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


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.

  • prof_peabody

    I haven’t read the book yet, but people who have, told me that it was also full of anecdotes about Steve that showed his human side and how “funny” and “caring” he was, so I’m not sure of where this is negativity is coming from.  

    Also, I’ve yet to hear many of the “Steve Jobs is the devil” stories that don’t come from his *first* stint at Apple when he was just a petulant 20 something rich-boy.  

    Is there a successful man alive who *wasn’t* an asshole in his twenties?  It’s what he’s like as an adult that’s more important and more telling of the overall personality.  

    • Ron Carandang

      I’m currently reading the book and so far Mr. Jobs does seem to be a complete a*hole.

      • Barney

        From what I’ve read, so is the current CEO.

  • Poggy Monster

    Agreed.  No one has mentioned how he was cruel to people in hit early 40’s have they?  Mark Zuckerberg did the same thing to his friend: cut him out of stock options.

  • Tom Busby

    Ok, that’s enough for me today. I’m outta here. Too much link bait for 1 day. Removing from my RSS feeds. Speaking of ……

  • brownlee

    You should really read the book before you disagree. I’ve read the book, and if anything, I think Leander’s being too kind. As for Steve only acting that way when he was in his 20s, that’s also totally off-based, at least according to Isaacson, his official biographer.

  • Steve Jobs Ghost

    Long Live the Asshole..thats why his company and his legacy will be forever.

  • Gmail

    The screen on my Macbook broke after only 18 months. It cost one thousand dollars.

  • cassandralite

    As Shaw noted, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one
    persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress
    depends on the unreasonable man.” 

    May there be many more such unreasonable men.  We have the choice not to marry them or work for them, but we all benefit from their unreasonableness. 

  • m_el

    Read it. The review you have just read is being kind about Jobs.

  • Seoung

    we have a holiday called Columbus Day… a guy who saw dark people and captured them as slaves… Being an asshole isn’t a big deal.

  • davidk

    Between this post and the crap post earlier on how “awful” the iPhone 4s is that was filled with flawed examples, its like the site is trying to drive people away.  I’m not expecting fawning praise, but some of this stuff is over the top bad in the other direction.  Its kinda pathetic actually.

  • Blake Beavers

    protip: Go to an Apple Store, walk out with a brand new computer.

  • Blake Beavers

    You know what, fuck this website. I get enough news from I’m not coming back until the writers get an attitude change.

  • m_el

    Read the book. It’s not the reviewers fault that the book describes Steve Jobs as the biggest asshole you could imagine. He was a petulant, smelly, mean man. Well according to the book he was unless it is all lies but Steve Jobs wanted this man to write his autobiography. You can’t blame a reviewer for reading the book and telling the story.

    It’s a fantastic read by the way, I can’t put it down

    • Scott Keith

      You put it down long enough to comment here. =)

  • A Dagostino

    Hasn’t this been common knowledge for decades? It’s not like the guy was an awful human being, I’ve heard just as many bad stories as good stories. Nothing in this book has shocked or offended me.

  • A Dagostino

    Hasn’t this been common knowledge for decades? It’s not like the guy was an awful human being, I’ve heard just as many bad stories as good stories. Nothing in this book has shocked or offended me.

  • Boredumb

    Really?  Thats your take on what Columbus accomplished???

  • PaterFamilias

    I heard similar comments from Leander on Leo Laporte’s MBW. Yes, I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone who has followed Steve Jobs’ life that he was a petulant, strong-willed, egocentric individual who frequently willed that reality should meet his expectations … not the other way around. I didn’t really find the book unlocked this aspect of Steve’s personality any more than what has been commonly reported and I’m surprised Leander seems to be surprised by this catalogue of personal sins. 

    Having said that–great people are rarely warm and fuzzy personalities. The will required to stand out from your other 6.8 billion humans requires a drive and a focus that sets you apart. 

    I wouldn’t want to work for Steve (and the employee burnout body count mounts as you progress through the book). But if I could have, it would have been an exhilarating if terrifying moment in my life. It would have also been a chance to be part of something bigger than the space most of us occupy.

  • MacGoo

    Well put – pretty much what I expected from Isaacson, and I’m glad he didn’t pull any punches. Have to give credit to Jobs though: with a personality like his, it must have been torture not to rail against Isaacson for exposing all his flaws.

    Even sadder thought: maybe he didn’t see them as flaws.

