Readings from the book of Jobs
BIOGRAPHY: Steve JobsBy Walter Isaacson Little, Brown, 630pp. £25
‘THINK DIFFERENT.” The slogan that Steve Jobs coined on his prodigal return to Apple in 1997 came to encapsulate his company and his ethos. Doing things his own way, both in business and in life, was his defining characteristic, the secret to his success. Making the reader think differently about Jobs is also the secret to the success of Walter Isaacson’s extraordinarily detailed and deft authorised biography: even the most ardent Apple loyalist will be forced to realise that Jobs was, for all his visionary genius, deeply flawed, odd and capricious – aspects of the man that were, understandably, airbrushed out of the picture on his death last month.
The emotional response to the news that Jobs had succumbed to cancer was a testament to the scale of his achievements and confirmed him as one of the most important businessmen and innovators of our age. Isaacson’s timely book, its publication pushed forward to just weeks after his death, succeeds in the daunting task of arranging a chronology of Jobs’s life, and it very nearly succeeds in explaining what drove him to such heights.
The broad outline of his story is widely known: he founded Apple with his friend Steve Wozniak in his parents’ garage at the age of 21 and revolutionised computing with the Macintosh, in 1984, before being kicked out of the company he founded when Apple outgrew his tempestuousness. His spell in the wilderness saw him buy a computer-animation company called Pixar, which he helped turn into a modern-day Disney – indeed, Disney went on to buy it in 2006 – before he triumphantly returned to Apple, reviving the moribund company with a string of successes – iPod, iPhone, iPad – that would redefine personal electronics and computing once again, before dying prematurely, as he always believed he would.
Isaacson, a former chairman of CNN and managing editor of Timemagazine, spent more than 40 hours interviewing Jobs over the last two years of his life, as well as talking to pretty much everyone Jobs worked with, clashed with and fell in love with. The most remarkable aspect of the project is that Jobs, notorious for his obsessive desire for control, asked for no oversight of or input into the book.
The result offers some clues to his personality, beginning when his biological parents put him up for adoption at birth. His adoptive parents, Clara and Paul, gave him a loving childhood, but that sense of abandonment repeatedly led Jobs to search for father figures and mentors, first by seeking enlightenment with a guru in India at the age of 19, then in business, most fatefully when he wooed John Sculley from Pepsi to run Apple – Sculley eventually forced Jobs out. In the end, it seems, the only father figure who didn’t let him down was Paul Jobs, who inspired in his son a lifelong devotion to perfectionism.
It’s unsurprising that Jobs failed to maintain relationships with anybody superior to him: he was an egomaniac of the highest order. But surprisingly for an egomaniac, his most enduring successes came when he partnered with peerless craftsmen, facilitating their genius. Whether it was ensuring that Wozniak’s electronic wizardry led to the Apple II, in the late 1970s, allowing John Lasseter the space and resources to make Toy Storyor trusting that the designer Jonathan Ive could redefine excellence in industrial design, Jobs proved adept at surrounding himself with “grade-A talent”, as he put it.
This pattern repeated in the productive nature of his rivalries, chief among them that with Bill Gates. Strategic allies at the dawn of personal computing, they became fierce rivals as Microsoft grew to own the software industry, and Isaacson does a good job of describing their fascinating relationship: Gates was one of the few people who seemed impervious to Jobs’s famed “reality distortion field” – his ability to convince people of anything.
That malleable sense of reality, to put it charitably, was just one facet of Jobs’s exceptionalism: he was a deeply odd person. As a young man he rarely washed, and his extreme diets, eating only one fruit or vegetable for weeks, was symptomatic of an awkward relationship with food that would haunt him when he struggled with cancer in later years.
Most exceptional of all was his enduring rudeness: he could be mean, insensitive and self-absorbed. His most despicable act was abandoning his own first daughter, Lisa, when he was 23. That callousness was balanced by extreme sensitivity, and one of the most surprising aspects of the Jobs personality that comes into focus was how much he cried: particularly in his tumultuous early years, the famously steely will often melted into tears when under pressure.
His perfectionism, then, didn’t extend as far as his own personality, but it was key to his success with Apple, and it persisted even in illness: when receiving a liver transplant in 2009, he became extremely agitated by the design of a mask he had to wear under sedation, demanding five alternatives so he could pick the best.
In revealing details about Jobs’s prolonged ill health, Isaacson offers a spare, intimate portrait of a close family coping with grim news, and of a man whose larger-than-life personality refuses to be constrained by impending death before having to resign himself to it.
Isaacson offers an effective, omniscient narration that’s occasionally interrupted by first-person cameos, slightly jarring reminders that Isaacson himself is a presence in this story. A more definitive telling of this extraordinary life is unlikely ever to emerge, but cumulatively it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Jobs the person disappears among the details: he never quite becomes the sum of all those anecdotes. He was a jerk and a charmer, a narcissistic egomaniac and an inspired team leader, a petulant bully and a man prone to outbursts of tears, a caring parent yet a neglectful father, a Zen Buddhist with a cruel temper, a drug-taking hippy who became the world’s most successful businessman. He was, in short, a mass of contradictions, and Isaacson can go only so far in reconciling them all.
Maybe Jobs was so mercurial, so inconstant, that a “true” depiction is impossible. “The reason Apple resonates with people is that there’s a deep current of humanity in our innovation,” Jobs says at one point, but the deep currents of Jobs’s own humanity remain, ultimately, elusive.
The Irish Times