Steve Jobs: The World Class Asshole Who Dented The Universe [Walter Isaacson Biography Review]

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The Albert Watson photo graces the cover of Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs.
The Albert Watson photo graces the cover of Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs.

There have been a lot of complaints on Twitter that most of the best bits of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs have already leaked. After reading sundry blog posts, news stories and tweets about Jobs’s life, is there anything left to read in the actual book?

Yes, there is. There’s plenty. Although the arc of Steve’s story is generally well known, Isaacson has added a ton of new detail to even the most well-trodden stories from Jobs’s life. Trouble is, a lot of it is about Jobs mistreating people.

Walter Isaacson’s book is an unflinching biography of a manifestly great man. But it’s not a fun read. In fact, sometimes it’s a lot like being locked in a room with a borderline sociopath. Powering through Isaacson’s bio will give you unique insight into how Steve Jobs changed the world, but it’s not necessarily a comforting one.

Steve Jobs’s life was a great story with a near mythic arc, and Isaacson captures it well. Although running to more than 600 pages, the book moves at a fast pace with a great eye for detail.

For the lay reader, it’s an excellent overview of Jobs’s life. It doesn’t gloss over any of the big events, nor does it simplify them. Isaacson is perceptive and original. Topics like the creation of the first Macintosh, already written about exhaustively, are made fresh thanks to new comments from Jobs or insiders like Bill Gates.

There are also a million new anecdotes, some of them very funny. Jobs paid the legendary designer Paul Rand $100,000 to design a logo for NeXT and a business card for himself. He declared the logo “great”. But he fought with Rand over the placement of the period in the “P.” of Steven P. Jobs on the business card. It was too far to the right for his liking.

But it’s a difficult and exhausting book. Jobs was a world-class asshole. He was a selfish, self-centered man who heaped abuse on everyone around him. After a few hours, the catalog of tantrums, tirades and put-downs wears thin. You may have huge admiration for Jobs’s accomplishments, but it can be hard to hear in detail how the sausage was made.

Yet understanding and being familiar with the ways that Jobs could be abusive is key to solving the great puzzle of Jobs’s life: how did a borderline sociopath build teams that are so creative, successful and loyal?

Most people are socialized to be nice to others, to value friendship or feelings over the interests of the corporation. Jobs turned those priorities on their head. When asked why he was so nasty, he said it made the company better. “Part of my responsibility is to be a yardstick of quality,” he told BusinessWeek. “Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”

Creating an environment of excellence is one of the book’s major themes. Jobs firmly believed that the world was made up of A Players or bozos, and that A Players make a company great. He spent a lot of time weeding out the mediocre so only the A Players remain. When an organization grows, as Apple did explosively over the last 15 years, it was in danger of becoming flooded with B an C Players. Allowing a few of them in would be like opening a crack in a dam, Jobs reasoned. Soon the whole place would be flooded with crappy staff.

He was brutal about it. At one point, he decided to lay off most of the staff that worked on the Lisa, the unsuccessful precursor to the Macintosh:

“You guys failed,” he said, looking directly at the Lisa team. “You’re a B team. B players. Too many people here are B or C players, so today we are releasing some of you to have the opportunity to work at our sister companies here in the valley.”

Jobs was even cruel to his old friend Steve Wozniak, who, after he left Apple, hired the company’s outside design firm to work on a universal remote he had created. Jobs forbade it, but Isaacson defends him:

Jobs’s action was remarkably petty, but it was also partly caused by the fact that he understood, in ways that others did not, that the look and style of a product served to brand it. A device that had Wozniak’s name on it and used the design language as Apple’s products might be mistaken for something that Apple had produced. “It’s not personal,” Jobs told the newspaper, explaining that he wanted to make sure that Wozniak’s remote wouldn’t look like something made by Apple. “We don’t want to see our design language used on other products. Woz has to find his own resources. He can’t leverage off Apple’s resources; we can’t treat him specially.”

Isaacson concludes that Jobs’s victims were the necessary casualties of a campaign to change the world. He is probably right. Few people have had a career as big or as influential as Jobs, and for those privileged enough to take part in it, this was the price to pay.

Like many before him, Isaacson allows Jobs to get the last word. The book concludes with a lengthy statement, written by Jobs, assessing his own life and career. The last passage deals with his motivations.

“It’s a wonderful, ecstatic feeling to create something that puts it back in the pool of human experience and knowledge.” Jobs said. “A lot of us want to contribute something back to our species and to add something to the flow…. That’s what has driven me.”

Driven Steve was, but it’s not often that well-rounded human beings change our world. As Jobs himself said in Apple’s Think Different campaign, it’s the crazy ones. Reading in detail about the ways in which Jobs was crazy can be difficult, uncomfortable, even deeply sad, but once you read Isaacson’s biography, its hard to imagine how Steve could have dented our universe any other way. Steve Jobs was a great man; he just wasn’t a great human.