Steve Jobs

September 9th, 2013

On our recent family trip to the coast I was able to polish off the Steve Jobs biography from Walter Isaacson. It was quite the read, providing an insight into the inner life of one of the world's seemingly most-loved visionaries. The picture that is revealed is not entirely pleasant, however.

It's a little known fact that I generally do not like Apple as a company nor the products they make. I wouldn't say that diving into the life of Steve Jobs has changed my opinion on that matter, but I will say that is has given me a far greater understanding of context. Apple is the kind of company it is almost single-handedly because of Steve Jobs. That's not to say that there have not been a mass of talented people that have worked at Apple over the years, but the DNA of Apple exists almost entirely as it does because of Steve Jobs.

Additionally, Apple has really been the way it is since the very beginning. It was not always the world's most valuable company, but it has been very consistent in many other ways. The often arrogant attitude. The marketing frezny that surrounds every product reveal and launch. The messiah complex, that each new product Apple makes is destined to upend all of recorded history and usher in a new age of prosperity for all mankind. These types of aspects to Apple are again wholly the creation and result of Steve Jobs.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book was the view into the rise of personal computing out of Silicon Valley. Jobs was absolutely right smack in the middle of the birth of an entire industry. The one hundred billion dollar company that Apple is today was truly started out of a garage and a home computer club. How Steve Jobs took Apple from such humble beginnings to where it is today is an incredible achievement. What was also interesting to me about this was the relationship Jobs had with Bill Gates. The two were actually very close, despite the barbs they traded over the years. This whole period of history was one of the most interesting parts of the book to me.

Steve Jobs is a complex and frustrating individual, and Isaacson gives a lot of insight into many facets of his life. Steve Jobs really possessed little technical know-how. Just about all of Apple's early success is owed to Steve Wozniak on that front. Where Wozniak fell short was the ability to turn feats of engineering into business endeavors that make money and resonate with consumers. One of Steve Jobs single greatest decision was to take Wozniak's open-source idea and make it proprietary.

I think Steve Jobs' greatest skill was to drive people to work harder, do better, and create products and ideas that people want. Even an Apple cynic like myself can admit that Steve Jobs made dramatic changes in areas like digital music distribution, mobile application development, and an array of devices. He was an expert at convincing people that they needed something that previously did not exist. His ability to negotiate at an executive level and his ability to make people believe in his ideas was probably second to none in recent history.

The problem is the way he went about managing his company. For all his passion and drive and creativity, the guy was kind of a basket case. Entirely self-centered. Massively egotistical. A management style that includes yelling, screaming, cursing and (literal) temper tantrums. Screaming and crying was not an uncommon sight at meetings where Steve Jobs wasn't getting his way. Often he would decry someone's idea as "shit", and then the next day suggest it as if he came up with it himself. In tandem with this approach were very strange personal habits, such as periods of extreme fasting, the belief that a particular diet could prevent body odor, the conviction that you can't fully understand the world without dropping acid, and the ever-present and famous reality distortion field where the normal rules do not apply.

Additionally, Steve Jobs often deeply wounded those closest to him. A baby given up for adoption, he also fathered a daughter in his early twenties whom he abandoned. He would have an inconsistent relationship with his daughter Lisa for his entire life. Jobs eventually married and had additional children. He oscillated between intense devotion to his family and virtual neglect, especially when Apple took over most of his time. He seemed to adore his son Reed, but was generally distant from his other two daughters. He never once visited his wife's resource centers for education. In general, he was never really concerned with philanthropy or using all that he'd been given to address issues of justice or suffering.

There were many things I dislike about Steve Jobs, but his battle with cancer is not one of them. Isaacson does a remarkable job of detailing the horrors that Jobs endured during his three bouts of cancer. I respect Steve Jobs for fighting so hard to beat the disease. What is disappointing to me is that his several near-death experiences did little to mellow him or change his approach to people and relationships.

What about legacy? It's a mixed bag, for me. I think Steve Jobs absolutely revolutionized the music industry. I think he also greatly contributed to artistic achievement through the creation of Pixar. He created an incredible model for self-published software. He took a stand for closed systems and stuck to it, which truly connected with a segment of consumers. It's really hard for me to look past his lifestyle choices, though. In reality, it's debatable whether the products he created actually helped improve the world or were largely luxury items, but in either case he stomped on a VAST array of people to do so. I'm of the opinion that if I can't even care for my family well, anything else I do is largely a lost cause.

From a literary perspective, I though the book was stellar. Isaacson is an excellent writer, and he communicated the story of Steve Jobs in a greatly entertaining fashion. I was never bored and almost always compelled to keep reading. For a person who was intensely private, Jobs provided a wealth of information to Isaacson while at the same time being entirely hands-off with the published material. That is commendable, and I think Isaacson draws reasonable conclusions about Jobs without being too biased in either direction.

I highly recommend the book, and as a Steve Jobs detractor, I don't know if I can provide a better stamp of approval. Whether you can't stand Steve Jobs or you're most faithful Apple cultist, his life is certainly interesting enough to fill six hundred pages.



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Strandy says...

Excellent book review. I've been on the fence about reading this book and I'm glad to hear it's worth the time.

Posted September 10th, 2013 @ 12:09 AM

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