iBio: Why Steve Jobs’ Biography Was His Final Stroke of Genius
November 8, 2011 - 12:03 am
I have been a loyal and enthusiastic Apple customer since 2002, when I bought my first iMac, the “Sunflower,” and wrote this review. I did not, however, get involved in the “cult” of Steve Jobs. I knew little about him until the media coverage of his deteriorating health made him almost impossible to ignore. I recall watching only one of his famous keynote addresses live, the announcement of the iPad in January of 2010. Around the time of his retirement in August, I, like so many others, watched his wonderful Stanford Commencement Address for the first time.
People like me — who love Apple products, who are grateful to Jobs for the indispensable role he played in creating them, but who knew little about Jobs the man — found ourselves “caught flat-footed”, as Jobs might have said, when we learned about the the seriousness of his illness, his retirement, and then his untimely death last month. We wanted to know more about this great innovator and businessman. We wanted a complete and accurate picture of the man who produced so much of value in his short life. Enter Steve Jobs, the authorized biography written by Walter Isaacson. For reasons I’ll explain, Steve Jobs’ getting Isaacson to write this biography was pure genius.
Before the book even came out, we learned that Jobs gave Isaacson hours upon hours of exclusive interviews, that he told Isaacson to feel free to interview anyone whom he wished, and that the interviewees were told to speak freely about Jobs, warts and all. In addition, Jobs said he would not ask to see the finished product before publication. All this, plus the fact that Isaacson was an experienced and respected journalist and biographer, someone picked by Jobs himself, combined to make the book a must-read, and so I pre-ordered it — on my iPad, of course.
After watching some of the pre-publication media appearances by Isaacson, I was concerned about the tone he would take in the biography. While Isaacson said he liked Jobs, some of the interviews seemed to emphasize Jobs’ least desirable and most controversial character traits. And, towards the beginning of the biography, when Isaacson used some of the value-laden terms critics have used to refer to Jobs — such as “Reality Distortion Field” — it seemed unjustified. But after reading about half the biography, I realized (1) there were some character traits of Jobs that served neither him nor anyone well, and (2) given the information he presented, Isaacson came across as both respectful and objective.
Next: The best and worst of what we learn about Jobs in the biography, and my opinion of Jobs after reading it.
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.
When Isaacson asked Jobs why he arranged to have this biography written, Jobs replied:
“I wanted my kids to know me,” he said. “I wasn’t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did. Also, when I got sick, I realized other people would write about me if I died, and they wouldn’t know anything. They’d get it all wrong. So I wanted to make sure someone heard what I had to say.”
The interesting thing was that Jobs, who usually wanted to control the minutest detail of every product that would carry the Apple name, did not exert such control over the content of this biography. Isaacson reports that Jobs, from the outset, readily acknowledged “that he would have no control over it or even the right to see it in advance. ‘It’s your book,’ he said. ‘I won’t even read it.’” The only input Jobs had, said Isaacson, was with respect to the design of the cover.
While Jobs’ approach to the biography might initially seem to be out of character for him, it made perfect sense. First, Isaacson was a professional whom Jobs had come to know over the years because of Isaacson’s work at Time magazine and elsewhere. Jobs may have viewed Isaacson, the biographer, the same way he viewed the artists with whom he worked at Pixar, and with whom he was said to have taken a more hands-off approach. Moreover, later, after Isaacson confirmed that Jobs might not like much of what was contained in the book, Jobs said that this was good because “[t]hen it won’t seem like an in-house book.” If Jobs’ goal was to cooperate with the writing of a biography that would tell his side of the story, but would also be seen as doing so objectively, a hands-off approach was essential.
When Isaacson asked Jobs why he wanted Isaacson to be the one to write his biography, Jobs replied, “I think you’re good at getting people to talk.” Writes Isaacson:
That was an unexpected answer. I knew that I would have to interview scores of people he had fired, abused, abandoned, or otherwise infuriated, and I feared he would not be comfortable with my getting them to talk. And indeed he did turn out to be skittish when word trickled back to him of people that I was interviewing. But after a couple of months, he began encouraging people to talk to me, even foes and former girlfriends. Nor did he try to put anything off-limits.
A few days ago, while thinking about how smart Jobs was to have this biography written, to make sure that he had the opportunity to state his own case, I realized there was something even more brilliant about what he did in authorizing this biography to be researched and written in this way.
At various times throughout the book, we see Isaacson give Jobs the opportunity to respond to accusations made or opinions expressed. Perhaps at some point — when Jobs went from being “skittish” to “encouraging” — Jobs realized that, if he got Isaacson to interview everyone who might have anything significant to say about him, “even foes and former girlfriends,” and if, as Jobs thought, Isaacson was “good at getting people to talk,” then all of Jobs’ potential critics and detractors would be on the record, in this biography. Moreover, Jobs might be given the opportunity to answer them. The interviewees, knowing Jobs was still alive at the time of their interviews, would likely avoid saying anything that was false. And then later, after Jobs died, should they try to embellish upon or change their stories, they would appear to lack credibility. Thus Jobs was able to avoid what happened to others, like Ayn Rand, who never got to answer the charges made by her foes in posthumous biographies. So not only is Steve Jobs, the authorized biography written by Walter Isaacson, a tremendous resource for admirers, like me, who wanted to feel like they knew and understood the productive genius whom they never got a chance to meet, it was also Jobs’ final stroke of genius.
That is, unless we learn that Jobs also helped design a yet-to-be-released, insanely great Apple product.