  • QandnotU

    Steve and his wife encouraged Isaacson to not hold anything back. You have to imagine with the control Jobs held over his life and products, it makes sense that this “authorized” biography had Steve’s blessing.

  • MacGoo

    I understand that the biography had the approval of Jobs. That’s why it’s commendable that he was able to resist the temptation to interfere.

  • Hans Uy Maristela

    I pre-ordered “Steve Jobs” & started reading it on Sunday night via my iPad’s iBooks app & I have yet to finish it. But from what I’ve read so far, I will agree that the subject of the year’s most-awaited bio was indeed a world-class asshole when he behaved like one (and he wasn’t one all the time because no such person exists). Thankfully, some people change for the better & Steve Jobs proved to be no exception. And when he finally did (& it was a gradual process), he didn’t announce it to the world unlike lesser mortals who misuse & abuse their so-called “redemption” for profit. Steve Jobs was a billionaire & he didn’t need people to like him (or like him more) to acquire more wealth. He may have been an emotionally infantile brat who didn’t grow up until he was in his late 30’s but I still hold him in high esteem. Nobody’s perfect & the man never made any attempt to make excuses for his repulsive behavior. What’s important to me is that he did his mea culpa (& this book is one of them). More importantly, Steve Jobs’ perfectionism & long-term view of technology continue to serve me well. Proof: I’m typing this on a peripatetic iBook G4 that has survived Singapore’s stifling humidity and Copenhagen & Oslo’s numbing winters, plus a lazy trip back to California. His humanized machines are not today’s “it” gadgets & tomorrow’s rejects (which is the case with things Android, the latest example of which pertains to the non-inclusion of the Nexus One on the list of ICS-upgradable models). Buying anything stamped with the Apple brand name guarantees value-for-money (or great resale value) to consumers & this what makes Steve Jobs a great human being to me. He may have been an effin’ prick in his younger days but I don’t feel that he’s effin me from the grave by leaving a legacy of horribly ugly & barely useful gadgets – like my hand-me-down HTC G1 (T-Mobile’s pathetic answer to the iPhone 3GS) which is now hopelessly stuck with legacy Android OS that reduced it to a pricey feature phone. I would be very, very lucky to get $40 when I trade it in for the iPhone 4S.

  • May

    Oh Cult of Mac, your naivety just continues to grow and grow doesn’t it?

    Try taking the red pill every now and then.

  • CharliK

    Everyone has their asshole moments, even you Leander who refuses to concede when folks repeatedly point out to you that you are acting rude and crass with some of your articles and in general like a blatant hit whore who has turned a once great blog into a tech gossip rag. 

    Asshole moments make better reading than the other millions of minutes that were not chronicled in detail in the book. In fact I would hazard that for every minute of asshole acting that is mentioned in the book there are hours of Steve not acting like a class one asshat. 

  • CharliK

    There’s a part of me that can’t help wondering if Steve wanted Walter to right the book because he knew that he’d come off as a total asshat. What better way to finally get Apple off the curse of the Cult of Steve than to have the pedestal smashed to pieces and Steve expose for being a human being who could be a total asshat at times just like everyone else. 

  • CharliK

    Hardly. More like if you have Apple Care and you didn’t cause the break you walk out with a new screen. No way are they going to hand you a brand new computer. These days they aren’t even giving folks that whole “just this one time” phone swap cause you dropped your phone. It’s $49 if you got that whole Apple Care + or $199 if you didn’t

  • Dilbert A

    It’s one take. Did he say something factually incorrect?

  • Anonymous

    Well now there definitely is very little left in the book to read. Thanks. Could these articles not have come a couple weeks after the release of Jobs’s biography? Not everyone has time to read the book in 2 days. 

  • George

    I’m not sure why Leander is so disappointed.  Though many of the details of SJ’s behavior are new, the fact that SJ was a maniacally egocentric jerk was always on display.  So, now we know the fine details of what a jerk he was. 

    SJ said that “death is life’s best invention” and I believe that the reason he allowed Isaacson unfettered access to portray his life warts-and-all was to kill the mythology surrounding Steve Jobs.  By allowing the myth of Steve Jobs to die, Jobs was giving Apple the best chance to move forward. 

  • Steven Zahl

    All Geniuses have their Dark Side.

  • htcuby

    leaders often deserve public criticism..

