Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, a review

 [by J. Scott Shipman]

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Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson, the acclaimed author of biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, has produced a definitive and up-close biography of Steve Jobs. The book is a very readable 571 pages that took only a couple of days to read. Jobs approached Isaacson to write his bio in 2004, but Isaacson resisted until 2009 when  Jobs’ wife Laurene Powell “said bluntly, “If you’re ever going to do a book on Steve, you’d better do it now.”” Isaacson insists no restrictions were placed on him, in fact, Jobs and his wife facilitated access to many people who do did not hold Jobs in high regard—the man excited passions good and bad. I found it ironic that Jobs, a man who obsessed with control would willingly relinquish control in what will probably be the definitive biography of his life.

Isaacson offered early that his book is really about innovation. He offers: “At a time when the United States is seeking ways to sustain its innovative edge, and when societies around the world are trying to build creative digital-age economies, Jobs stands as the ultimate icon of inventiveness, imagination, and sustained innovation.” Given Apple’s growth, his point is well taken.

Isaacson clearly admires Jobs, but he does not spare the reader of Jobs volatile and brutal out-bursts directed at just about anyone he considered a “bozo” or worse. From the beginning, Jobs was a very difficult person to work with. He did not tolerate mediocrity and punished what he thought was mediocre thinking, often publicly. Isaacson offers some insights and ideas as to the cause of Jobs distinctly caustic personality, but most ring hollow. Jobs was a driven and passionate man, with very little empathy—even for family members. Isaacson suggests “people who were not crushed ended up being stronger” and many of the folks interviewed agreed—Jobs drove people to do things they didn’t know they could do. As one of Jobs colleagues Debi Coleman said, “You did the impossible, because you didn’t realize it was impossible.” So the folks he didn’t scare off, appear to have been inspired. Tim Cook, Jobs’ successor offered, “What I learned about Steve was that people mistook some of his comments as ranting or negativism, but it was really just the way he showed passion. So that’s how I processed it, and I never took issue personally.”

My favorite parts of the book were Isaacson’s liberal use of quotes from Jobs. Some quotes bristle with passion, and a few were profound. This one appealed to my notions on pattern cognition:

Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases,  people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them.

Isaacson covers Jobs journey at Apple, NeXT, Pixar, and his triumphant return to Apple. I did not know much about Jobs at Pixar and found it interesting that Jobs was CEO at both companies simultaneously—and both companies had a “different” versions of Jobs. Isaacson says, “Pixar was a haven where Jobs could escape the intensity of Cupertino. At Apple, the managers often excitable and exhausted, Jobs tended to be volatile, and people felt nervous about where they stood with him….It was a Pixar that he learned to let other creative people flourish and take the lead.” Jobs was more hands-on at Apple I sense because he considered it his creation—essentially an extension of his person. I suspect Jobs viewed his role at Pixar as more that of a steward in comparison.

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