Steve Jobs Redux

My obsession with Steve Jobs continues.  Spoiler alert:  if you plan on reading the just-published Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson and want to be surprised, stop reading now.

Just so you know, Jobs approached the Pulitzer Prize-winning Isaacson to write his biography.  Isaacson agreed to do so in 2009 when it seemed clear that Jobs would be checking out sooner rather than later. In just under two years, the author interviewed a sickly and often distracted Jobs more than 40 times as well as “more than a hundred friends, relatives, competitors, adversaries, and colleagues.”  Isaacson weaves excerpts of these interviews into a 571-page compelling and riveting read.

My conclusion:  Steve Jobs was a dick.

I had heard rumors to this effect but I did not want to believe it because I love Apple and its products.  I “early adopted” the MacIntoshes when everyone else was buying IBM.  I later invested in an iMac, after Jobs returned to Apple to revive and restore its creative direction.  I adore the iPod’s instant accessibility to my favorite tunes and the iPad’s myriad features and convenience, and I am wedded to my iPhone.

But Jobs does not come across as a nice guy in this book.  In fact, I would say he suffered from a serious personality disorder, which included but was by no means limited to jealously, insecurity, rage, conceit, compulsive lying and distorted thinking.

For example, Jobs routinely dismissed his workers’ ideas as “shit.”  Jobs lived in a black and white world, but mostly black.  Very little lived up to his exacting standards of perfection.  Jobs sought to wean out the “B” and “C” players, which he believed justified his brutal management style, so that only “A” players were left to fulfill Jobs’ visions and design “insanely great products.”

If you dared to question Steve Jobs, he either respected you or dismissed you depending on how badly he needed you.  In other words, if you had a skill Steve Jobs wanted, he turned his renowned and somewhat notorious charisma on you like a laser beam and left no computer chip unturned until you yielded to his demands.   More often, when an employee produced something Jobs liked, he typically waited a few weeks and took credit for the employee’s ideas and work.

Throughout the book, Isaacson refers to Job’s “reality distortion field” where Jobs would spin his own version of reality.  I call this compulsive lying.  All his colleagues, friends and family seemed to know about this major character flaw and many let it go for the sake of working with Jobs and creating those “insanely great products.”   Talk about compromising your standards.

Even more interesting, Jobs did not have any deep technological or engineering skills.  He just knew what he wanted and found incredibly talented people who he constantly berated until they created and designed his ideas or theirs, for which he took full credit.

Jobs’ bizarre personality manifested itself on several other fronts.  For example, he lived as a vegetarian for most of his life (nothing wrong with that), but would adopt weird diets where he would only eat one kind of food (like an apple) for weeks at a time.   Early in Jobs’ life, he believed that his superior diet absolved him from bathing.  A few venture capitalists and corporate heads literally turned up their noses at Jobs, but the young, gifted and smelly entrepreneur prevailed in spite of the olfactory prejudice he endured.

I don’t know how Jobs ever found a girlfriend although it appears he had a few including the famous folk singer, Joan Baez.  In 1991, Jobs married one of the “smartest and most grounded people” his biographer Isaacson had ever met, Laurene Powell.   Jobs and Powell had three children who Jobs ignored a lot of the time except for occasional family trips where he would still be prone to “withdrawing” from them.  He had already established this pattern of family neglect with his first child, Lisa, who was born out of a relationship with a previous girlfriend.

About half way through the book, Steve Jobs returns to Apple after a 12-year period of forced exile.  He plays coy for a while, then seizes power and begins imagining the products (the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad) and changing the industries (technology, computers, music, design, animation and retail) that would become his life’s legacy.

Issacson focuses on these accomplishments and gives them their proper due and then some.  After spending half the book trashing Jobs’ personality, the author deftly brings the reader around to an understanding that it had to be this way, that Steve Jobs’ madness also drove his genius.  To work with Steve Jobs and benefit from his legendary intensity, focus, and imagination, one also had to endure cruel insults, long hours, bad hygiene, weird diets, endless lies, crying jags (yes, Jobs cried often), and a colossal ego.

I’m just glad that I read about it and didn’t have to live it.  I still love my iPhone though.  So much for taking the moral high ground.


2 responses to “Steve Jobs Redux

  • Katherine Petrin


    Thanks for the highlights of a book that seems interesting and well researched, but not enough of a priority for me to invest the time. I appreciate your take on it. Stan (my boyfriend) was really into the details of Jobs’ life and career around the time he died. Stan read the book you reviewed. I went with him to see the “lost” interview from 1995 which was playing as a feature film for a couple of days in November at the Opera Plaza. I wish I had thought to tell you then. I have to say I found Jobs to be far more compelling and engaging in the 1995 interview than I expected. He came across as super honest, direct, very open, an original thinker. If you ever get a chance, you should see it. Here are details:

    Speaking of recently deceased influential people, this quote from Christopher Hitchens, seems appropriate to your post on Jobs:

    Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. -Christopher Hitchens, author and journalist (1949-2011)

    There’s a lot to talk about here, don’t you think? Thanks again Nancy!


    • Nancy Hayden Crowley

      Thanks Katherine. Christopher Hitchens deserves his own special post although I’m not confident enough to write about him with any authority. I read his articles in Vanity Fair and I certainly found Hitchens compelling, brave and provocative. The quote you shared with me is a keeper. Thank you!

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