The echoing retort from this book lies in the question that Jobs often snapped in response to criticism, “so, what have you ever done in your life?”. It’s was Jobs’ strong response to ask when someone is trying to tear you down, especially over seemingly insignificant things. All of the shortcomings that Jobs, he measured up against this tenet. He would ask of himself and others, ‘what have they done to change the world?’. He was truly one of the most innovative businessmen of our generation, on par with Murdoch, Branson, or Ellison.
Yet, Jobs’ had no immediately definable skill. He couldn’t engineer like Woz, code like Gates, nor design like Ive. What he had was foresight and desire, as well as the ability to manipulate those around him to achieve it. Jobs’ wasn’t the best of orators, nor did he write particularly well, but he knew how to craft and conduct a presentation. I suspect, with the well-timed press leaks and ‘unauthorized’ photos, he also knew how to create and control internet virality as well. He was amazing at empathizing and understanding what his customers would want, sometimes conflicting with research, feedback or trends. Yet this empathy only went so far as his bottom line. As much as Jobs’ tried to embody the sixties, Bob Dylan and the ethos of love one another, he was ruthless as a businessman and, through the closed nature of his OS and hardware, eventually became the Big Brother he painted a 1984 IBM to be.
The author, Walter Isaacson, had the most intimate of access for this biography. Spanning the course of three years and several cancer procedures, one got a sense that he was truly on the inside looking out. As research was conducted with figures from Jobs’ prickly past, Isaacson was able to tie sometimes prickly character traits to effects of his life in the present. If the ends justify the means, is it OK to be a narcissistic asshole to anyone that isn’t up to snuff? There are the famed tales of Jobs’ berating employees, but very few of him mentoring and nurturing talent to be the ‘A Level’ that the author often refers to.
The most interesting character in the book was the one least talked about, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. Abandoned by a twenty-something Jobs for the reason that he didn’t want to be a parent, instead pouring himself into Apple. Abandoned to a single, working mom through most of her life, and never making that reconnection fully even on her father’s deathbed. Her name was attached to Apple’s blunder of a computer, embodying Jobs’ over-compensation for being absentee. Yet, she thrived – graduating Harvard and flourishing into a mature, responsible woman. I’d loved to hear more about her struggles and descriptions of Jobs, but she was rarely quoted, if ever interviewed. As much as I respect Jobs and what he’s done – he likely never changed a diaper nor held a bottle at 3am to a crying child. He’s judged on his business achievements alone, not as a father and seldom as a decent human being.
However, the book was a great read for me, as my early exposures to Apple products (and technology as a whole) came first at the end of Apple’s early innocence (Apple II), during the tumultuous times with Scully (Apple LC, IIGS), and then through the iMacs and the renaissance of Jobs’ return. I could mark which classroom, which school I was studying in through all of the products. My friends lived in the same Sunnyvale and Cupertino neighborhoods that Jobs and Woz were starting the company in their garages. It was a great time in California, when there was huge innovations occurring in both the hardware and software industries. Not yet were there bankrupt cities, stifling regulation and over-congested schools and freeways – Isaacson paints a picture of the golden age in the golden state.