Thursday, March 22, 2012
Steve Jobs by Isaac Jacobson
I don't devour books like Wifey. She gets through about two books a week, which astounds me. I'm pleased with myself if I manage to get through just two a year.
Saying that, I'm making more of an effort at the moment and managed to read my last book, The Book Thief, over a couple of months. Even though it still took me a ridiculous length of time, it made me feel all intellectual and superior.
This book is one of the few that I've found hard to put down – I've ended up reading it well into the night when I should be in bed. Maybe it's because I've been Mac user since 2001. I came into the world of all things Apple just as the company was beginning to earn a reputation for being cool and trendy. I'm still a supporter of the plaform now and can't quite believe how far the company has come over the last a decade. Ten years ago, only geeks and poncey designers used Macs. Now, everyone's got a piece of Apple kit – iPhone, iPad, iPod, Macbook ... the company is truly unstoppable.
So, Steve Jobs. The Man from Apple. How does he come off in this book?
Well, interestingly, Steve gave Isaacson free reign to write whatever he wanted. Steve, uncharacteristically, did not interfere with the final text (although he did add a bit to the end, and was apparently obsessed over the cover so he wasn't completely removed from the project). It showed a remarkable amount of trust, but Steve did say there weren't any skeletons in the closet he wasn't afraid to share with the world.
Love him or loathe him, there's no denying that Steve Jobs was an extraordinary person. He will, no doubt, be remembered in the annals of history alongside the likes of Edison or Ford, simply because he revolutionised not just one but several industries during the course of his life.
This book doesn't, however, attempt to paint a picture of Steve as a saintly tech-god. Far from it, this is a warts-and-all account of a man who drove people crazy most of the time. In spite of his remarkable achievements, he comes across as arrogant, selfish, obsessive and rude.
Even so, I can't help but marvel at Jobs' tenacity and downright bloody-mindedness. He pushed people to do better and go beyond what they thought what they were capable of. He also refused to give up even when things seemed completely hopeless. To have brought Apple back from the brink at the turn of the century and then transform it into the techno-behemoth that it is today is truly mind-blowing. He also fought his cancer with a determination and drive that likely kept him going for an extra couple of years.
One thing that struck me about the book was the amount of crying going on by grown men (mostly Steve) as people battled over ideas, products, money and business ideologies. Also, there's a lot of yelling (involving copious amounts of swearing) alongside a fair share of sacking people. Not only that, but there are numerous references to the legendary 'reality distortion field' where somehow the normal rules of social interaction and logic didn't apply to Steve. Clearly, the life of Apple has been an eventful one.
I guess most people would attribute his behaviour to the fact that he was adopted as a baby, but isn't that just a bit too convenient? I'm sure there are plenty of men and women out there who never knew their biological parents and yet are well-adjusted, successful people. This leads me to think that Steve just happened to be a unique individual, and that he'd probably turn out the same way whatever his family history.
Steve was a perfectionist to the extreme, but ironically his products were far from perfect – for example, the original Macintosh, NeXT computers, the G4 Cube, and iPhone 4 all had their faults. This was thanks, in part, to his unhealthy obsession with perfection. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful that Steve has built a company that cares about design and the user experience so much. Part of that is thanks to his perfectionist attitude. I do, however, believe that he could have done the same great things without generating so much anger and frustration amongst his friends, peers and co-workers.
For all the amazing things he did, I don't regard Steve as a 'great' man. He was deeply flawed in so many ways but just happened to be in the right place in the right time with the right skills so that he could start Apple. I don't respect him for the way he treated people and especially think of his disdain of philanthropy disturbing for a multi-millionaire.
This book is essential reading for anyone in business, or in fact anyone who has any kind of responsibility towards other people in any work situation. Steve's life is filled with plenty of lessons on how to do things right – and how to do them appallingly.
Jobs' legacy is now in the able hands of Tim Cook, a man who strikes me as a level-headed no-nonsense guy, which is kind of reassuring. He's probably not a pushover, but I suspect he's also not the type who would berate a designer for showing him a prototype in the wrong shade of white.
Only Steve could do that.