Steve Jobs’s Quest For Perfection Could Make Even Buying A Sofa Into A Decade-Long Ordeal

Steve Jobs’s Quest For Perfection Could Make Even Buying A Sofa Into A Decade-Long Ordeal

Steve Jobs’s quest for perfection was pursued down to the smallest details. It made him the father of some of the greatest products and interfaces in computer history.

As Walter Isaacson’s new biography on Steve Jobs makes clear, though, it could also sometimes make him nightmarish to live with… the sort of obsessive who could make even the most mundane seemingly household decisions into maddening, endless debates.

For most of his life, Steve Jobs lived a spartan lifestyle, and his home was never furnished with more than the barest essentials: a chest of drawers and a mattress in his bedroom, a card table and some folding chairs in his dining room for when guests came over.

But when Steve Jobs wed Laurene Powell and found himself soon to be a father, Jobs had to make some accommodations for married life.

Choosing simple furniture, however, turned out to be a miserable task, thanks to Steve’s obsession with details. For example, when it came time to decorate their living room, Steve and Laurene couldn’t agree upon a sofa.

“We spoke about furniture in theory for eight years,” said Powell. “We spent a lot of time asking ourselves, ‘What is the purpose of a sofa?’”

Jobs’s obsession with perfection also extended to household appliances. According to a 1996 article by Wired, Steve and Laurene spent more time discussing what country to buy their washing machine from than most married couples spend discussing the name of their first born child.

“We didn’t have a very good one so we spent a little time looking at them,” he told Wired contributing editor Gary Isaac Wolf. “It turns out that the Americans make washers and dryers all wrong. The Europeans make them much better – but they take twice as long to do clothes! It turns out that they wash them with about a quarter as much water and your clothes end up with a lot less detergent on them. Most important, they don’t trash your clothes. They use a lot less soap, a lot less water, but they come out much cleaner, much softer, and they last a lot longer.”

“We spent some time in our family talking about what’s the trade-off we want to make,” Steve continued. “We ended up talking a lot about design, but also about the values of our family. Did we care most about getting our wash done in an hour versus an hour and a half? Or did we care most about our clothes feeling really soft and lasting longer? Did we care about using a quarter of the water? We spent about two weeks talking about this every night at the dinner table. We’d get around to that old washer-dryer discussion. And the talk was about design.”

Powell seems to have been a pretty eager and willing party for these discussions, but I think it’s safe to say that as much as most of us love Steve, and as great of a boon as his quest for perfection has been for the world at large, few of us would have liked to live with him.

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  • CAD4MAC

    Coming from a design background the pursuit for perfection is something all designers aspire to but practically you just don’t have time for!

    Jobs is an example where only perfection would do but then a week later he would seek to improve that perfection into something even more perfect! An amazing man

  • thomin

    When it comes to washers/dryers, there’s Miele and then there’s the rest…kinda like with Apple and tech…
    I’d be surprised if Jobs went for anything else…

  • Guest

    In some ways, that sounds like it could have been frustrating at times.

    One thing I wish more people had, though, was Steve’s sense of caring about the right things, and also not caring about the right things.

    Most people make choices based on peer pressure, not careful examination of their own priorities weighed against all available options.

    Hence, most people are Windows users.

  • Figurative

    It’s a shame Steve just didn’t compile a list of all the products he liked so that we could just buy them without bothering to do the research or rely on that terrible Consumer Reports rag.

  • success@mani.sh

    Love this article.

    Being a designer too, I strive for the best. “Less is More” and It’s not about the amount of possessions but the quality and meaning of them.

    Trying to reduce everyday has become an obsession and I love how simple my life has become.

    Thanks Steve.

  • Bert Vanderveen

    In the end the Jobs family bought a Miele (German engineering!) washing machine… I have one too!

  • Bogie635

    Miele washing machines are legendary. They are rock solid and last a lifetime. They also don’t rattle and vibrate much, due to the HUGE lump of concrete inside them for stabilisation.

  • Euro_MacHead

    As we have been told by Tim Cook : “Steve said : ‘Don’t ask what Steve would have done. Follow your own voice. Just do what’s right.’”

    In the spirit of Steve’s request : don’t buy what he bought just because he liked it. 

