Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Steve Jobs It is sometimes difficult when writing a review of a memoir or biography to separate the writing from its subject. Isaacson did a good job of handling the detritus of a life—there is just so much to examine in the life of Steve Jobs that the biographer must pick out the pieces that seem to make sense of or make sense in a narrative of that life. Isaacson does that. What I found myself missing was the same thing I felt missing in Ben MacIntyre’s A Spy Among Friends which describes the infamous “charm” of Kim Philby: audio/video of the man himself. Fortunately, there are plenty of clips of Jobs online, though what we’d really like to see are unscripted moments rather than product launches.

Isaacson writes that the theme of Jobs’ life was that he always felt “special” or “chosen” and that the normal rules didn’t apply to him. It began, perhaps, when his mother told him he was not adopted because he was abandoned by his birth parents, but because he was chosen by his adopted parents. But he lived his whole life as someone who made his own judgments about the world and its rules. He was not a gentle man, but he had a creativity that he cultivated in himself and others. That was one of his special gifts.

My takeaway has to be that it takes all kinds to build successful products. Obviously a room full of Jobs-like folks wouldn’t work, and Jobs himself admitted that “without Apple and its engineers, I am nothing.” But it also took folks who were willing to work with him on everything else—component deliveries at Apple, music sales for iTunes, filmmaking at Pixar. He was persuasive--the “reality distortion field” was applied to the way he turned one’s head about decisions--and that was another of his special gifts.

A different person could have been successful in the personal computer market, maybe even more successful. Gates was such a person. After all, Jobs and Gates entered an empty market and made a mark. That was be another great gift of his: to see what was needed. That is something not all of us can do. That takes hutzpa and vision. Jobs wasn’t universally successful with all his products: think about NeXT, where he gave himself leeway to build a product the way he wanted but which no one else liked enough to buy. But the architecture of the product Jobs built at NeXT was used later when he returned to Apple.

After some practice Jobs got much, much better at launching products that made a lot of sense and that broke open the way we communicate. To do that, he had to attract the right folks to help him, to cooperate, and to lead. That was another great skill: he could lead.

Finally, he had style. I admit to appreciating his concept of wearing a “uniform.” I appreciate his restraint when it came to consumption and money, even food. He could earn endlessly, but he seemed to realize money was not the point, as it appears to be for some folks. The point was to do what you loved, to be in love. Love was the point.

In a perfect world, an eBook would have video clips of the man in action at strategic moments in his life (e.g., the 2007 Walt Mossberg interview of Gates and Jobs and the Stanford 2005 graduation address)…we wouldn’t have to watch a three-hour product launch, but just clips of the highlights. It is difficult to imagine the force of his personality without seeing him in action.

Because of Jobs’ central role in the personal computing market, his history could be read as a history of the industry. I found it fascinating. Whether Steve Jobs was a perfect man or a flawed man is not really the point, I think. He was a man, as he liked to point out, at the crossroads of science and art. He changed the way we communicate and at least makes us think about the way we do business. He was after excellence in product design and function, and he hoped to create a great company.

I listened to the audio production of this book produced by Recorded Books for Simon & Schuster Audio, narrated by Dylan Baker. I highly recommend it for everyone’s library. I wonder if we would have been as tolerant of the young Jobs as Atari executives were when he arrived on their doorstep with the announcement that he wouldn’t leave until he was hired.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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