I was late to the Apple party. I got my first iPod years after everyone else did. Got a MacBook in 2009. My first iPad arrived about six months ago, and my first iPhone a couple of months ago. They are simply amazing products—efficient, unique, sexy, and now, invaluable. Though I’ve never been overcome by a hero worship for Jobs, my better-late-than-never obsession with his products and my intrigue after his death led me to advance the Walter Isaacson biography titled, simply and appropriately, “Steve Jobs.”
From the story of his unique birth circumstances to the story of his premature death, Isaacson delivers on the high standards Jobs would have demanded had he authored his own biography. Even the cover and the “look” of the book are analogous to the simplistic style of Apple products. Like his products, the book is accessible and powerful despite being relatively uncomplicated in its structure. It draws you in, keeps your attention, and makes you want to continue reading. Like any Apple invention, the book is what you want it to be—a business book, a story of a life, or a window into the innovation process. Just as it happens with every Apple product, there will be knockoffs. Isaacson’s book is original and it will always be the only book that had participation from Jobs. And one more thing, this book arrived at just the right moment, published only weeks after his death when we were most hungry to learn more about the man.
I’ve finished the book and now I sit in awe of this human being that I barely paid attention to while he was alive. I’ve been reflecting on this book for more than a week, struggling to find something that I wanted to write about. I could write about how the Apple products we love today are better because Jobs demanded perfection. I could write about how Jobs was influenced as much by his education and peers as he was by LSD, strange diets, Bob Dylan and eastern religion. I could write about how Jobs was an unmitigated asshole much of the time and willfully sacrificed personal relationships for the company he founded. Or I could write about how Apple is just a company—but a company that changed our own expectations for every other technological device we covet. Jobs had so much influence and brilliance, all laid out beautifully in these pages, that it’s difficult to reflect on just one aspect of Jobs.
Because Steve Jobs was Apple, this book is as much about the company as it is about Jobs. It’s not a history of the company, but instead a window into the culture that was created and enforced by Jobs himself. How Jobs led Apple left me with mixed feelings. I admire that Jobs created an in-house Apple University that taught case studies based on the most important decisions the company had made, ensuring “the Apple style of decision making would be embedded in the culture.” But I disliked how Jobs was described as having a “shithead/genius division of the world.” I love that Jobs banned PowerPoints and note-taking. I cringed a bit when I learned Jobs was described as “anti-loyal” and unfeeling in his dealings with some of his close business partners, especially Steve Wozniak. I think it is fantastic that he openly mocked other companies to create a positive esprit de corps for his team. It is less than fantastic that he openly mocked his own employees when they didn’t deliver on his expectations. Ultimately though, one of the cornerstones of his leadership philosophy is something that will stick with me. He steadfastly held that A players only want to work with other A players, and that if you bring in B players, the A players will lose respect for you and leave your company. This is a valuable business lesson.
Near the end of the book, Isaacson delivers a line that is central to understanding Jobs.
“Was he smart? No, not exceptionally. Instead, he was a genius.”
It seems counterintuitive that one can be a genius without also being exceptionally smart. But it’s correct, I believe. Think about it: often the best artists are not technically proficient or classically trained. They posses an intrinsic gift, a genius, that guides them. With our most treasured painters, composers, and poets, we tolerate a certain amount of unusual behavior or quirkiness because the painting, symphony or poem is so amazing that our interest in its creator pales in comparison. Hundreds of years later, we still listen to Mozart, but we don’t talk about Wolfgang the man as much. I think the same will be true with Apple. The products seem destined to be with us forever, but will the details of Jobs? I don’t think so and I think Jobs would want it that way.
So it is our good fortune to have lived to have during Jobs era, where we witnessed his genius firsthand. Our children and grandchildren won’t be as lucky. Despite what Jobs would have wanted, I think this book should be required reading for anyone who swipes a screen, stores files in a cloud, or flings a rock at an angry bird.
Thanks for reading.