My sister recently gifted me with a copy of the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, published last year by Simon & Schuster. At 571 pages plus notes and index, it’s a hefty volume, and Isaacson’s plain and linear telling makes the book seem daunting at first — but Jobs’s story is a fascinating one, and the pages go quickly enough.
Given considerable cooperation and little interference from Jobs, Isaacson maintains a fairly objective viewpoint, describing both Jobs’s faults and his triumphs dispassionately, and ultimately leaving the reader with a detailed mosaic. We may not end up knowing this enigmatic genius intimately, but we’re shown a great many of the pieces that went into making him who he was.
There is no shortage of personal shortcomings. Steve Jobs could be ruthless. He was often hypercritical. Many times, under stress, he would burst into tears. He was poor at developing personal relationships, even with his own daughter. As Isaacson notes repeatedly, Jobs not only went barefoot in his early career, he also disdained bathing, unaware that his body odor was offending his colleagues.
However, the main thing we hope to get from a biography like this is some insight into the miracle of creative genius: How did Jobs do it? Isaacson offers no pat answers, but he does let us observe the magic trick through many iterations, and he freeze-frames the peculiar ripple in time through which these wonders appear.
Steve Jobs was not an electronics whiz. He was not, as Bill Gates disparagingly reminded people, a programmer. He was not a filmmaker or an animator. His greatest talents were in editing and refining. He knew when something was right, and he knew what to eliminate when it was wrong. This constant shaping process extended beyond products. Jobs employed it in managing people as well. He culled creative teams remorselessly, winnowing down to only A-players.
It was then that Jobs exercised his most amazing power. As Isaacson recounts time and time again, Jobs had a quirk which came to be known as his “reality distortion field.” To some, this was just his stubborn refusal to accept inconvenient facts. Looking at it another way, however, you might say that he had an extraordinary capacity for imagining things which did not yet exist — and then communicating not only that vision, but also his firm belief to the people who could make these things happen.
This Jedi sorcery, an almost Christ-like faith that ordinary mortals can be coaxed to walk on water, is best exemplified in the story of how Jobs got Corning CEO Wendell Weeks to produce the Gorilla Glass that Jobs wanted for the front of Apple’s iPhone:
“Don’t be afraid,” Jobs replied. This stunned Weeks, who was good-humored and confident but not used to Jobs’s reality distortion field. He tried to explain that a false sense of confidence would not overcome engineering challenges, but that was a premise Jobs had repeatedly shown he didn’t accept. He stared at Weeks unblinking. “Yes, you can do it,” he said. “Get your mind around it. You can do it.”
As Weeks retold this story, he shook his head in astonishment. “We did it in under six months,” he said. “We produced a glass that had never been made.”
Stories like this — and like the one about Jobs scrapping the design for the Apple Store at the last minute — make the book worthwhile reading for entrepreneurs everywhere. While a humdrum Bill Gates may have dismissed him as “just a super salesman,” Jobs did not build the number one company on Earth by climbing the same ladder most motivational speakers describe. It seems inescapable that his ability to “think different” was influenced by unorthodox factors — including an early sojourn in India, studies in Zen, the music of Bob Dylan, and some youthful acid trips. As Jobs told John Markoff in What the Dormouse Said, “taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things” he’d done in his life.
Another obvious influence was the Mountain View, California neighborhood where Jobs grew up. The place was crawling with engineers, thanks especially to the vision of Stanford University dean of engineering Frederick Terman, who created a technology incubator which channeled the ideas of his students to private companies. Every garage was a workshop, and kids were encouraged to join in the tinkering. How many kids do you know these days that are getting hobby kits as gifts?
Along with these insights into creativity, there are all sorts of intriguing anecdotes. In Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson gives us Steve Wozniak’s dogged brilliance in creating the first Apple computer. We get scenes of Jobs working for Atari early on, plenty of friction with Bill Gates and Microsoft through the years, Jobs’s eventual reunion with his birth mother and half sister, his disregard of his biological father, his brief relationship with Joan Baez, his never-furnished mansion, and his bizarre relationship with John Scully, who came from Pepsi to run Apple.
We remember Gil Amelio’s ludicrous MacWorld presentation, and how Toy Story was saved from Jeffrey Katzenberg and completely revised to become one of the successful movies of all time. There’s an amazing scene on a bridge in Paris with girlfriend Tina Redse, and the story of how Laurene Powell met Jobs and became his wife. We read about Jobs meeting his idol, Bob Dylan, discussing the future of textbooks and the destructive menace of Fox News with Rupert Murdoch, and giving President Obama his criticisms regarding teachers’ unions. Isaacson even inventories the music Jobs kept on his iPod.
Also, of course, there’s the sad progression of Jobs’s cancer despite his early attempts to make it, too, submit to his reality distortion field. Ten of the 23 black and white photos included in the book’s center were chosen by a very sick Steve Jobs with Isaacson in his room, and the book ends with him contemplating his death one sunny afternoon.
It does not include his last words, as described in his sister Mona Simpson’s moving eulogy.