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New Biography of Steve Jobs Covers the Whole Man

If you're interested in the life and times of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson's new biography lays everything out honestly -- even Jobs' dark side.

I was given two books for Christmas and it’s taken me a while to finish them off. The first was The Hunger Games, and now that I’ve finished the first book in the series, I can go see the movie.

That book, and the next one, Steve Jobs, were hard to put down once I started reading them.

The Steve Jobs book, a biography by Walter Isaacson, has become more or less the official and defining biography of the Apple co-founder because the author was sought out by Jobs and had access to scores of Job’s friends, semi-friends and enemies. He also had access to Job’s wife and children, his sister and his early girlfriends (including Joan Baez).

Give Isaacson credit because he wrote a pretty honest story and Steve never insisted upon editorial control (but he did veto the first cover design).

At first I wasn’t much motivated to read the book because I thought I knew enough about Jobs, understanding he wasn’t a perfect tech god. But now I’m glad I did, because of the behind-the scenes maneuvering and triumphs and disappointments it depicts. Now I can see more clearly the whole Steve Jobs. Dying at the age of 56 at the height of one’s career is tragic.

Most people know about Jobs’ and Apple’s successes with the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone and iPad and perhaps less about the success of the Apple stores and iTunes. Some may not know that Steve Jobs was one of the founders of (and the money behind) the digital animation studio Pixar, over in Emeryville. Pixar, of course, gained fame with Toy Story and other popular flics (my favorite is Ratatouille). When Pixar was eventually sold to Disney, Jobs became really rich.

The successes came because Jobs was a visionary, a perfectionist, and wanted to work with only the best minds. The word sounds trite these days, but he did have a passion for his work – which involved marrying the technological with the artistic.

He showed it’s possible in America to take a simple product fabricated in one’s garage (the early Apple II computer) and turn it into the company which became the most successful business in the world. And unlike Larry Ellison (CEO of Oracle) or Bill Gates (Microsoft) he wasn’t very interested in making billions – he simply had the drive to be the best and the smartest.

Jobs bucked the trend of basing company products upon focus groups and asking what people wanted. He wanted to surprise and astound consumers with new products they didn’t even know they needed.

I personally was never a big Apple partisan. In the early 1990s when I began doing desktop publishing for the Postal Service I was given the choice of a Mac or an IBM PC clone for this work. All of my counterparts around the country were getting Macs but I chose the PC because I thought Macs were overpriced, plus there was more software available for PCs. I didn’t regret my decision, but not much later my kids became so enamored with Macs that we bought one for home use (I was outvoted). In general, the Apple mystique was so powerful the company got tons of free publicity and fan interest every time a new product introduction was approaching.

But the book doesn’t shy away from delving into Job’s dark sides. Early on, he believed he was destined for greatness, and he wanted to attain that greatness as soon as possible (perhaps having a premonition of his early death). When young, he was a Zen Buddhism devotee, and that may have contributed to his ability to focus on the essentials. But he never attained a Zen serenity, and whatever stood in the way of attaining his goals didn’t stand there long. He could seduce someone into coming to work for him, only to verbally attack that person a month later. For Jobs, one’s work was either “full of shit” or terrific. In plain words, he had a mean and sadistic side. Ordinary rules, he felt, didn’t apply to him -- at work he traditionally parked in a handicapped zone.

His personality also had a childish side. If he was having it out with others in a meeting (perhaps those with equal power from outside the company) and he didn’t prevail, he could have a crying fit.

He did gain some humility when he was forced out of Apple after the early Macintosh success, and his NeXT company was mostly a failure. However, when Apple floundered under several successive CEOs, Steve Jobs was eventually welcomed back with open arms.

Those who were bright and adept enough to stay with him over the years learned to deal with his good and bad days, his changes in direction, his tantrums and his demands for perfection. As they say, they learned to “manage the manager.”

Even though he didn’t revel in his millions of dollars, he wasn’t interested in philanthropy. 

One of his qualities was the ability to create his own reality – or, as some called it, a “distortion field.” This oftentimes served him well, but when cancer was first detected in his pancreas in 2003, and everyone including his wife and doctors told him to submit to surgery, Jobs instead tried alternative remedies (he had always been a devotee of stringent health-food diets and fasting). So for nine months the cancer had a chance to establish itself further, and it did. After that, with occasional rebounds, it was a slow downhill slog, with Jobs getting thinner and increasingly gaunt. All the money and best doctors in the world couldn’t save him. Before Jobs’ slow decline, I had seen a family friend slowly die of pancreatic cancer, so I wasn’t surprised at the progression of the disease.

For a man obsessed with human and technological perfection, watching himself wither away must have been extremely difficult.

Apparently the author and the publisher of the book wanted to have it printed and in bookstores as soon as possible after Job’s death and funeral for maximum sales, so the book unfortunately doesn’t cover those two final chapters of his life.

Jobs takes his place alongside Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Robert Oppenheimer (father of the A-bomb) in American history. There’s also a resemblance to World War II’s General Patton.

I have to ask: Was it necessary for Jobs to be mean sometimes to be successful? Would we put up with his personality traits in a boss we worked for? Does the end justify the means?

I also wonder: Will Apple continue to be a leading innovator now that Jobs is gone? 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Carlos Villatoro April 02, 2012 at 06:10 PM
I think that Apple will solider on as a company, but the legacy of Jobs will be ever present in their future endeavors. I too was a die-hard PC guy, but I have opened up to Macs, certainly after taking on the job as a reporter for the NVR. It seems that newsrooms across the country have adopted Macs as the defacto computer to have.
Justin Cox (Editor) April 02, 2012 at 09:33 PM
Apple has so much momentum that it's hard for me to imagine that success tapering off. It seems unfathomable to me that one man could be the sole reason for such massive success, and yet the accomplishments of Steve Jobs are undeniable. He made Apple what it is. Period. So, to answer: I think Apple (and it's talented employee base) will power forward as they have. But I'm viewing the situation through the prism of their current success. Many companies have toppled (especially in the Internet era). It'll be interesting to watch.

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