Some of us . . . okay, most of us . . . are content to ride the current of technology, comfortable in knowing that the next great thing, the next device we can’t do without, is assuredly on the horizon. The largest demand we make is that our technology work; the more reliant we become upon it the more we insist upon ease of use—upon simplicity to camouflage its inherent complexity.
Steve Jobs got that. He got us.
I once worked for Apple, as part of the Apple help desk. I was one of the support people (back in the good old days when phone support still took place on our continent), this back in the dark days of Gil Amelio, MacOS 6.5 and 7, a bloated product line, and a stock price almost as low (at the time) as two tickets to a movie. I had been weaned on the Macintosh, starting with the original Mac Classic.
I loved the tight integration of software and hardware. As I started (of necessity) moving to the dark side I become ever more appreciative of the MacOS’s elegance.
I, too, raged against the onslaught of Microsoft and their mimicry of the Macintosh graphical interface.
You may think these things have little relevance to Mr. Isaacson’s subject, much less the book itself. In truth, they do.
My exposure and experience with Apple computers, nestled with my knowledge of the company’s background and history, made me wary of the potential slant of the forthcoming book. When I read about its impending release, a part of me wondered how much of the work would be a glorified PR piece for Jobs and Apple.
Would this be a life story as filtered through Jobs’s well-documented “reality distortion field,” (in which the notoriously difficult yet insanely visionary Jobs would call for an impossible task to be achieved in a impossibly short span of time—and, miracle of miracles, it would happen) or would the book be a genuine representation presented from every possible, genuine vantage point?
Walter Isaacson—hand picked by Jobs himself—brings Jobs’s life story to the consumers Apple sought and so often beguiled. In 2004, when Jobs initially broached the idea of Isaacson writing his life story, the author politely brushed him off– “Because I had assumed he was in the middle of an oscillating career that had many ups and downs, I demurred. Not now, I said. Maybe in a decade or two when you retire.” It was with trademark persistence that Jobs, along with his wife, Laurene, finally convinced Isaacson to commit to the project. Given unconditional control over the content, and Laurene’s admonition—“You shouldn’t whitewash it. He’s good at spin, but he also has a remarkable story, and I’d like to see that it’s all told truthfully.”—Isaacson has taken great care to bestow balance regarding all parties and the information presented.
From the very start, Steve Jobs had a reputation that spanned from caustic and fiery perfectionist to loving family man. Forty interviews with Jobs and over 100 interviews with family, friends, rivals, and adversaries have produced a work documenting that reputation, a work empiric and qualitative, yet firmly rooted in the humanity of his subject.
Almost from the beginning of the book we are shown a foggy mirror—one which a very young Steve Jobs looks into, seeing endless technological possibility and conversely very little doubt in his own abilities. As the steam begins to clear, so does the image, becoming sharper and more defined with each page; yet one constant remains: Jobs’ strong conviction that he could achieve whatever he set his mind to; moreover, whatever he willed.
One of the most compelling reasons for reading any biography is to learn what made its subject tick, what inspired or moved him or her. In the very beginning of the book, Isaacson succinctly declares the rules of engagement that Jobs set down before starting the interviewing process—and then very quickly offers up Jobs’s uncharacteristic willingness to accede control:
“. . . after a couple of months, he began encouraging people to talk to me, even foes and former girlfriends. Nor did he try to put anything off limits. ‘I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, such as getting my girlfriend pregnant when I was twenty-three, and the way I handled that,’ he said. ‘But I don’t have any skeletons in my closet that can’t be allowed out.’ He didn’t seek any control over what I wrote, or even ask to read it in advance.”
Jobs’s creativity and business passion derived from a number of personal convictions, but ostensibly none more influential than learning of his abandonment by his birth parents and subsequent adoption by Paul and Clara Jobs. Many around him ascribed his drive to this single event, a notion which Jobs, on its face, proffers dissent.
