I remember hearing a story on the radio when I was much younger that talked about a man that was surly to his family, unkind to his friends, wrote racist and anti-Semitic articles and was all in all just a completely unpleasant person. I’m sure there are other details that I have forgotten. The big reveal was that this man was Richard Wagner, who wrote some of the greatest operas ever. Since hearing that story, I have been interested in the fine line between genius and madness, as well as the the appropriate amount of deference that is to be paid to greatness.
Steve Jobs, while not being completely despicable like Wagner, is another case study of just that. His professional life is tailor made for a heroic movie with the meteoric rise, stunning fall and recovery to even greater heights. As of this writing, Apple has either the largest or second largest market capitalization in the world. I am writing this on my MacBook, I carry my iPhone with me everywhere, which replaced my iPod Touch, which replaced my classic iPod and I can have to keep disciplined to not run out and buy an iPad2. Having used non-Apple products extensively before migrating bit by bit to Apple, I can tell you that the products are a continuing testament to Job’s devotion to making products at the “intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology”.
However, even with all of that, the man himself is far more fascinating than any of the great products he helped to produce. It appears that some time ago, Jobs realized that he would not live to be an old man, so he enlisted Walter Isaacson to write his biography. Jobs gave extensive interviews to Isaacson over the years. Even more impressive is that Jobs placed no restrictions on what could be discussed in the book, positive or negative. It is likely that Jobs never read any part of his own authorized biography before his death. The result is a very readable book that anyone with even a passing interest in technology will find a compelling read.
The picture painted of Jobs is a complex one. Jobs had complete focus on only one thing – Apple. The most important thing in his life was to create great products. He had a vision of software and hardware integrated so tightly that they were basically indistinguishable. He did this, however, at the cost of family and friends, and often without any regard to basic human decency. He excoriated people that worked amazing hard for him when something went wrong and often took credit for others’ ideas when something went right.
I would be interested in a professional opinion to see where Jobs would score on an autism test. He failed to have any consideration for the feelings of others. He would justify it on the basis of creating a stronger team filled only with “A players”. A careful reader may decide that Jobs hid behind the products Apple created in order to avoid meaningful human relationships.
Sometimes Jobs’s passion for design even led him to ignore his own well-being. Once while in the hospital, a pulmonologist tried to put a mask on him while Jobs was sedated. Jobs ripped it off and told the doctor that it was poorly designed and that he wouldn’t wear it.
Was it worth it? Check out how many people still attend a staging of one of the Ring cycle operas and make your own decision.
Purchase “Steve Jobs” from Amazon.com