Steve Jobs (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  January 24, 2012

Steve Jobs
By Walter Isaacson
5 Stars (out of 5)

First, the biographer:

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Sigh. What a great read. Not to make this about another blogger’s review, but I cannot for the life of me understand why Tim Challies says, after reminding us of Jobs powerful reality distortion field and asking the question if Isaacson successfully resisted it, that:

“I am not convinced that he did [resist]. It seems that over the course of the book, Isaacson’s writing changes. By the end he is not just describing products, but offering gushing editorials about them. Meanwhile, the negative side of Jobs is downplayed in favor of his innovation. I suppose we cannot know for sure, but it seemed to me like Isaacson may have been yet another person who fell under the mysterious sway of Steve Jobs.”

While the review on the whole is not terrible, that paragraph is hogwash. Isaacson’s editorial comments increase, especially as the book reaches the final few years, because that is when Isaacson himself became a part of the narrative. Yet even still I find that like a steady guide Isaacson accounts Jobs berating temperament as much near the end as near the beginning. He also talks about Jobs passion for esthetics and innovation and, yes, even fierce battles as much near the end as near the beginning.

In June 2011 while Jobs was in intense pain and energy deprived he called an old friend, someone back in the eighties who was charged with keeping Jobs tantrums at bay. He asked her, “Tell me, what was I like when I was young?” She replied, “You were very impetuous and very difficult” and added, “But your vision was compelling” (p.537). Isaacson’s biography bears this out, and it bears it out right to the end.

Now the biography:

Reading through Steve Jobs biography certain personalities often came to mind. Jobs reminded me of Alexander the Great. Leader of a small group of people bent on taking on the mighty global Persians of IBM and Microsoft. Often the first over the wall, his passion and personal discipline created a reality distortion field in which his peers were engulfed so that suddenly the impossible would become possible.

Also of Herod the Great, determined not just to build an empire, but also to build monuments that would survive him by generations. He did this with his retail stores, but more monumental are the blueprints Jobs left behind of Apple’s future headquarters, a spaceship-esque looking campus that may architecturally rival any building in the world (See an artistic rendering here).

And of Darth Vader for whom failure was not an option. One top engineer said that a mouse that goes in circular directions (rather than just up-down side-to-side) could not be built; that the technology had not yet been invented. Jobs fired him the next day and promoted his lieutenant whose first words out of his mouth were, “I can build that mouse”.  Or the time when MobileMe flopped and Jobs lined up the entire team of MobileMe creators and engineers on a stage and berated them for “screwing up” so badly. He then publically fired the head of the department on the spot in front of them all and promoted the next guy and charged him with the responsibility to create “the Cloud”.

But also like Vader, Jobs had huge abandonment father-son issues. Even though he eventually discovered who his real father was, he refused see him. And he died having never met him. Jobs would often look to other men who entered his life as “being like a father to me”, and when they would inevitably make a businesswise decision that did not have Jobs best interest in mind, he would cry “so-and-so was like a father to me, and then he betrayed me”. The irony is that Jobs would abandon his first child for the first ten years of her life, and they never did manager to cultivate a strong relationship. Later on when he married and had three beautiful children he tended to favor his son, Reed.

Steve Jobs also had a serious messianic complex, and everyone knew it. When he showed up at a staff party in the early eighties dressed as Jesus, there were no shortages of eye rolling going on. And as he was showing Isaacson the blueprints for Apple’s future headquarters he pointed out how the future complex could surround St. Peter’s Square in Rome. Jobs mission from start to finish was to “change the world”. Unfortunately that mission Jobs deemed more important than individuals. And so Jobs was willing to do whatever it took to accomplish it. And he did.

Steve Jobs was one of the most passionate and disciplined person I have probably ever read about. Whatever you say about the man, those two facts alone are intensely admirable. In fact I think that’s what his reality distortion field was made of, passion and discipline. If something was impossible but Jobs believed it possible against all odds and data, somehow the impossible would become possible. To put this into perspective for my readers, I believe that if Jobs became a Christian and devoted his passion and discipline to the faith his legacy would rival Luther or Wesley. I’m convinced of that.

