I admire Jobs as much as I did before reading Isaacson’s biography. No, he was by no means perfect, and there were a number of negative things about Jobs revealed in the book. But the book also shows the reader plenty that was “insanely great” about Jobs — in terms of what Jobs accomplished and what he was like as a person — things many of us hadn’t known during all these years of benefiting from his productivity and creativity.
I recommend that you read the biography and learn for yourself about everything Jobs did and was. It is not possible to do justice, in a single blog post, to Isaacson’s comprehensive, invitingly written biography. That being said, here are some of the best and worst things the reader learns about Jobs in this book:
Best: Jobs had an excellent mind, one that was capable of seeing the big picture one minute, and then the next determining how the smallest detail fit into that picture. He favored an “integrated” over a “fragmented” approach to his work, and to at least some of his personal life. He relentlessly pursued the simplest, most elegant, and most tasteful solutions to problems of product design, function, and user interface. In his role as manager, either of teams or whole companies, he practiced the virtue of justice: He learned that his most productive, most innovative employees, the “A people” were happiest and most efficient when surrounded only by other A people, so he continually sought to weed out those he referred to as “B” and “C” people. He sought to defend and protect intellectual property rights. He wanted Apple to be worthy of customers’ trust with respect to storing their personal and financial information. He defended himself in a principled way against charges of “censorship” from those who disagreed with Apple’s policy requiring it approve all content distributed by iTunes and the iBookstore, as well as apps that could be used on Apple devices. He eschewed market research, saying, as Ayn Rand’s hero, Howard Roark, might have, that “customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.” He was not particularly philanthropic, and made no apologies about that. In the one instance in the book when Jobs did participate in a philanthropic project — as a favor to his friend, Bono — Jobs refused to have his company’s name depicted in a way that would minimize it. In other words, he refused to sacrifice. While he valued money — from the beginning he was pushing his partner, Steve Wozniak, to sell their creations rather than give them away — his primary motivation was not to make money. Rather, writes Isaacson, Jobs described as “the best motivator of all” the desire to create a product that he and his team would want to use and own themselves.
Worst: Besides the way Jobs initially dealt with — really, refused to deal with — the birth of his first daughter, the worst things about him might be characterized as stemming from his “Reality Distortion Field.” To be fair, much of what is ascribed to this mode of thinking seems to be no more than Jobs (1) recognizing that people often lack the self-confidence necessary to do things of which they are capable, and then (2) using whatever persuasive means at his disposal to get the naysayers to snap out of it and get the job done. However at least some of this mode of thinking seemed to be what Ayn Rand would have called a “primacy of consciousness” approach — putting an “I wish” over an “it is”.
One example of this was the amount of money Jobs spent on headquarters, as well as product manufacturing and design, while at NeXT. But this sort of thinking was most tragically evident when it came to Jobs’ dietary and, later, health care choices. In his late teens and early twenties, Jobs was said to have believed that a certain type of vegan diet would obviate the need for basic personal hygiene. And he continued to believe this, regardless of how many people told him otherwise. Decades later, after having been diagnosed with cancer, Jobs elected to use diet and other forms of alternative treatment, postponing for nine months the surgery that might have saved his life. Moreover, throughout his medical treatment, Jobs continued to practice peculiar eating habits — such as eating little more than carrots for a week — which may have hindered his health and recovery. When someone puts an “I wish” over an “it is” in a way that causes him to lose nothing but money that he can easily afford to lose, we tend not to see it as a tragedy. When we see that the same type of thinking may have caused the untimely death of the greatest producer many of us will witness in our lifetimes, someone who seemed to love his life, we are sad and frustrated. When I read about Jobs’ decision to postpone surgery on his pancreas for nine months, I thought, “If a diet could not perform as promised with respect to the mere prevention of body odor, how could Jobs have expected to cure or retard the growth of cancer by such methods?”
Next: Why Jobs wanted the biography written, and why it was his final stroke of genius.