Review of ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson

November 15, 2011

I’ve been sitting on this review for three weeks. I started reading ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson at about 11:45PM on Sunday, October 23. I finished it at around 4:00AM on Wednesday, October 26. Suffice it to say, that’s the quickest I’ve ever read any book that was over 600 pages. I read it, appropriately, on my iPad.

If Steve Jobs were a fictional character, he’d be one of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes—brash, narcissistic, ambitious, bratty, and willful. He thought he could change the world he lived in just by thinking about it. Whether by willing an engineer to do better (which often they did) or by implementing his vision of technology, he did in fact change his world and the world around him. He could even will himself to believe that truth didn’t exist—his first daughter, Lisa, and his cancer. He was a walking contradiction. Consider:

  • A hacker, hippie who wanted to turn everything he saw into commerce
  • An orphan with a fear of abandonment who abandoned and then denied paternity of his own child
  • A defiant, anti-authoritarian who ended up building a draconian company
  • An anti-materialist who created products hordes of people lust for
  • An obsessive control freak who, at times, had no idea how to control himself
  • A man whose results were about making profits, but he didn’t care about money and lived simply
  • A man who sought out father figures, but didn’t end up being much of one himself
  • A man so smart, yet so stupid–thinking diets would make him clean enough that he didn’t shower, or that they could cure his cancer

The book reads more like a history of Apple than a book about a man. There are bits and pieces that aren’t about Apple, NeXT or Pixar—his adolescence, peeks into his family life, his love life—but Steve Jobs and Apple are one, and above all, this is that story.

For those looking to get a deeper understanding of how Jobs treated people and his philosophy on design and creating products, the book amply does that. My take-aways are:

  1. Jobs was even more of an asshole than I already knew
  2. Jobs was even more integral in the development of Apple products than I knew
  3. Jobs cried a lot

While it’s clear that the core of Steve Jobs is a passion for perfection whose fear of abandonment and betrayal guided much of what he did, the decisions he made, the people he palled around with, but we never get to the core of why he treated people as he did. There’s no real explanation for his behavior. The best we can figure is that’s “just how he is.”

This baffled even his dearest friends, including his “design soul mate”, Jony Ive:

“He’s a very, very sensitive guy. That’s one of the things that makes his antisocial behavior, his rudeness, so unconscionable.”

Of course Steve’s “reality distortion field” is a frame for a lot of interactions with Steve. It was a powerful force. Time and time again people are quoted as saying they were fully aware of it and still got trapped by it. Andy Hertzfeld, the primary architect of the original Macintosh Operating System, most eloquently defines Jobs’s “reality distortion field”:

“The reality distortion field was a confounding mélange of a charismatic rhetorical style, indomitable will, and eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand.”

Death, like a light blanket, is draped over the story of Steve Jobs. Not only because the writing of the book commenced after Jobs became sick, but also because the story ends just weeks before he died. Jobs had a lot of premonitions early in his career. One of those was that he always thought he would die young. Isaacson writes,

Jobs confided in Sculley that he believed he would die young, and therefore he needed to accomplish things quickly so that he would make his mark on Silicon Valley history.

This notion of an early death as a reason to work fast and hard is repeated a few times in the book, recounted by multiple people.

There are many interesting and entertaining passages in the book that provide a lot of insight into how Steve Jobs and Apple worked. Mike Markkula, Apple’s first investor and third co-founder, wrote a one-page paper called “The Apple Marketing Philosophy” which turned out to be the guiding principles that stuck with Jobs inside and outside of Apple. The philosophy stressed three main points, which I’m paraphrasing:

  1. Empathy. Understanding what the customer needs
  2. Focus. In order to do a good job, unimportant opportunities and distractions must be eliminated
  3. Impute. Perception is everything and the best stuff must be presented in a way to avoid shoddiness

And then there’s Bill Gates, a recurring character throughout the book as Jobs’s best frenemy. I think the book helps Gates’s reputation by positioning him as Jobs’s polar opposite–the calm, stable, thoughtful, level-headed competitor. That’s not really who Gates was, but that’s what Isaacson makes him seem like compared to Jobs. Gates has quite a few zingers which I found endearing. My favorite quote from Bill Gates comes in an interview with the Washington Post regarding Jobs’s NeXT computer:

“His product comes with an interesting feature called incompatibility. It doesn’t run any of the existing software. It’s a super-nice computer. I don’t think if I went out to design an incompatible computer I would have done as well as he did.”

And then there’s a lovely passage involving Wendell Weeks, the CEO of Corning Glass, the company that made the Gorilla Glass used on the iPhones. When Jobs attempted to contact Weeks by phone, his assistant answered and refused to connect him even after explaining, “No, I’m Steve Jobs.” Jobs complained to Weeks that it was “typical East Coast bullshit” to which Weeks then called Apple and asked to speak to Jobs and was told, “to put his request in writing and send it by fax.” Classic.

When Jobs finally met with Weeks, Jobs insisted that the glass wasn’t good enough and tried to explain how to make glass.

This amused Weeks, who of course knew more than Jobs about that topic. “Can you shut up,” Weeks interjected, “and let me teach you some science?”

One would think, when facing death, that it changes you in some respects. There are quite a few passages in which Jobs breaks down crying when reflecting on moments and people in his life. It seems like he did truly care and had some regrets, but death didn’t change his stubbornness or his taste. When recovering from a liver transplant…

Even when he was barely conscious, his strong personality came through. 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.

I think taste and a designer’s eye can be learned over time. Some people are just born with it and it’s so buried, so engrained in their spirit that it defines them. This is the case of Steve Jobs. He had an opinion on everything and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind regardless of who it was or what the object was. When Jobs met with record label executives for the first time…

After four slides, he waved his hand and broke in. “You have your heads up your asses,” he said.

Even if you’ve closely followed Steve Jobs over the years, the book is an interesting read. But I can’t help but be disappointed. It seems like Isaacson missed an opportunity. At times I wondered when I’d learn something new about the early years of Apple, and other than the courtship and betrayal by John Sculley, it reads like many of the Apple books I already own.

But there’s a deeper reason why I was disappointed. I didn’t get a sense of finality. Unless I totally missed it, he doesn’t even mention the date Steve Jobs died. Isaacson didn’t include any post-mortem thoughts or any sense of the magnitude of his death and the media coverage and global outpouring that followed. It seems to me that’s a pretty important part of the Steve Jobs story. It just feels like Isaacson took the easy way out.

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