Category Archives: Walter Isaacson

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.

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