Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Simon & Schuster. 2011. 656 pages. Audiobook read by Dylan Baker
This book, which Steve Jobs fully cooperated with through nearly forty interviews with the author he sought out to write his biography, tells the incredible story of Steve Jobs, the man who built and then rebuilt Apple. It has inspired Danny Boyle’s new film Steve Jobs.
The book, which was released just 19 days after Jobs died, is a fascinating biography. Jobs encouraged Isaacson to tell his story “warts and all”, and to interview both his friends and enemies. The only creative input he asked for was to change the cover photo that Isaacson originally had planned, which Isaacson agreed to. Isaacson last interviewed Jobs just weeks before his death, just before and after, he stepped down as CEO of Apple.
He is best-known as the co-founder, chairman and CEO of Apple, Inc. He also cofounded and served as CEO of Pixar Animation Studios, later selling Pixar to Disney for $7.4 billion. Jobs died on October 5, 2011 after three bouts of pancreatic cancer.
Working in an IT department I was particularly interested in this book from a leadership, innovation and technology perspective. I’m rarely separated from my iPod, and buy all of my music through the iTunes Store. While I don’t have a Macintosh computer, and only recently got an iPhone, my wife does have an iPad that she very much enjoys.
Jobs’ accomplishments are many, including building Apple, founded in 1976, into the largest publicly traded company in the world, worth more than Google and Microsoft combined. Isaacson takes us through Jobs story, from his first job at Atari, through the founding of Apple, his ousting from Apple, the founding of NeXT and Pixar and his triumphant return to Apple.
But, to be honest, Jobs was not a nice person. He would not be a person that you would want as your manager. He was a brutal boss and a brutal man. He didn’t have the social skills to filter what he was thinking so he would tell people what he thought, which was often that what they had created or done was “junk” (not his word). In fact, this well written and researched book contains a good deal of adult language, most of it directly from Jobs’ mouth.
Jobs could have wild mood swings, at times telling people that they were the best thing that had happened to Apple and telling them they were “junk” in the same day. He bore lifelong grudges, threw tantrums, berated people who worked for him and often would break out in tears. He had a binary view of the world in which things and people were either great or horrible (“junk”).
Throughout his life Jobs went on binge diets, often eating only one thing (carrots, for example) for weeks at a time. When originally diagnosed with cancer, against the wishes of doctors and friends, he resisted surgery for nine months, which led to the cancer spreading.
Jobs loved the music of Bob Dylan and the Beatles. One of his last goals was getting the Beatles music on iTunes, which he did in 2011.
He had an incredible passion for design and quality, painstakingly stressing over product design details or product announcement presentations. For example, he wanted the inside of a Mac computer to be as pristine as the outside, even though he knew that the only one would ever see the inside would be an Apple technician.
Despite his lack of people skills, Jobs was able to drive people to new heights of innovation and creativity. He would demand the impossible in his drive for perfection, and somehow inspire people to achieve it. Colleagues at Apple maintained that his abrasive behavior, along with his refusal to take no for an answer, forced them to do the best work of their lives.
Isaacson often refers to Jobs’ “reality distortion”. Many times he would tell employees that their ideas were “junk”, only to come back to them later with the exact same idea, portraying it as his own, and thinking it was great.
Jobs is frank of his assessments of his rivals and critics, many who made the mistake of underestimating him and the Apple products that were introduced while he was CEO. He was often critical of Bill Gates and Microsoft, though their final three-hour meeting shortly before Jobs’ death was a friendly one between the two longtime competitors.
Jobs strongly contended that Google stole many of the iPhone features for their Android phone. In fact, Apple sued Google for infringement of 20 Apple patents. Jobs stated “I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong.”
Jobs was adopted, later seeking out his birth mother, and finding out that he had a sister, but having no desire to have a relationship with his birth father, who he actually met, but didn’t know it at the time . The fact that he was adopted stuck with him his entire life, yet for his own first child, a daughter, he at first denied that she was his child, and for years had nothing to do with her. He later reconnected with Lisa, though they would have a stormy relationship, marked by long periods of estrangement.
He was married for more than 20 years, having a son Reed that he was much closer to than he was his two younger daughters. But Apple was always his first priority. He attended a Lutheran church as a boy, but after not being satisfied with answers a Lutheran minister gave to his questions about God and starving children in Africa, Jobs said he couldn’t worship that kind of God and never returned to the church. He was a lifelong student of Eastern religion, and his religious beliefs aligned most closely with Zen Buddhism.
In his review of the book, Tim Challies wrote: “Along the way he became convinced that he was an enlightened being, that he existed on a higher plane than most people. From this exalted position he was able to see and to judge; he had the right to. He was able to stand, if not in the place of God, at least in the place of a judge. He felt that it was his right to speak the truth – the truth as he understood it – to others. After all, he was enlightened and they were not. His arrogance knew no bounds”.
Jobs was not a good people person or manager. He was not necessarily a great husband or father. He was not a great engineer. But he had incredible vision and was a great marketer. He had an intuitive sense of what the customer would want before the customer had any idea. Isaacson writes “Was he smart? No, not exceptionally. Instead, he was a genius.”
Jobs was always convinced that he would die at an early age. His last words are reported to have been “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” Of course we don’t know what it was that he saw or felt at that time. But what we do know is that despite all of his earthly success and gifting, he had long ago turned his back on the one true God that could have saved him.