    Or in the words of his awesome and memorable Stanford speech : “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

  • Guest

    I agree, we should not try to second guess what he would have done or simply copy what he did.  But if Steve shares reasons why he purchased something, I think it is good to ask the same questions to ourselves.  It may lead to the same answers or it may not.  In general, I think society should ask more questions.  Also, in this example, if you know nothing about washing machines, don’t care to know, and money isn’t an issue, then it is okay to copy what he purchased.  Just don’t copy the iPhone!!

  • FalKirk

    I was thinking how impossible it would be to live with such a picky man when I realized that one of his saving graces was that he only focused on what was important (to him). Steve Jobs brutally prioritized his life and while he spent far more time than we to think about every little detail, the also spent far more of his time on far fewer things. That which was not important, he tried to do not at all.

    An amazing man, to say the least.

  • Christopher Boffoli

    It was at once funny and sad to read about him in the hospital in his final days, making design criticisms of the medical equipment like the oxygen mask and the fingertip blood gas monitor.  Bad design is ubiquitous in the world.  And in his case it was emotionally draining at a time when he has so little energy left.  At that point most of us wouldn’t care.  But with him it was a compulsion he couldn’t seem to switch off.

  • MacAdvisor

    A few years ago, I remodeled my kitchen and spent time looking at dishwashers. I wound up picking the Miele even though it was about $150 more than top-of-the-line dishwasher’s from other manufacturers. First, it is so quiet, I can barely hear when its on, even standing next to it. It uses so much less soap and water, but gets even the most stubborn mess from any dish. However, a load takes an hour-and-a-half, about twice as long as other dishwashers. Operation is simplicity itself. 

    I absolutely love it. 

  • m_el

    I realise I won’t be popular for this comment but is anybody reading his autobiography?
    He doesn’t come across as a nice person at all. The first quarter of the book describes him repeatedly as a man that never washed and smelled appalling, used to cry if he didn’t get his own way, treated people with total contempt and lied constantly (reality distortion field). He abandoned his first child, turned his back on the people that brought him up and shafted his lifelong friends.
    I’m not sure I like this man after reading this. I’ve only read a quarter of it so far so maybe he comes good…

  • qka

    He should have looked at  Stickley furniture. It would have gone great in his Palo Alto house (from the photos I’ve seen). That would have saved him so much time and let him do other great things.It’s simply the best. Made in America too.

  • Afcopeland

    He had a style all his own.

  • James Powell

    I think stress killed Steve Jobs. 

  • ChKen

    Clearly, that discussion was before the boom in front-loading washers.

  • ChKen

    They should use a rock, since concrete is not green at all.

  • Juan Carlos

    Perfect..

  • Silver Bullet

    He was well aware of the fact that he was surrounded with products which were made by people not smarter than him…

    He started to reverse engineer everything he came across (which means anything he was going to pay for at least, like the washer)…

    He knew that to design an above-average product would require him to become the expert of the average. He knew that his own ideas and perspective wouldn’t be enough to decode other products, that’s why he made his wife (and now many other people in Apple) think and talk about it… He gained perspective with every external comment… So he became the expert, slowly but surely…

    Above all, he never let any of Apple’s products stay out of the triangle of efficiency-aesthetics-ergonomy. New ideas became center in the nervous system of Apple. Software was his idea’s proving ground and many ideas matured and gained freedom in that vast field. So the products were born with a soul…

    He patented his way out of this mobile hell and gave people what they paid him for… Not some shit like Nokia-in-a-Vertu… But a real device-for-life for a real solid price… A device we will always embrace and a price we will never forget… (1133$ for IP4S64? I call it “Macbook in a pocket!”)

  • bamurphymac

    “We ended up talking a lot about design, but also about the values of our family.”

    Sounds nightmarish all right. Much better to just buy whats on sale….

    Snark aside, I’d like to challenge you’d revisit this article from a different perspective. A few months ago my wife and I decided we needed a new sofa, and we approached the decision asking the same questions. It took a few hours of time over a few weeks, and we came away with much more than a good sofa.

    The secret key to Jobs-level greatness is that there is no secret. No mystical truths locked up to be parceled out by high priests or experts. Greatness comes from thinking, talking, and giving a damn. Its hard work, but its honest work.

    Being fully engaged with the world and demanding more of yourself and others can be exhausting, but its no different than working out or studying: you get better at it, and the outcomes are better for it.

    Try approaching little things the same way Steve would and you’ll open up a new world to explore. I can’t imagine living any other way.

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his girlfriend and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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