(This is a guest post by our friend Debbie in San Francisco. She couldn’t stop talking about this book. )
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and Albert Einstein: His Life and Universe) is everything a reader could want and more. It appeals to those interested in the formative years of Silicon Valley and personal computing. It also appeals to those who like to read success stories of groundbreaking corporate founders and even has something special for readers who just like a well-crafted biography. But the most rewarding thing to take away from the experience of reading this book is the feeling that we have a front row tour of the history of our beloved Apple products. We learn how the iPod’s continuous scrolling functionality came to be. We read about who’s idea it was to make the earbuds pure white on the iPod (hint: it’s not Jobs). Credit where credit is due is another reason this book should be required reading for anyone who uses Apple products.
Do not be fooled by the author’s seemingly breathless and gossipy tone. While off putting at first, we realize that this is necessary to tell the tale from multiple viewpoints after many exhaustive personal interviews with major players. The only way to tell the story is to tell what others say and how they feel and that cannot help but read like “he-said/she-said” gossip. However, since most all the players are living, the device works.
The ultimate triumph of the book is that Isaacson was able to speak to Jobs himself while there was still time. Over the course of two years, Isaacson conducts over forty in-depth interviews with Jobs. During the process it’s clear the two develop a friendship of sorts. Jobs implored his biographer to tell the whole story, even if it made him look bad, which it often did. The perspective gained from these sessions is infinitely rewarding. Add hundreds of interviews with others and the resulting prose is dramatic and compelling.
And yet, and yet. The same reader could feel that something was missing in the story. The book leaves us wanting to know a little bit more about how Mr. Jobs became so brash and narcissistic in the first place, as these traits are usually visible at a very young age. We never really learn where in his formative years this behavior was allowed to take root and take over.
We get a glimpse of his earlyish years and the fascination with electronics (remember Heathkits?). We see the willfull youth pushing back on hapless adults (and maybe not so hapless as in the case of Bill Hewlett who ended up offering the 13-year old Jobs a summer job after the kid looked him up in the phone book and called him to inquire about an electronic part). We see a friendship of youths forged of mutual interests from different perspectives between Mr. Jobs and Wozniak (“Woz”). The symbiotic (maybe opportunistic?) nature of this coupling is apparent when we read about Woz’s interests (tinkering, hacking, open systems, freeware) and Jobs’ (closed systems, marketing, aesthetics, revenue streams). These opposing worldviews remain firmly in place throughout the book and professional careers of these gentlemen. They never really meet in the middle even though they created something significant together.
The best part of this book is the wild ride and we are in the front seat with Jobs (or at least Isaacson). The adventure that is creating the epic masterpiece that is Apple, which is the world’s most valuable corporation on some days, next to Chevron. This is no small feat, and the story is transfixing. Mr. Jobs outsize personality dwarfs most other players, making reading this book exhausting. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Creating something this successful IS exhausting, so the reader really gets a sense of the drama and hard work and human interplay that gets inserted to each corporate situation and strategy.
Jobs’ lack of interest in the trappings of vast personal wealth is fascinating. He and his family seem grounded and as normal as they could be under the circumstances. Opulence was not something to which he aspired. He aspired to seeing Apple’s ideas manifest in physical reality of useful and pleasurable objects that serve and entertain. Mr. Jobs is the Chief Architect of this unprecedented bout of forward motion in manufacturing excellence. As stated elsewhere, he deserves a seat in the pantheon of America’s best business leaders.
After all this, we really want to see the protagonist (is Jobs the protagonist?) personally redeemed. Sadly, this is not the case. That is one of the great disappointments about the book, and perhaps his life story. We see the fractured relationship he has with his children which the author describes in painful detail. The heartbreak of the youngest daughter when a long-promised trip to Kyoto is cancelled by Dad was especially hard to read. Also hard to read was Jobs’ clear favoritism toward his son Reed.
Jobs has been identified as having a narcissistic personality disorder. Author Wendy T. Behary in an Oct 06, 2008 article offers the best definition of a narcissist I have seen:
A quick definition of a narcissist: someone who has an exaggerated sense of self-worth, is highly self-absorbed, entitled, condescending, superior, show-off-ish, competitive, and approval-craving. They do not appreciate the impact of their often obnoxious behaviors on others. They have a lot of trouble with empathy and with the notion of give and take.
In the end, we are left with Mr. Jobs’ outsize personality and its effect on those in his family, friends and colleagues. Much of it is gut wrenching. How much was necessary? Given what was created in its wake, maybe all of it. The reader is left not with a feeling of disgust toward Mr. Jobs’ obvious personality handicaps, but a feeling of gratitude for all that was created under the sheer will of Mr. Jobs. He has made millions upon millions of lives better, and reading a book about this remarkable evolution is a reward in itself.
Thank you. Jobs and Isaacson. I am going to read Steve Jobs a second time.