Reassessing Steve Jobs

My post last month about Steve Jobs drew more comments than anything I’ve written about so far at The Wayward Journey. Upon reflection, it’s hard to think of another individual who so profoundly shaped the digital age. But it’s equally difficult—perhaps impossible—to understand and reconcile the contradictory and negative aspects of Jobs’ personality.

Steve Jobs

Isaacson's biography reveals a disturbing, dark side to Steve Jobs' vision and passion.

Reading all of the accolades heaped on Jobs last October when he succumbed to cancer, you would think that he was a candidate for sainthood. As The New York Times breathlessly reported in its obituary, “Tributes to Mr. Jobs flowed quickly on Wednesday evening, in formal statements and in the flow of social networks, with President Obama, technology industry leaders and legions of Apple fans weighing in.”

Even Jobs’ long-time nemesis, Bill Gates, was quoted as saying, “For those of us lucky enough to get to work with Steve, it’s been an insanely great honor. I will miss Steve immensely.”

Apple itself intoned, “Apple has lost a visionary and creative genius, and the world has lost an amazing human being.”

And yet…

We know from Walter Isaacson’s biography that there was a dark side to Jobs’ incessant quest for perfection.

One of the most disturbing aspects of Jobs’ behavior was the way he treated his family and friends, Apple employees, board members and competitors. Whether it was outright rejection, belittling, conniving, sheer rudeness or even throwing temper tantrums when he didn’t get his way, the picture of Jobs is not a pleasant one.

For someone who exercised so much control and discipline over every aspect of Apple’s brand and products—and make no mistake, that was one of Jobs’ keys to success—it is incredible how undisciplined, uncaring and unfeeling he could be.

Particularly bizarre is the juxtaposition of Jobs’ Zen approach to design, his appreciation of simple, elegant beauty, his penchant for “getting things right,” with the brutal, selfish way he dealt with people. Someone that smart, that committed to perfection, surely had to be aware of how wrong he was in treating others.

So was Steve Jobs’ dark side a blemish on an otherwise great man? Or was it a serious character flaw that compels us to reassess our love affair of all things Apple?

It seems that our society has more tolerance than it should for successful business leaders with flaws. Apple just had its best quarter ever, with a record $13.1 billion in profits. Yes, that’s b as in billion. So if you’re an Apple stockholder, you’re probably thinking, “Bring on the flaws.” But if you’ve ever been the victim of bullying and emotional abuse, you won’t see much to celebrate in Jobs’ life. Rather, you’re left with a feeling of sadness and shame for what could have been.

NYT on iPadJobs’ death at age 56 at the height of his power and creativity seems nearly Faustian. His story certainly raises troubling questions about the responsibilities of leadership—but just as troubling is the enabling of friends, coworkers, employees and consumers.

Writing about Jobs in the Huffington Post last fall, Joel Drucker observed, “The bigger topic is our willingness to turn a blind eye to the Golden Rule in the face of power, charisma and the leverage held by those who sign our paychecks.”

What is the price of admission to work at an “insanely great” company? Did Jobs’ means justify his ends? How complicit are we when we continue to buy Apple products and remain loyal fans?

Anyone who’s watched the film “The Social Network” about Mark Zuckerberg and read Isaacson’s biography of Jobs can’t help but see the dark parallels between these two titans of Silicon Valley. And yet we all spend hours each day on Facebook.

Drucker concludes that he will continue to use Apple products. I have no plans to give up my iMac. In fact, I wrote this post on it. That is the irony and complexity of the Jobs legacy. “Insanely great” is probably as good a summation of Jobs as we’re going to get. While we debate the ethics of Jobs’ behavior, we eagerly await the arrival of the iPad 3.

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2 Responses to Reassessing Steve Jobs

  1. Jay, another great post.

    Let me start by saying that neither Jobs nor his wife “request[ed] any restrictions or control” over who Isaacson talked to or asked to see the manuscript before published.

    Jobs – “I don’t have any skeletons in my closet that can’t be allowed out.”

    His wife – “There are parts of his life and personality that are extremely messy and that is the truth…you shouldn’t whitewash it.”

    For so many individuals who make a distinct mark in history, they spend as much time trying to hide what they see as embarrassing or unlawful or somehow tarnish their reputation. I give Jobs and his wife tremendous credit for going for a real biographer, someone who moves in the same circles of power and art and appreciation of contemporary history as Steve Jobs (and I am assuming his wife). Someone who could be awed by some aspects of Jobs but also evaluate him as we all are: human. It is therefore refreshing to read a blog entry like this to get a taste of that dichotomy, dealing with that grit from a little sand you might get with a steamed clam after dipped in butter.

    My wife just bought an iPhone and my son: “Siri, do you love me?” Siri: “I don’t know you well enough.” When my wife went into the Apple store to talk about Siri, she was told that the best way to look at Siri is like a 16-year-old girl, lots of emotions and she thinks she knows all the answers.

    I thought, wow, maybe a good part of Jobs’ behavior is based on the fact that at any given moment, he had not matured past the emotional volatility of a teenager. In the book Isaacson built up to certain momentous points, principally achievements and moments of genius, but I now remember distinctly when the author tells us that Jobs and his parents realized that Jobs, at what age that was, was innately more intelligent then his parents. Question, was Jobs more emotionally advanced then his parents, well, that is an emphatic NO. Let’s start and finish on his dad, for instance.

    He grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, full stop. We have gone a few times to a bed and breakfast at a working dairy farm – it is really the only time I look forward to getting up a 4 or 5 a.m. and talk to a 3rd or 4th generation dairy farmer milking his cows and talk more about the movement of commodity prices and the economy, then about milking automation. And while we go off and enjoy the day at some point after that, this dairy farmer is going to put in a 12-hour day and that is 7 days a week.

    We are told when Jobs makes this magical leap or realization that he is who he is. But, the emotions, more than anything else in his life, aside from perfectionism and genius, were, it seems to me, an absolute constant. He matured, yes, but he never remotely approached the emotional maturity of his parents, that WWII generation…and growing up on a dairy farm.

  2. Jay Morris says:

    John, great comment! I agree, Jobs seemingly never acquired that emotional “governor” that most adults have. As Isaacson notes, “Even his family members wondered whether he simply lacked the filter that restrains people from venting their wounding thoughts or willfully bypassed it.”

    Thanks for encouraging me to re-examine Jobs’ legacy. Another one of my loyal readers (yes, there’s more than one!) has brought up the issue of China and the working conditions in the factories that produce Apple’s smartphones and computers. It does give one pause about purchasing additional Apple products. As I alluded to in this post, how complicit are we when we blithely buy the latest Apple product without giving a thought to how it was produced? So far, I plead guilty. I have three iPods, a PowerBook G4 and an iMac. But lately, I do wonder why Apple can’t use some of its billions in cash to improve the working conditions of its workers.

    Perhaps we all need to understand that Apple is not the same scrappy “Think Different” company we admired in the 1980s. It’s one of world’s biggest companies now, and in the process it’s become a technology and consumer behemoth. With that, I think, comes some added responsibility. I’m hoping Apple will step up to the plate and improve the lives of those who produce the gadgets we have come to appreciate and enjoy.


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