by Walter Isaacson
Simon and Schuster, 2011
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How is one to think about a person like Steve Jobs? Jobs was:
- A counterculture anti-materialist whose life work was to create consumer products and conduct corporate business dealings at the highest level.
- A connoisseur of impeccable elegance and style who disregarded everyone’s advice that he needed to wear deodorant.
- A control freak who insisted on micromanaging every detail of the buildings he renovated for business, having them painted museum white and outfitting them with outrageously expensive art and furnishings, who wouldn’t buy furniture for his own houses.
In his encyclopedic retrospective about Jobs’ life and work — a wild ride through Boomer Wonderland and Silicon Valley Mythos, from counterculture to corporate cool — Walter Isaacson has brought to life a portrait of an iconic figure in American business whose life was filled with polarities. His biography enables us to appreciate Jobs’ “genius” while at the same time the reader recoils from the brutal nature of his intense, off-the-charts egoism that left relationships, lives, and careers lying wounded or dead along the side of the road.
One reviewer wrote:
Steve Jobs cried a lot. This is one of the salient facts about his subject that Isaacson reveals, and it is salient not because it shows Jobs’s emotional depth, but because it is an example of his stunted character. Steve Jobs cried when he didn’t get his own way. He was a bully, a dissembler, a cheapskate, a deadbeat dad, a manipulator, and sometimes he was very nice. Isaacson does not shy away from any of this, and the trouble is that Jobs comes across as such a repellent man, cruel even to his best friend Steve Wozniak, derisive of almost everyone, ruthless to people who thought they were his friends, indifferent to his daughters, that the book is often hard to read. Friends and former friends speculate that his bad behavior was a consequence of being put up for adoption at birth. A former girlfriend, who went on to work in the mental health field, thought he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. John Sculley, who orchestrated Jobs’s expulsion from Apple, wondered if he was bipolar. Jobs himself dismissed his excesses with a single word: artist. Artists, he seemed to believe, got a pass on bad behavior.
- Sue Halpern, New York Review of Books
I am an unabashed lover of Apple products and have been since the early days of the Macintosh. The reason they are so successful is ultimately attributable to Steve Jobs and his fanatical commitment to a vision of simplicity and unity. This vision led him to be intense and focused and tyrannical about the way he ran his business.
Jobs was compulsive about every detail of the devices his company created, and at times he pushed his workers beyond all reasonable limits to make the impossible happen. His infamous “reality distortion field” led him to believe the ordinary rules didn’t apply to him when he wanted to accomplish something.
He bent the facts or blatantly lied about them if it was necessary to persuade others to do his will, pulled products at the last second because they weren’t perfect in his eyes, cajoled others until they did it his way or hammered out perfection together, and excoriated his employees mercilessly in public when their work didn’t interest him any longer. All meetings were held face-to-face and usually involved intense, even explosive arguments. Outside the conference room, he engaged in countless public shouting matches with his coworkers and others. He regularly weeded out the “B” players on his staff, insisting that only “A” players were acceptable. And, in his eyes, the difference between “A” and “B” was the difference between “perfect” and “shit.” Jobs had perfect binary vision: there was perfect, and there was everything else. And everything else was not worth an ounce of his time and energy.
Over and over again he insisted that Apple take an integrated “closed” approach to its products in which Apple controlled the entire process, not giving users choices and options. In his mind, this was the only way to make great products that had both artistic integrity and ease of use for consumers. He said regularly that he believed in creating products that stood at the intersection of technology and the humanities, art and science — tools that were beautiful and enhanced human growth as well as being functional. And he was as anal about how they were marketed as he was about the products themselves, insisting on controlling each product launch and ad campaign so that it represented the “Apple experience.”
The truly difficult part in reading Isaacson’s biography comes when learning about the ways Steve Jobs treated other people. A long time Apple colleague, Andy Hertzfeld, once told Isaacson, “The one question I’d truly love Steve to answer is, ‘Why are you sometimes so mean?’”
Even his family members wondered whether he simply lacked the filter that restrains people from venting their wounding thoughts or willfully bypassed it. Jobs claimed it was the former. “This is who I am and you can’t expect me to be someone I’m not,” he replied when I asked him the question. But I think he actually could have controlled himself, if he had wanted. When he hurt people, it was not because he was lacking in emotional awareness. Quite the contrary: He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will.
Over the years, people have spoken of the “cult” of Apple, and perhaps one reason is that its leader was so cult-like in terms of charisma and charm on the one hand, and control and abuse on the other. The biographer, like me, has mixed feelings about whether that combination of magnetism and brutality helped or hurt Jobs more in the long run. However, the questions must be asked: would Apple have become the company it is without his intense focus and impossible demands, his mercurial temperament and withering verbal attacks? Is it necessary in American business to be an asshole to get people to do the impossible? Many of the colleagues who suffered under Jobs’ vicious management style told Isaacson they never could have accomplished what they did had he not been so relentlessly intent on pushing them, insulting them, arguing with them, and using every aggressive and passive-aggressive tool in his arsenal to get them to be “A” players on his team.
After reading this biography, I feel even more keenly the tension of following Jesus in a society of affluence, freedom, the competitive mentality, and the myth of progress. I admire Steve Jobs’ accomplishments and think that Apple has provided the world with useful and beautiful products. We are better because of his work, his talents, his gifts. On the other hand, I find his world and ethos and the way he lived within them utterly foreign and in many ways repugnant to the character of the new creation.
Steve Jobs was not a religious man, at least not in any traditional sense. He was a devotee of Zen Buddhism, a vegan, and he sought enlightenment through LSD, meditation, solitude, visits to places like India and Japan, and ascetic practices such as fasting (though some have suggested his eating practices may have actually been eating disorders). Near the end of his life, as he reflected on his impending death, he said, “I’m about fifty-fifty on believing in God. For most of my life, I’ve felt that there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.”
Speaking for myself, I’m about fifty-fifty on Steve Jobs.