In Jobs’ own words:
“What drove me? I think most creative people want to express appreciation for being able to take advantage of the work that’s been done by others before us. I didn’t invent the language or mathematics I use. I make little of my own food, none of my own clothes. Everything I do depends on other members of our species and the shoulders that we stand on . . . We try to use the talents we do have to express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation of all the contributions that came before us, and to add something to that flow. That’s what has driven me.”
Mr. Isaacson can’t properly tell the story without including a healthy dose of personal exposition. Doing so has had the effect of disappointing gear-heads while surprising and delighting those who want to know more about Jobs. Those who have at least a passing understanding of technology will marvel at Jobs’ innovative genius, while those who want a broader stroke might be pained by the trotting out of Apple’s successes one by one. To crow that the book is too long because it dwells on formative detail is to completely disregard the pattern of the fabric—to embrace the utilitarianism of a doormat while eschewing the textured beauty of its finely woven components.
That said, the delineation between Jobs and Apple is wonderfully blurred—if it can be said to exist at all.
Perhaps one of the most fantastic stories in American business isn’t so much Apple’s rise to become the world’s best-known brand, but its later march to almost certain dissolution—seven weeks from fiscal oblivion.
Critical steps in Jobs’s wildly fluctuating career are, in Isaacson’s practiced and deft hands, delivered at an almost torrid pace, yet still not so detailed as to induce boredom (I’ve read Microsoft certification books, so trust me when I say I know of such inducements).
Thorough attention is paid to Jobs’ storied ouster from Apple by John Sculley, the genesis of NeXT, the wonderful development of Pixar and its bouts with Disney, and the purchase of NeXT by Apple. It is with Jobs’s return to the company he founded that we revel in the story of a modern-day Sisyphus managing not only to push the boulder up the steep hill, but to launch it into outer space—to, as Jobs stated himself, “make a dent in the universe.”
Jobs employed an almost Ghengis Khan-like quality in his approach to business relationships. He had a stubborn need to conquer then best his perceived adversaries or opponents, while adhering to deeply held artistic and innovative principles. This combination—added to a fierce attachment to elegant sophistication that often required numerous product iterations until an almost ascetic perfection was achieved—is one that precious few companies would dare attempt with each and every product line.
And given Jobs’ unabashed propensity for controlling almost everything around him, one might believe that Jobs was earnestly dedicated to obscurantism, using sheer force of will to prevent anyone from making a decision without him. Repeatedly, and in his own words, Jobs reminds us that his execution in some cases was certainly flawed, but that he was more often proven right, his mercurial approach pushing people to accomplish what they had believed to be impossible.
As he got older, Jobs’s perfectionism never wavered. He pursued and ultimately incorporated into his life many principles and practices of Eastern spirituality and Zen Buddhism. Unmaterialistic by nature, Jobs enjoyed the fruits of his success, but much in the way a child does who does not truly comprehend the addition of many zeroes to a number. Isaacson readily points out Jobs’s mercurial nature, but also takes us to the intersection where his minimalist bent became the stage for creating products imputed with such significant elegance as to become not merely consumer devices but rather extensions of ourselves. For Jobs, money wasn’t the goal, giving people what they didn’t know they needed was.
Ultimately, Steve Jobs, with all his imperfections, managed to achieve what he had set out to from the very start: He changed the world.
I have read biographies of American historical figures, of men and women taken to apotheosis by the time-tendered, careful scholarship of many a gifted writer. Each had such an impact on our culture that we still find analyses of their lives worthwhile, find deep value in their life lessons. The truly storied, infallibly American life of Steve Jobs surely belongs in our pantheon of visionaries. Walter Isaacson’s biography certainly won’t be the last written about this extraordinary corporate icon, but it establishes itself as the gold standard.
Isaacson has taken a pointillistic life and arranged the myriad dots such that we can view Jobs’s life, indeed his essence, from the perspective of a mortal work of art, not a bland confessional.
The artist in Steve Jobs would have certainly approved.
Another hearty thank you to Rhonda Sturtz of the New York Journal of Books, and to Tracy Guest at Simon & Schuster for their efforts in acquiring the review copy for this review. Special thanks to Lisa Rojany Buccieri at NJYB for her patience and editorial nudging.