Review: Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson


Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. 656 pp. $35 (hardcover).

With the recent passing of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s biography of the now-legendary businessman was certain to become a best seller. And it has. But not everything that sells well is worth reading. Is this?

In Steve Jobs, Isaacson’s focus is on the choices, actions, and value judgments that Jobs made throughout his life—as well as on how Jobs himself evaluated these choices and actions. The result is that you truly get to know Steve Jobs—to see “what made him tick,” what he did, and how it all worked out for him—from his childhood on.

As the only biographer with whom Jobs ever cooperated, Isaacson is able to include a lot of new information. For example, Isaacson tells us that Jobs knew from a very early age that he was adopted and gives us a dramatic moment when he realized what other people might think about his being adopted:

“My parents were very open with me about that,” [Jobs] recalled. He had a vivid memory of sitting on the lawn of his house, when he was six or seven years old, telling the girl who lived across the street. “So does that mean your real parents didn’t want you?” the girl asked. “Lightning bolts went off in my head,” according to Jobs. “I remember running into the house crying. And my parents said, ‘No, you have to understand.’ They were very serious and looked me straight in the eye. They said, ‘We specifically picked you out.’ Both of my parents said that and repeated it slowly for me. And they put an emphasis on every word in that sentence.” (p. 4)

Owing partly to this event, and partly to another—where Jobs noticed how smart he was in comparison with others—Isaacson shows how Jobs began to regard himself highly. He also quotes Jobs showing how he thought later in life of his being adopted:

“There’s some notion that because I was abandoned, I worked very hard so I could do well and make my [biological] parents wish they had me back, or some such nonsense, but that’s ridiculous,” he insisted. “Knowing I was adopted may have made me feel more independent, but I have never felt abandoned. I’ve always felt special.” (p. 5)

Isaacson shows that Jobs was independent to the core, that he never really cared what others thought on any deep level, a trait that Isaacson says often worked in Jobs’s favor, by making him more assertive and less hesitant in going after what he wanted.

For example, when Jobs was in the ninth grade and needed to get some parts from Hewlett-Packard to build a frequency counter, he simply looked up Bill Hewlett in the phone book, called the famed executive, and talked him into not only giving him the parts but also a job on an assembly line for the company (p. 17). Other people, even grown men, might have hesitated to place such a call, but, as Isaacson repeatedly shows, Jobs never hesitated on such matters.

Isaacson later shows Jobs attempting to sell one of the first Apple computers to Paul Terrell, who had just opened a computer store in California. After meeting with Jobs, Terrell was interested enough to give him his card and ask him to keep in touch. Jobs, meanwhile, was assertive enough to show up the very next day. “I’m keeping in touch,” Jobs said as he walked into the store, and, by the time he left, he had Apple’s first order for fifty computers (p. 66).

There are many chapters in Steve Jobs, each one condensing enough material for its own book. But the main thing Isaacson stresses throughout is the sheer intensity that Jobs brought to everything he did. This intensity was not just the cause of his refusal to thwart his goals by conceding to other people’s feelings. According to Isaacson, Jobs’s intensity was also the one thing that tied together and explained both his personality and Apple’s products (p. 560).

Readers will see Job’s intensity in his choice of and feelings for different kinds of food, music, appliances, paintings, silverware, and so on. They’ll see it in the extent to which he loves each of these things when elegantly designed. And they’ll see it in what Isaacson calls Jobs’s binary view of the world. To Jobs, Isaacson notes:

Something was either “the best thing ever,” or it was shitty, brain-dead, inedible. As a result, any perceived flaw could set off a rant. The finish on a new piece of metal, the curve of the head of a screw, the shade of blue on a box, the intuitiveness of a navigation screen—he would declare them to “completely suck” until that moment when he suddenly pronounced them “absolutely perfect.” (p. 561)

Of course, as countless articles and many other biographies have pointed out, Jobs often expressed his intense feelings, especially negative ones, with absolutely no tact. Isaacson does not sidestep this issue. On the contrary, he acknowledges the fact and shows the results.

Importantly, in this regard Isaacson does not so much say that Jobs yelled a lot, he follows Mark Twain’s advice, brings Jobs into a room, and lets him scream. At times, a good point gets across in between the abrasiveness, such as when we hear Jobs saying, “People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint,” or when he says to someone at Apple, “You shouldn’t be wasting your time on such crappy products” (pp. 336–37).

At other times—many other times—such comments are buried within a string of expletives, or Jobs is shown off somewhere in a parked car screaming into the phone at the top of his lungs that the color in an ad is not anywhere close to being blue enough. This can get old. In fact, readers may very well start to wonder whether Isaacson should have taken Twain’s advice so literally, and so often.

But that was Jobs. And whether you loved him or hated him, would have liked to work for him or would have preferred anything but, his intensity and the way Isaacson’s biography focuses on it can teach you a lot. In fact, although there are real challenges in writing about a character such as Jobs, the intensity with which he focused on some things, such as Apple products, and ignored others, such as his illness, allows Isaacson to provide much more practical value than anyone likely anticipated.

The extent to which Jobs threw himself into everything that mattered to him and ignored that which did not provides clarity about the importance of selectivity and focus in life. After all, each of us, at one point or another, deals with things such as how to excel in our work, how to motivate ourselves or those around us, how to respond to signals that things aren’t going as they should be, and how to identify what is possible to us and what is not. The life of Steve Jobs (if not some of the conclusions Isaacson makes about it) offers much to learn from in this regard. Some of it is tragic and depressing, some of it is heroic and uplifting. But readers can use all of it to make their lives better—which is why this book deserves not only to sell well but also to be read widely.

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