I thought the 60 Minutes interview broadcast just now with Steve Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson was great. Absolutely great.
It covered a lot of ground I was familiar with and is familiar to most other Apple fans too. But it fresh and fascinating because of the accumulation of small details and revelations. Like the fact that Jobs rarely locked his back door in Palo Alto, and that anybody could have walked in off the street, because he didn’t want to pervert his life by being rich. Alternatively, he looked his childhood friend Daniel Kottke in the eye and denied him the shares in Apple that would have made him a millionaire. So many contradictions.
But there were three profound revelations for me, which really shed light on Jobs’ life and work:
1. Jobs’ adoption as a baby made him feel special, not abandoned. Jobs told Isaacson about an occasion when a childhood friend learned he was adopted and asked him, in the brutal way that children do, if he was abandoned. Distraught, Jobs ran into the house and asked his adopted parents the devastating question. To their great credit, his parents had the perfect answer: No, he wasn’t unwanted. Quite the contrary, he was special because they had chosen him specially. Isaacson says this had a profound effect on Jobs and made him feel blessed, special. It goes a long way explaining Jobs’ amazing life and career, his outsized ambitions and confidence, his sense of mission.
2. Jobs’ infamous “reality distortion field” applied to his own cancer. One of the biggest revelations from Isaacson’s book was Jobs’ reluctance to get his cancer removed as soon as he learned about it. Instead of being operated on immediately, Jobs’ sent nine months seeking alternative treatments, before finally having his cancer surgically removed. The delay may have allowed the cancer to spread and cost him his life. Isaacson said Jobs later regretted this and may have been indulging in “magical thinking” about the cancer. If he ignored it, perhaps he wouldn’t have to deal with it. This strikes must people as crazy, especially from a rationalist like Jobs. But earlier, Isaacson discussed Jobs’ famous “reality distortion field:” the ability to make coworkers believe almost anything through the force of his own persuasion. He could generate a ring of charm so powerful it could bend reality itself. Jobs often used it to push coworkers and underlings to perform impossible feats of work or creativity, like banging out three months of code in less than a month. Isaacson said Jobs was able to do this because he himself was convinced they could do it, even if it was magical thinking. But a month later, the work would be done, and he would be proved right. His thinking was no longer magical because it had come true. And he did this throughout his career, over and over. But what happens when happened when you apply magical thinking to cancer? As Isaacson noted, Jobs “could drive himself by magical thinking. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t.”
3. Jobs hated on/off switches because they reminded him of death. Towards the end of his life, Isaacson asked Jobs if he believed in God. Jobs said no, not really, he kinda hoped there was a 50/50 chance of life after death. But then Jobs added that life and death was probably like an on/off switch. “Sometimes I think it’s like an on off switch: click and you’re gone.” Jobs felt it a terrible waste of accumulated experience and wisdom, and that’s why, he said, he didn’t like on/off switches on Apple products.
What else did you think was fascinating? (You can watch the whole interview with Walter Isaacson here, btw)