding the importance of why you get up in the morning rather than what for. It's about realizing that, though short-sightedness isn't optimal, neither is long-term compromise.


Before Apple, John Scully was successful by all measures. In fact, relative to the uncertainty Steve Jobs was offering, he was in a great position. He was important, driven at work, and accomplishing a lot. It was all pretty good.

That said, pretty good doesn't really compare to the excitement of intrinsic motivation. Selling sugar water might have kept Scully going, but the thought of changing the world inspired him.

Jobs very much cheapened the appeal of Pepsi, but the fact that it even resonated with Scully is telling. He had a lingering itch. Pepsi was a job, not his mission. It was a what, not his why.

Tim Cook in Glasgow, Scotland.
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None of this is to say that you can't be content with a job unless it inspires.

The point is simply that work takes up a lot of your time. It can be a place where you go to stay busy and to support the joy in other parts of your life, or it can be a place of deep meaning and satisfaction. It comes down to whether or not you have a source of inspiration.

If you don't, it's worth chasing opportunities to find it, even some risky ones.


Despite the outcome of Scully's move, in hindsight, it was a move that made sense. Apple did end up changing the world. If he had turned it down, he would likely have looked back on it as a missed opportunity.

At the time, however, the initial answer was an easy no. Scully had worked his way up from the bottom of the ladder at Pepsi, and he was being asked to leave the top position for a six-year-old startup by a 28-year-old who dropped out of college. That's probably not where he had his sights set.

Connecting these unintuitive dots isn't easy, but it's critical that we do.

Life works in a messy way, and opportunity doesn't always present itself where we think it will. Often, it sits outside our field of vision, and we have to be deliberate in keeping an open mind.


We categorize things because it helps us make sense of the world, but in truth, there is no linear path, and there is no indisputable hierarchy. We have to analyze things for what they are. Not with our preconceived notions.

In 1983, Apple wasn't the company it is today, and it would've been easy for John Scully to not see that as an opportunity. In fact, on the surface, it wasn't one, and that almost happened.

The world is far less rigid than we're made to believe. When we put work into something, we're not just moving farther along in that particular domain, but we're developing underlying skills that have broader applications, too.

Look beyond your horizons, and don't get too focused on the road you're on. There's a broader reality out there, and it's filled with possibilities that can open up a new world of potential.


Steve Jobs has a mythic following, and in many circles, the idea of selling sugar water is a euphemism for spending time doing something meaningless.

There's a lot of advice that goes around — to college graduates in particular — that talks about following hopes and dreams. But what it doesn't talk about is how hard and unlikely it is for most people to feasibly do that right away.

Kickstart your new year with this visual trick
Kickstart your new year with this visual trick

In the short-term, we're often pushed onto a path that doesn't exactly make us feel alive every day, and that's okay. The demands of life have to be met, and we have to keep moving.

Over the long-term, however, we gain the advantage of time, and if we're diligent in looking, we might not fulfill our childhood dreams, but it isn't impossible to find work that adds some meaning and inspiration into our lives.

We just need to learn to recognize the difference between the what and the why. Intrinsic motivation changes the playing field, and it's worth taking smart risks to chase.

Sometimes, these risks lie beyond our immediate focus. We can put in work in one direction, and have it pop up in our peripheries. That's to be expected.

Keep your eyes open. There's a lot out there, and much of it can be inspiring.

This article originally appeared on Medium.com.

Zat Rana publishes at Design Luck, where he shares ideas on how to construct a better life by dissecting science, art, and business.

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