The Two Sides of Steve Jobs

30 Nov

All four of my readers will remember my post-mortem post on Steve Jobs. This post is further reflection on his life and accomplishments.

I’ve been reading the new Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson and have some information to report back:

Steve Jobs was a genius and a nut.

He was emotionally immature, interpersonally inept, and an unbelievable hypocrite. When he didn’t get what he wanted in professional settings, he cried to manipulate people.  When he needed to encourage staff to take ideas to the next level, he tended to berate and belittle them instead. And despite the fact that he was himself given up for adoption by his mother and abandoned by his father, he refused to accept his own fatherhood for his oldest child until he was pretty much forced to after positive DNA testing.

This biography is not a tell-all, but Jobs wanted people to know the truth so wanted no censoring of content. I give him points for that. Isaacson conducted interviews with Jobs as well as hundreds of people Jobs knew–people with all kinds of opinions about what made him tick. It’s fascinating to read these insights into his process.

One of the things most intriguing to me is that, like George Harrison, Jobs sought spiritual enlightenment. I was surprised to find that he went to India to study Eastern philosophy and was a student of Buddhism. But unlike Harrison, Jobs did not seem to absorb any of the spiritual tenets around respect for other sentient beings. He used more of an end justifies the means type of approach to management,  putting people who worked for him on temporary pedestals to bolster their confidence one moment, while the very next telling them that what they created was “shit.” Apparently, he said this a lot. Jobs’ main takeaway from Buddhism, in particular Zen, seemed to be not the spirituality but the influence his  product design aesthetic: spartan, clean lines, and no fuss.

Another angle that Isaacson explores is the famous Jobs “reality distortion field.” If Steve Jobs believe that something was possible–even the impossible–he so strongly and passionately integrated this belief with his own worldview that for him and everyone around him it became reality. What that says to me is that he was so able to suspend his own disbelief that he had the power to persuade others to bend reality in very interesting ways…ways that beat deadlines and over-delivered on features.

All of this is interesting because it seems that the combination of these characteristics gave him the ability to manipulate his own and others’ thinking beyond the expected, giving us revolutionary products that are truly a pleasure to use. I’ve been wondering if all of the bad karma that Jobs created along the way of driving this technology to fruition outweighs the benefits of the products, and how they’ve impacted our lives in such positive ways. I think that you could argue it either way, and the answer is very subjective.

I’ve worked for people that I did not like at all interpersonally but whom I respected professionally, and who drove my thinking to the next level even though I despised their methods. I hated them for being so mean, but I still loved them for being geniuses. I’m a better professional for having worked with them, despite the pain. I think Steve Jobs left a slew of people behind with this very impression. He wasn’t good, he wasn’t bad. He was something in between: imperfect and himself.

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