News, — October 28, 2011 9:11 — 0 Comments
Yes, Jobs was an asshole — but a good asshole. An authorised biography doesn’t hide the former Apple CEO’s shortcomings
Perhaps the funniest passage in Walter Isaacson’s monumental book about Steve Jobs comes three quarters of the way through. It is 2009 and Jobs is recovering from a liver transplant and pneumonia. At one point the pulmonologist tries to put a mask over his face when he is deeply sedated. Jobs rips it off and mumbles that he hates the design and refuses to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he orders them to bring five different options for the mask so that he can pick a design he likes. Even in the depths of his hallucinations, Jobs was a control-freakand a rude sod to boot. Imagine what he was like in the pink of health. As it happens, you don’t need to: every discoverable fact about how Jobs, ahem, coaxed excellence from hisco-workersis here.
As Isaacson makes clear, Jobs wasn’t a visionary or even a particularly talented electronic engineer. But he was a businessman of astonishing flair and focus, a marketing genius, and – when he was getting it right, which wasn’t always – had an intuitive sense of what the customer would want before the customer had any idea. He was obsessed with the products, rather than with the money: happily, as he discovered, if you get the products right, the money will come.
Isaacson’s book is studded with moments that make you go “wow”. There’s the Apple flotation, which made the 25-year-oldJobs $256m in the days when that was a lot of money. There’s his turnaround of the company after he returned as CEO in 1997: in the previous fiscal year the company lost $1.04bn, but he returned it to profit in his first quarter. There’s the launch of the iTunes store: expected to sell a million songs in six months, it sold a million songs in six days.
When Jobs died, iShrines popped up all over the place, personal tributes filled Facebook and his quotable wisdom –management-consultant banalities, for the most part – was passed from inbox to inbox. This biography – commissioned by Jobs and informed by hours and hours of interviews with him – is designed to serve the cult. That’s by no means to say that it’s a snow-job: Isaacson is all over Jobs’s personal shortcomings and occasional business bungles, and Jobs sought no copy approval (though, typically, he got worked up over the cover design).
But its sheer bulk bespeaks a sort of reverence, and it’s clear from the way it’s put together that there’s not much Jobs did that Isaacson doesn’t regard as vital to the historical record. We get a whole chapter on one cheesy ad (“Think Different”). We get half a page on how Jobs went about choosing a washing machine – itself lifted from an interview Jobs, bizarrely, gave on the subject to Wired. Want to know the patent number for the box an iPod Nano comes in? It’s right there on page 347. Similarly, the empty vocabulary of corporate PR sometimes seeps into Isaacson’s prose, as exemplified by the recurrence of the word “passion”. There’s a lot of passion in this book. Steve’s “passion for perfection”, “passion for industrial design”, “passion for awesome products” and so on. If I’d been reading this on an iPad, the temptation to search-and-replace “passion” to ”turnip” or ”erection” would have been overwhelming.
Isaacson writes dutiful, lumbering American news-magjournalese and suffers – as did Jobs himself – from a lack of sense of proportion. Chapter headings evoke Icarus and Prometheus. The one on the Apple II is subtitled “Dawn of a New Age”, the one on Jobs’s return to Apple is called “The Second Coming”, and when writing about the origins of Apple’s graphical user interface (Jobs pinched the idea from Xerox), Isaacson writes with splendid bathos: “There falls a [sic] shadow, as TS Eliot noted, between the conception and the creation.”
But get past all that pomp and there’s much to enjoy. Did you know that the Apple Macintosh was nearly called the Apple Bicycle? Or that so obsessed was Jobs with designingswanky-lookingfactories (white walls, brightly coloured machines) that he kept breaking the machines by painting them – for example bright blue?
As well as being a sort-of-genius, Jobs was a truly weird man. As a young man, he was once put on the night-shiftsoco-workerswouldn’t have to endure his BO. (Jobs was convinced his vegan diet meant he didn’t need to wear deodorant or shower more than once a week.) He was perpetually shedding his shoes, and sometimes, to relieve stress, soaked his feet in the toilet. Hison-offveganism was allied to cranky theories about health. When he rebuked the chairman of Lotus Software for spreading butter on his toast (“Have you ever heard of serum cholesterol?”), the man responded: “I’ll make you a deal. You stay away from commenting on my dietary habits, and I will stay away from the subject of your personality.”
That personality. An ex-girlfriend– and one, it should be said, who was very fond of him – told Isaacson that she thought Jobs suffered from narcissistic personality disorder. Jobs’s personal life is sketchily covered, but what details there are don’t charm. When he got an on/off girlfriend pregnant in his early 20s, he cut her off and aggressively denied paternity – though he later, uncharacteristically, admitted regretting his behaviour and sought to build a relationship with his daughter. (Jobs himself was adopted, and seems to have had what Americans call “issues around abandonment”.)
He cheated his friends out of money. He cut old colleagues out of stock options. He fired people with peremptoriness. He bullied waiters, insulted business contacts and humiliated interviewees for jobs. He lied his pants off whenever it suited him – “reality distortion field” is Isaacson’s preferred phrase. Like many bullies, he was also a cry-baby. Whenever he was thwarted – not being made “Man of the Year” by Time magazine when he was 27, for instance – he burst into tears.
As for critiquing the work of others, Jobs’s analytical style was forthright: “too gay” (rabbit icon on desktop); “a shithead who sucks” (colleague Jef Raskin); “fucking dickless assholes” (his suppliers); “a dick” (the head of Sony music); “brain-dead” (mobile phones not made by Apple).
Nowadays we are taught that being nice is the way to get on. Steve Jobs is a fine counter-example. In 2008, when Fortune magazine was on the point of running a damaging article about him, Jobs summoned their managing editor to Cupertino to demand he spike the piece: “He leaned into Serwer’s face and asked, ‘So, you’ve uncovered the fact that I’m an asshole. Why is that news?’”
Sam Leith’s You Talkin’ to Me? is published by Profile Books.
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