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The Biography of Steve Jobs: A Review

One of the first things Walter Isaacson noted about his biography about Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, is that it was both ‘instructive and cautionary.’ Steve Jobs was, no doubt, a complex man–highly admirable on many levels, but also completely unlikeable on many others. But there is no doubt that he was also highly & completely unique. Iconoclastic really, in many ways, which even if you are not a ‘Apple maniac’ (which I am not) you have to admire because Steve Jobs had a lot of guts.

It may be easy to criticize him, and a lot of that criticism may be fair. The fact was he was a real jerk a lot of times, especially to people he supposedly loved and cared about, but after reading this book, I found myself being more of an apologist for Steve Jobs than I initially thought I ever could be. Why? Because Steve Jobs had the guts to believe in the power of his vision and also the power of beauty and creativity being an essential and defining force in people’s lives through the products they used. This is what I like about him essentially. Most corporations focus all of their energy into making money, which is their right, of course, but it seems the unintended consequence of a strategy like this is making a product that is not always that beautiful or that great. That is, when cost and profit are your defining metrics, then beauty and design and detail and intuition are secondary, and even superfluous concerns.

Jobs reversed this, though. He focused on ‘making great products’ that people thought were unique and beautiful, and both easy and fun to use. By doing this, he tapped into their deepest desires in a way that many other corporations don’t and don’t want to take the risk to. This I found highly admirable because even though I probably would not have liked Jobs personally, been his friend, and probably would have gotten fired from Apple if I ever could get a job there, I think that Jobs’ underlying motive, giving people ‘a great product’ through the ‘Apple experience’ and providing this through an integrated approach where he acted as highly involved, passionate, and demanding CEO is admirable.

We all know that, after 2008, there were a lot of CEO’s who were interested in cutting cost, kicking the can, and waiting for their golden parachute to arrive. Learning how Jobs did business, even though he was an extremely difficult jerk at times, was refreshing. Perhaps others will think different (pun intended), but I do think it worked. I also think Jobs, as I’ve said, had a lot of guts, which many modern CEO’s just don’t have it seems (unless they are playing around with other people’s money, that is!). If you read the book, you will see, over and over again, Jobs was willing to trash a project close to the finish and start over to make sure it was right instead of putting out a product that was, in his words, shit (this is one of Jobs’ favorite adjectives). How many modern CEO’s would do this? Jobs, no doubt, screwed up a number of times using this technique, but when you think of his successes, Pixar, Apple stores, the Ipod, the Iphone, you can see that, if Jobs was a baseball player, then Ted Williams would be remembered as a pretty good hitter.

But Jobs also had a dark side–several actually. From his eating disorders and binges and fasts to his treatment of others, especially those whom he loved and was close with, Steve Jobs was a man both of extremes and contradictions, which at times, when he needed to be tough, made him an invincible negotiator, but at other times, made him act in a completely mean-spirited way, hurting those he loved deeply and at times, completely senselessly.

In my view, one of the strong points of Isaacson’s book is that he doesn’t excessively lionize Jobs. Jobs was not a particularly nice or kind guy by any standard definition of that term. Likewise, Isaacson does not excessively criticize him, either. Jobs did have a soft side, and he was fragile in ways you would not expect. He did try to make amends for many of his mistakes, and it appears that he really loved his family, his close friends, his employees who were loyal to him and helped build Apple, and Apple itself.  As a result of this, more or less, balanced depiction, Isaacson presents Jobs’s life as a whole as accurately as a biographer with Isaacson’s skill should. And to me, that presents Jobs in a compelling and thoughtful way, which makes the book both a fantastic and informative read.

One of the things I realized while reading this book is that many of us say that we’d like to be someone to have the positive aspects of their life–the money, the lifestyle, the prestige, whatever. But in reading this book, it becomes apparent that to be Steve Jobs, you had to buy the whole package, so to speak, and that means there were some, to steal a phrase from computing, bugs in the system.

But in spite of that, you can see his genius. Steve Jobs is responsible for creating much of the world in which we live in. You may not be buying an Apple computer anytime soon (I’m not), but you will be impressed at the scale of his vision and just how enormously successful he was at implementing it, building the world’s most valuable corporation, with what seems just like too simple of a formula: being totally passionate and invested in building a great and beautiful product that people will love and love to use and will inspire them and foster their creativity.

That’s pretty admirable and inspiring from my point of view.


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