Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Book Review: Steve Jobs Biography
I just finished the Steve Jobs biography. I pre-ordered it and had it downloaded to my Kindle. I was anxious to gain insight into the life of a man who transformed American technology but was equally interested in learning about Jobs, the person.
Those who have, in death, placed Jobs on a high pedestal, will likely be disappointed in Isaacson's account of Jobs' life. Some will readily dismiss Jobs' personal failures, seeing equal trade for Jobs' accomplishment as an innovator who possessed remarkable business genius.
In reading Jobs biography I discovered a remarkable number of conundrums which can only be explained by Jobs himself. For example, Isaacson presents Jobs as a ruthless businessman, a man with huge worldly ambitions, an ego-centric person who offered little empathy for friends and brutalized others. Isaacson cites a plethora of life experiences to demonstrate these traits. For example, Jobs offered that, at age eleven, he came to the realization that he was far more intelligent than his parents and began to demand from them and others, the respect and admiration that he had not yet earned. Isaacson cites the time when his working class parents, having saved for 17 years to fund for his college education, were turned away by Jobs in front of the campus. He was apparently ashamed for anyone to see his parents. Jobs was an ambitious opportunist who denied fathering his daughter and accepted unearned credit for many of Apple's innovations. Friends and acquaintances speculate that part of this arrogance and ego was a defense mechanism attributable to a sub-conscious frustration that his birth parents chose to place him up for adoption.
Ironically, though Jobs denied this theory, at one point in an Isaacson interview, Jobs himself raises the theory, but seems to both confirm and deny the idea at the same time. Never the less, it seems clear that Jobs was driven by massive ego which manifested itself in every relationship he developed throughout his life, whether it was his teachers, his friends or his business associates.
Perhaps a large ego, and its associated shortcomings when dealing with others, is a necessary trait for brilliant invention and innovation. Anyone who had read a good biography of Thomas Edison will see remarkable similarities of character between Jobs and Edison. Both were possessed with a massive ego and an insatiable drive to succeed.
Isaacson's biography presents a fascinating insight into the development of this giant icon. He gives us an unvarnished look at Steve Jobs, the man as well as Jobs, the business genius. He manages to do this without moral preachings or judgemental justifications.
After reading Jobs biography I came away with a better sense of what made Jobs "tick". I think what most fascinated me about Jobs was the dichotomy of Jobs' "life philosophy"; the primal motivation that drives one's approach to maneuvering through our life experiences. For example, Jobs embraced the concepts of Zen-Buddhism whose precepts demand that devotees recognize that our actions and behavior generate both good and bad karma, emphasizing the importance of promoting kindness and empathy for others. Instead Jobs chose to adapt Zen Buddhism as a model for developing elegance and beauty of an Apple product while brutally treating nearly all who entered his life. More remarkable was Jobs' failure, until much too late in his life, to develop a small semblance of "life balance", valuing with equal importance both career and personal and familial relationships.
As with anyone who is staring death in the face, Issacson cites Jobs' subtle move toward accepting the idea of God and an afterlife. Jobs reflected about this in his last months and offered that he certainly hoped that death would not simply be the end of our existence. I found that both touching and endearing from a man who, like all of us, wrestled with his personal demons.
As with any good biography, Issacson offers a portrait of a famous man. It is up to us, the reader, to take what we will from the effort. A Technocrat will champion Jobs tremendous achievements in the advancement of music distribution, of elegant I-Phones and of simplistic and effective computing. The rest of us mere mortals may choose to be fascinated by Jobs' business achievements while also recognizing that life is rife with the the great challenges we face in balancing the need for professional achievements against the equally compelling need to achieve success in our personal relationships.