Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Jobs is a Four Letter Word

Many people might mistake this book for a mere biography of the man that made Apple a household name and its products coveted by millions around the world. It’s not.

This book is actually three books in one. It’s a business book on how to (and not to) run a company using Apple, NeXT and Pixar as case studies. It’s also a history book on the ascent and the drama behind the consumer electronics evolution. And as its title suggests, it’s the fascinating story of one of the most gifted people of our time.

As a business book, Isaacson writes about three distinct business practices. The first is how to really create a company from scratch. The passion exuded by Jobs and Wozniak is detailed with infectious enthusiasm in the first half of the book.

The second practice (and one often not talked about in business books) is how to drive a company to the ground. The book is rife with examples of internal politics, lack of leadership and the absence of focus that truly illustrate how companies fail.

The last practice is how to build and operate a creative company that endures. For me, this is the most fascinating narrative of all. But to fully appreciate it, one must truly understand the first two, which almost always precede this one.

The book offers a great case study of three companies: Apple, NeXT and Pixar. One fascinating vignette in the book draws a contrast between Apple and Sony and why Apple was successful in conquering the consumer-end of the music business while Sony, who was in a favorable position to do exactly that, failed to do so. This story draws attention to the importance of inter-departmental cohesion that Apple possessed and Sony didn’t, to the success of innovation in a company.

Business leaders reading this book will learn a lot about the power of “focus” in business. Steve Jobs’s most doled out advice was “focus.” Throughout the book, we learn how Jobs followed his own advice to a deadly fault.

As a business book, it is amongst the best.

It’s also an even better history book. It details the ascent of personal computing from the perspective of the very people that were (and still are) at its helm. The book doesn’t only cover Apple’s evolution, but that of the entire industry. Naturally, that involves drama, which Isaacson does a great job of covering. The philosophical divide between open and closed systems that dominated the personal computing evolution is discussed thoroughly in the book via anecdotal accounts on what really happened behind the scenes. It explains what it really took to bring us the products on which I read this book and now writing its review.

Most importantly, this is a very personal book. It is the story of man adored by millions of geeks, and when departed, mourned by hundreds of millions of Apple consumers around the world. Unfortunately, a devastating portrait that is guaranteed to put out any respect or admiration you’ve ever had for the man emerges early on in the book. If you have spent the last fifteen years romanticizing about Steve Jobs and his products, this book will leave you punch-drunk. You will learn through stomach-churning details how Steve Jobs was a disloyal, lying, backstabbing, vindictive, manipulative, vengeful, and all-around vile and damaged human being. He was, and surprisingly so, a coward, as clearly illustrated by how he treated people in his twenties and thirties.

And oh, he cried a lot. I mean, A LOT.

The book is rife with examples of his cruelty towards those who he seemed to have loved the most. His treatment of Steve Wozniak was unconscionable and disgusting. But the most disturbing example and the one that really shows his character was how he treated his “soul mate” from Reed College, Daniel Kottke. I could sum it up by quoting John Scully’s wife when she told Jobs:

When I look into most people’s eyes, I see a soul. When I look into your eye, I see a bottomless pit, an empty hole, a dead zone.

Even the amiable, most trusting co-founder of Apple, Steve Wozniak, who’s been backstabbed by Jobs several times, have said about Jobs, “I look forward to a great product and I wish him success, but his integrity I cannot trust.”

The irony in Steve Jobs story was that he loathed people that treated him the way he treated others. He had to deal with a few people that gave him a run for his money like Eisner of Disney and Katzenburg of DreamWorks. He claims throughout the book that he’s “honest” and a “straightshooter” yet all the stories relayed by people that had to deal with him tell a completely different story.

For a control freak, it boggles me how he allowed such a book to be written about him. Now we all know that he might have been a visionary, but he was also a very disturbed man void of compassion, empathy and integrity.

As I got deeper into the book I started to wonder, “did Apple offer on-campus Al-Anon meetings to its employees?” Evidently, working for or with Steve Jobs was like being in a relationship with a recovering Cocaine addict who sees the world in black and white and throws frequent tantrums that are aimed at destroying those around them. It’s what Mike Murray, Apple’s Marketing Chief, called, “management by character assassination.”

Jobs quotes Bob Dylan, whom we learn early in the book was one of his heroes, “if you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.” It’s ironic to quote those powerful words and not heed them. The book clearly shows that Steve Jobs was never really reborn or reinvented as a person. He never evolved and his base qualities were never tamed. Naturally, he spent his entire life dying from the inside out.

The book left me enriched, provoked and sad in equal measure. It is long but flows well and is a fast read. All business executives should read it for the insight it offers on what real successful companies are made of and what pitfalls to avoid along the way. Also, everyone in technology should read it to get a perspective on the evolution in the space of personal and consumer computing and to understand where we’re headed and how to get there. Even if you’re not an executive or a geek, you should read this book for its fascinating (and well told) story of a man from Northern California who dramatically changed how we live. A man as rich with creativity and intuition for what consumers want as he was bankrupt of decency and compassion for most of those he touched.

It’s a story worth reading. If for nothing else, read it to understand what it took to create the device on which you’re reading this very review.

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