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Steve Jobs: Obsessed… or possessed?

November 17, 2011

Walter Isaacson

Late last night, I finished reading Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Steve Jobs. Let me cut to the finish line right away. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore or download site. Buy this book. Read it or listen to it. Study it. Travel through his 56 years, with particular focus on the past 35. Learn about the man, his business, his passion, his dysfunctional personality, and the rarefied world in which he lived. I suspect you’ll learn a bit about yourself at the same time.

Without hesitation, I give it five stars as the best biography I’ve ever read… and I’ve read more than a few. I bought and read ‘into’ Isaacson’s earlier biography of Albert Einstein, and labouring through perhaps the first half, couldn’t pick it up to finish. For that reason alone, I paused before buying the book. The subject matter was just too enticing, though, and this time, it was difficult to put the book down each night.

I should start by saying that I knew virtually nothing about Steve Jobs before reading this book. I knew that he’d started Apple with Steve Wozniak, that he’d been kicked out of Apple, and that he returned to enjoy great success. Beyond that, nothing. On his personality, I’d heard little to nothing until watching a Charlie Rose collection of interviews about the man. I was intrigued. While I’ve enjoyed my iPod for a number of years, only recently did I venture out of my shell to buy a MacBook Pro. I should continue to say that, with seven computers already in the house, my wife is ruminating on a 27” iMac for Christmas, and the iPad2 is in the wings, calling my name.

As a rule, I read, not so much to be entertained, but rather to learn. I’m always looking for new paths to better understand and articulate my own values. This biography offers a wealth of opportunity in that department, both in congruence and in stark contrast.

Working through the book, I concluded that Apple thrived because of Steve Jobs and that Apple survived in spite of Steve Jobs. The man was jam-packed with contradictions, though he would undoubtedly argue that this state offered no inconsistencies.

This is an unvarnished portrayal, with as much negative about the man as positive. There is no nice and neat compartmentalization of his position in history. While simplicity in design was his ‘God,’ any effort to simplify our understanding of Steve Jobs is doomed to fail.

Regarded as one of the greatest ‘design’ minds of our time (he did insist on a role in the design of the book’s cover), he demonstrated unmatched feel for what worked and what did not. Design was not the superficial appearance, but the very essence of a subject. He possessed great intuition for the end-user experience, and worked backwards from there through design, then engineering. Design drove the engineering process, rather than the other way around. Here’s the box… now go fit the engineering inside of it… and make sure it’s beautiful. He also had no time for market research. He asks, What market research did Alexander Graham Bell conduct before creating the telephone? He cites Henry Ford as saying, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

This book is rich in irony. In all matters Apple, Steve Jobs knew no compromise. There was no gray zone. To use what appears to have been his favourite word, everything was ‘shit’ until it was ‘perfect.’ Nothing in between. In the service of perfection at Apple, anything and everything else was open to compromise. The man was so driven by empathy for the faceless end-user that he displayed none for the real and identifiable people around him. His relationship, through products, with the Apple customer was so important to Jobs that he allowed it to displace relationships in his personal life (noting ever-present support from his wife, Laurene). His personal life existed to serve his Apple life. End of discussion.

Jobs approached Isaacson in 2004 with a proposal for his own biography. Isaacson was not aware at the time that Jobs had then recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and dismissed the prospect as far too premature. Jobs re-approached in 2009. His wife suggested to Isaacson on the side that if he was ever going to write this book, he better get started.

This book is the result of a two-year journey with regular access to Jobs, his family, his colleagues, and his adversaries. The story is punctuated with anecdotes from Jobs, followed frequently by Isaacson’s note that ‘this was not entirely true.’ The ‘other side of the story’ is well represented in this book. So much so that one might well be advised to choose one’s biographer carefully. The irony here is that, while this book is a function of Jobs' wish to control his own story (as with all things), he made a point of placing no conditions on Isaacson. He knew that the ‘truth’ would come out, but hoped for a balanced presentation. While, in his own words, he was an ‘asshole,’ he made no apology for it. He was neither proud nor embarrassed by the fact of it. From his perspective, it was just that, a fact. It was who he was and nothing could be done about it. He both blamed this state for some of his failures and credited it for much of his success.

Throughout, the book offers an excellent exposition of what came to be known as Jobs’ reality distortion field. A generous interpretation might liken this to Jack Nicklaus’ practice in the visualization of a golf shot from start to finish before addressing the ball. A more accurate interpretation would have it just as it’s called, reality distortion (my own visualization of a golf shot is, in fact, reality distortion at its best). Jobs regularly saw the impossible as possible, and drove his people until the transformation between the two eventually took place. In effect, he acted as if he could, by sheer will, make true what he wanted to see. People who worked with him stayed, if he let them, because he was able to make them do what they, themselves, never dreamed they could do. At the same time, truth be told, without this talent/flaw, he would probably still be alive. Cancer does not readily bend in the face of denial.

This reality distortion enabled him to re-write history in the service of his own mission. Few people had the courage to challenge him on it though. Bill Gates was not one to back down. When Microsoft first introduced Windows, Jobs challenged him, accusing Gates of stealing Apple’s graphic user interface (GUI). You have to love Gates’ response, as follows: “Well, Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”

There are most certainly business management lessons in this story, covering the full spectrum of disciplines. Steve Jobs was obsessed with (not possessed by… I think) a focus both on the big-picture vision and on the agonizing detail. He drove many over the edge with attention to every curve, every shade, every function, truly every possible consideration that may (or may not) have an impact on the end-user experience. As reported by Isaacson, this focus carried into every aspect of his life. He had a liver transplant resulting from the spread of cancer and nearly died in hospital. “At one point the pulmonologist tried to put a mask over his face when he was deeply sedated. Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked.” Maybe he was possessed…?

On a purely business front, Jobs enjoyed much success. He was able to turn a $5 million investment in Pixar in 1985 into $7.4 billion when he sold it to Disney in 2005. In the days leading up to his retirement as CEO this past August, Apple became the most valuable company in the world. See the book for abundant detail. As presented, though, he measured success not in dollars and cents, but in the development of great products. He wanted to change the world. Safe to say that he succeeded in that.

For me, this reading experience serves to confirm my own articulation of what defines success and how to achieve it. Profit is part of the path, not the objective. Without both big picture and little picture perspectives, there can be no success. Surrounding oneself with only Grade A talent is an absolute must. Making a mark on the world in a positive way is the end objective.

My remaining unanswered questions relate to the journey. Do all performers at the very highest levels need to sacrifice balance in their lives in the name of the quest? Does one have to be an asshole to succeed? On the first, I suspect the answer is yes. On the second, I think/hope not.

This one’s a great stocking stuffer. A keeper. Five stars all the way.


Kevin Graham

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