An early conviction of Jobs that remained to the end was an undying commitment to a closed, rather than an open, system. Jobs believed that everything that goes into a computer should be intimately connected. The hardware, software, advertising, sales, distribution, the whole package should be one. Some people buck against this. They want an open system because open systems offer more choices. You can choose the brand of computer you want (Compaq, IBM, Toshiba et cetera) and choose the software you want or use existing software to hack your own projects. The problem is that because these parts (the software and hardware) are not made just for each other and because the more hands that get in there the more fumbled they become, they, to use Jobs expression, “are shit”. They never worked fluidly. Jobs’ closed system, though a result of his incisively controlling nature but also out of his conviction that most people are too busy “doing whatever they do best, and they want us to do what we do best”, has produced better and more reliable products that allow users to develop their own creativity. When in the eighties and nineties this philosophy left Apply eating Microsoft’s dust, come the digital age this old philosophy set Apply up in a way the competition could not have predicted and were not prepared for: the ability to sync flawlessly and fluidly along with an incredible user interface. Of course in order for it to work you need to own all Apple products. But the result, for this blogger anyways, has been nothing short of liberating.

Jobs was an extreme character. He took some flack for certain moral stances (like refusing to allow developers to create porn apps for Apple products despite a great deal of pressure) and he was always faithful to his wife. He could be brutally honest most of the time, but often he would lie for no reason at all. He had a binary view of the world. Everybody fit into one of two categories. Either you were a “hero” or a “shithead”. There was no in between. Someone could travel from hero to shithead or shithead to hero, sometimes within a single day.

“The same was true of products, ideas, even food: Something was either ‘the best thing ever,’ or it was shitty, brain-dead, inedible.” (p.561)

Still, Jobs drive, his passion and deep convictions are compelling. He set out to change the world. Look around. Watch T.V. Surf the web. I think Jobs influence will be felt for a long, long time. Not just in products that he helped create before he died, but in the brain-children of the products on Apple’s horizon.

An Aside Word

As an aside, Reed will be an interesting character to watch. According to Isaacson, Reed had all of Jobs strengths – his ability to negotiate, his drive and passion, love to combine art with technology – with none of Jobs weaknesses. Reed has his mothers temperament. Calm, steady, compassionate.

I can relate with Jobs father-son issues. I understand the deep rooted desire to seek out potential father-like figures, to cling to them and look to them as such, and to feel the intense let-down when they don’t live up to the role I assign to them. I’ve been doing this my whole life, and I still do it.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. What a great read.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Holly

    I thought this was a great book, too. If anything, I thought Isaacson was a little harsh on Jobs, didn’t present any of his private philanthropy….if anything, he made him seem selfish and uninterested in charitable causes. As I read from other sources, this doesn’t seem an accurate representation. It seems, rather, that Jobs didn’t respect people (such as Gates) who gave in a big and public way, to achieve praise. It seems that Jobs donated a LOT of money, also, wanted to change the world systemically and profoundly thru his work v. his money. Also, other sources cite much better familial relationships, even the People magazine devoted to his life revealed deep faithfulness between he and his wife, he and his kids. So, it almost seemed at times that Isaacson was devoted to trying to stay out of the distortion field, by cleaving to the “brilliant but mean but cold but passionate” image of Steve Jobs. I think he could have shown more human interest….

    But you know? All in all, an awesome book. I came away from it a better mother and individual, I think. I learned to focus on what it is I do well, and on what I want to do well – and to not apologize for that. (Of course, as a Christian, I’m always to think of others and honor others and be compassionate…) but as a person? Don’t let anyone pull you away from your vision! I think a devotion to excellence is a good thing that we all could use a little more of, too.

    Thanks for the review!