Is Steve Jobs’s Biography An Inspiration To Entrepreneurs, Or A Warning?


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.

Blogger Jason Kottke has noticed an interesting pattern: Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who take Steve Jobs’s biography not as a guide to success, but as a warning.

Kottke points to four entrepreneurs who are scaling back on work to focus on their families, lest they turn out like Steve Jobs.

The Steve Jobs portrayed in Walter Isaacson’s biography is a modern-day Citizen Kane: a man who sacrifices everything to make Apple succeed. Jobs even told Isaacson he wanted his biography written so his kids could read about their father after his death, because he wasn’t around to tell then in person.

Kottke points first to Jeff Atwood, cofounder of Stack Exchange, a super successful community for programmers, who is stepping down. In a blog post, Attwood cites Jobs’s biography as a major factor in shaping his decision:

Startup life is hard on families. We just welcomed two new members into our family, and running as fast as you can isn’t sustainible for parents of multiple small children. The death of Steve Jobs, and his subsequent posthumous biography, highlighted the risks for a lot of folks. […] Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange have been wildly successful, but I finally realized that success at the cost of my children is not success. It is failure.

Kottke links to similar posts by a couple of other entrepreneurs, including Eric Karjaluoto, who compares Jobs to John Henry, the American folk hero:

For a long time, work was my only thing. I worked evenings, weekends, and Christmas. At those rare times when I wasn’t at work in body, I was there in spirit, unable to speak or think of much else. I wanted so badly to climb the mountain that I stopped asking why I was doing it.

I admire [Jobs] for the mountains he climbed. At the same time, I wonder if he missed the whole point, becoming the John Henry of our time. He won the race, but at what cost?

Me? I may turn out to be a failure in business, but I refuse to fail my kids.

Kottke, the father of two young children who has been working on a startup project for a number of months, says he took the same lesson from Isaacson’s book: that family comes before work.

… it is interesting that the death and biography of the greatest businessman of our generation — someone who was responsible for so many world-changing products and ideas, who shaped our world through sheer force of will & imagination, etc. etc. — is inspiring some people to turn away from the lifestyle & choices that made Jobs so successful & inspiring in the public sphere and to attempt the path that Jobs did not.

Kottke: The Lessons of Steve Jobs.