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Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, a review

 [by J. Scott Shipman]


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.

Jobs hated slide presentations (I agree—one great thing about Boyd & Beyond is the general ban on PowerPoint) and said, “People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.” There is a poignant passage towards the end where Jobs was meeting with his team of doctors and the doctor had a PowerPoint presentation. Jobs gently suggested the Apple Keynote program was better.

Jobs, despite his bristly exterior, reached deep in his Zen training and life experience (particularly after his cancer diagnosis) when he spoke at the 2005 Stanford commencement:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices of life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.  

We are a Apple/MacBook Pro family, we have iPhones, iPods, and the iPad on our wish list. Isaacson discusses one thing I’ve noticed with every Apple purchase; the thought put into packaging of the product. Apple packaging is patented and it shows. Jobs alter ego and head Apple designer Jonathan Ive, said, “Steve and I spend a lot of time on the packaging…I love the process of unpacking something. You design a ritual of unpacking to make the product feel special. Packaging can be theater, it can create a story.” I believe we have kept every box our Apple products arrived in—they are works of art.

This book will elicit the spectrum of emotions, there are parts where I was embarrassed or appalled at Jobs poor behavior, there were tender moments towards the end of his storied life that brought a tear to my eye. Isaacson has given us a valuable portrait of a man mathematician Mark Kac “called a magician genius, someone whose insights came out of the blue and require intuition more than mere mental processing power.”

Isaacson’s Steve Jobs comes with my highest recommendation.

NOTE: This is admittedly a different book review for this site. I’ll admit up front that I’m a fan of Jobs and his products—and I know many people hate him passionately and with good reason. I’m sharing this review because Jobs was an iconoclast very similar to John Boyd: people either loved him or hated him. Both men were driven, had poor people skills, and both left rich legacies in completely different areas, and are eminently interesting figures.

9 Responses to “Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, a review”

  1. Larry Dunbar Says:

    "and I know many people hate him passionately and with good reason."
    Of course it was only the top 1% that felt that way.

  2. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Larry, I’m pretty sure it was more than 1%:)) Jobs had a list of enemies to be sure.

  3. Joseph Fouche Says:

    "Jobs was more hands-on at Apple I sense because he considered it his creation—essentially an extension of his person."
    I’m not a Jobs fan. I always thought Mac users were cultists. But I kept track of the company. It gave me a sharper knife to twist in hearts of Mac user acquaintances. So  when he became iCEO back in 1997, I sensed that Jobs might succeed where John "Brown Sugar Water" Sculley, Michael "I like hiding under my desk" Spindler, or Gil "I’m the patsy" Amelio. The reason: the Jobs of 1997 was a washed up failure in the eyes of history. His predecessors only had money at stake. Jobs had his ego and place in history at stake. He seems to have triumphed. If I had the courage of my conviction I might be a few hundred bucks richer.

  4. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Joseph,
    Know what you mean. I didn’t become a fan of Apple until I bought one of their machines in 2008—and after a couple of frustrating weeks unlearning my PC habits, loved it. It is a great product, and I wish I’d bought their stock when it was in the tank—hind-sight is 20-20. You’re right about Jobs having no where to go in 97—NeXT was a flop—but Pixar was extraordinary—-largely because he allowed the creative leadership to lead within—he did the deal making without.

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Scott:
    You mention that Jobs "reached deep in his Zen training and life experience" in his Stanford address.  I thought you might be interested by Steve Silberman’s blog post, What Kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, Really? which gets into the question in some depth.
    I’d been hoping to write a follow up post to the brief memorial I wrote here, on Jobs and zen aesthetics.  Maybe, if time permits…

  6. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Charles,
    Thanks for sharing the Silberman blog entry—he provides nice context, particularly in the areas not covered by Isaacson. I was particularly struck by Jobs’ closing remark—Apple really was a reflection of his passions.

  7. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Powerful words from someone who was there:

  8. YT Says:

    "You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life."

  9. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi YT,
    Ditto! Many thanks for adding the quote.

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