  • yoyogipark


    For someone who has studied him for years and written a book about him, isn’t it a bit naive to be so influenced by a book you’ve just read? I’ve read the book and I don’t think the behaviour of Jobs revealed in it will surprise many people who live with their eyes open in the real world, which is loaded full of people with flaws and people who are sometimes mean or cruel or who act like assholes. Have you never yourself? If you have, does that make you “not a great human”? Since all of us are sometimes assholes, shouldn’t judgement about one’s worth as a human be reserved for people who are truly despicable? Jobs didn’t beat up children, imprison political enemies, or kill people. His worst behaviour was generally to yell at other adults because he thought their work sucked. When he made truly shitty decisions, like denying that he was father to his daughter, he eventually came around and redeemed himself. There are also countless examples in the book where Jobs shows himself to be a very decent person, like when he is saddened by the ex-Apple engineer who becomes schizophrenic and Jobs helps the guy out of prison even after the guy has thrown rocks and a firecracker through the windows of Jobs’ home.

    • Scott Keith

      His worst behavior was setting up slave labor sweat shops overseas. Jobs was a sociopath, a tyrant, an asshole… the world is better off for him being gone.

  • Jobs

    I’m half-way through the book and I find Steve Jobs character in it, quite likable. I too am a Boss in some corporation and I too cannot stand slackers and under-performers. Sometimes, I too raise hell but only to bring the very best in my team.

    • Scott Keith

      There’s a difference between being the boss and just being bossy.

  • artoo

    I am certainly not surprised although I have seen contradictory comments about him. Some bemoan his “lack of philanthropy” while others like Bono say: “His support of RED helped millions of people in Africa” and others that he supported charities secretly, not publicly like most celebrities, through his wife.
    I don’t believe that meanness or other personality flaws are a requisite of genius, but I also believe that we should seek to know the truth about those we admire. It doesn’t mean we have to appreciate everything about them.

  • James

    Welcome to the corporate world! They don’t call it the “big leagues” for no reason.

  • Matlang

    I have read similar comments every time a new detail from the book has been posted and not just on this site either. Haven’t you people read any books before? First of all it’s almost 600 pages long. It’s all about the life experiences (or life arc [sic]??) of someone quite fascinating. I don’t think that reading a couple of paragraphs or knowing a few anecdotes beforehand will ruin the experience for you. And it seems to be quite beautifully written unlike this and other similar sites. And besides I don’t think it really comes as a surprise to anyone around these parts that Jobs was (besides other things) a world class asshole. And finally: who makes you read these reviews and articles if you don’t want to?

  • Anonymous

    Yeah you’re right, I did overreact. It was my decision to read the article, that’s true too. But what annoyed me was that Leander began the article addressing people’s complaints that too much info from the biography was leaking into blog articles then goes on to share a bunch of new anecdotes from the book. So I thought, well if you’re recognizing a problem, why would you contribute to it in the same place?

  • shinji iwamasa

    I really enjoyed reading this book and was amazed by details.  The followings are some notes that may help to read this book.

    In his commencement speech at Stanford, he said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”

    Jobs here quotes the words of Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, Dogen in his _Shobo Genzo Zuimonki_, 1st Volume, Chapter 7.

    In his interview with CNN, Issacson seems to make a slight change to the quotation from Steve, that reads at the very end of his book:

    “That when you die, it doesn’t just all disappear. The wisdom you’ve accumulated. Somehow it lives on.”

    Here Steve may refers to the Title of Lotus Sutra, “Such is the force of my wisdom, its supreme light shine for aeon(kalpa).”

    The interview as follows:

    Shinji Iwamasa

  • Mckeaguester

    They’ll implode without Jobs to asswhip them. Give them 6 years and they will be a ghost of their former selves

  • chiangshih

    iSorry, But Steve Jobs Was a Dick

  • ………..

    Why did I have that figured out already?  I was just waiting for something like this to “surface”.  People like Jobs “killed himself” in how he mistreated his fellow human beings. 

    I guess KARMA IS A B*TCH, SURE DID FIND HIS A$$……………………….

    • Scott Keith

      Jobs killed himself because he thought he was smarter than his doctors. Jobs surrounded himself by geniuses, and then mistakenly thought he was one.

  • goodboy

    Pharaoh in ,Pharaoh out . I Pad in ,Pyramids out

    innovating  “revolution”  in . Another asshole will  hit the  dust  
  • iMobileRescue

    Yep, you have to be a jerk sometimes to make things happen. I’m a founder, and I realize that I have to sometimes act like a jerk, to ensure things get done. It is what it is. Awesome article.

  • Jean-Paul Sartre

    “World class asshole” has a special lyrical ring to it; quite fitting that it should be memorable…