Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Rating: 4 Stars
Americans place a high premium on ‘nice’. It’s a trait pointedly applauded when exhibited by movie stars, top-ranked athletes, and aspiring electoral candidates. One of the most popular films in the recent past has been ‘Forrest Gump’, in which Tom Hanks played the seraphically sweet titular hero, who, despite his sub-average intellect accomplishes one incredible success after another. Face it, this is a country where ‘over-achiever’ is not a compliment; unless the achievements are accompanied by an attitude of “Aw, shucks, it ain’t nuthin’”. Not that I have anything against ‘nice’, and ‘Forrest Gump’ is one of my favorite films. Realistically however, we know that greatness often goes hand in hand with glaring imperfections; that a good man need not be particularly agreeable; and, that ‘nice’ is just one quality among the pantheon of virtues.
That’s why I found the wave of articles about Steve Jobs immediately following his death needing a pinch of salt. Of course, the whole point of eulogies is to accentuate the positive, but these were wandering dangerously close to hagiology – gentle St. Steve of Silicon Valley. As such, they were at odds with earlier stories detailing his legendary short fuse, his hogging credit for the ideas of other people, and abusive tirades. Isaacson’s compassionate, yet candid biography sets the record straight. The author was understandably leery when Jobs approached him to write his life-story. At that time he was unaware of Jobs cancer prognosis, knew enough about him to be skeptical when he went on the charm offensive, and didn’t trust him to restrain his controlling impulses when it came to a depiction of his life. However, he found himself becoming intrigued with the idea despite his reservations, and the result is a deeply thoughtful study, that is as intense as the iconic founder of Apple.
The story of Jobs parentage adds to his legend – the offspring of unmarried students, his adoption by Paul and Clara Jobs was a providential act of destiny that blessed him with selfless parents who set aside their needs to focus on a brilliant, temperamental child who showed early signs of the man he would become. Jobs would feel the influence of his father throughout his life in his desire for faultless craftsmanship. The fascination with design seems to be his own. It is noticeable that all the enduring relationships of Jobs' life (his parents, his wife, at least three of his four children, and his closest friends) were possible because the other party accepted him as he was, difficult as he could be.
Early in his life, Jobs turned to many men for guidance, and initially at least, his mentors seemed as taken with him as he was with them, before mutual disillusionment and feelings of betrayal set in. The world of business may be dog-eat-dog, but Isaacson gives us a balanced perspective by allowing both Jobs and his adversaries their fair say, before weighing in with his analysis. He is sympathetic to John Sculley, who was in the unenviable position of ousting Jobs from his beloved Apple in 1985. Similarly, his assessment of another formidable rival of Jobs, Microsofts’s Bill Gates, is both admiring and respectful. The differences between Jobs and Gates owed more to divergent business philosophies than personal animus. While Gates and many other critics of Jobs were appreciative of the man and his achievements, it is perhaps characteristic that Jobs himself seemed unable to return the compliment, persisting in his solipsistic view of the universe.
This would perhaps lead us to question his much talked about spiritual leanings. But in this as in other ways, he was truly unique. While he might have brutalized his employees, and proved himself unforgiving to those he considered his foes, and unyielding even to his dearest circle of family, Jobs' spirituality was innate and genuine. It could be seen in his unostentatious lifestyle; the sense of aesthetic that wedded functionality and beauty; his intuitive understanding of consumer needs, and yes, a certain integrity in an environment that didn’t make integrity easy. Despite his failings, Jobs continues to mesmerize, and that isn’t merely because he possessed a rock-star charisma evinced by no other CEO. In a world where the profit margin is given over-riding importance, his career is an example of innovation, an instinctual ability to harness creativity, visionary leadership, and the fostering of a corporate culture that engendered, indeed, enforced excellence.
“…a lot of us want to contribute something back to our species…We try to use the talents we do have to express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation of all the contributions that came before us, and to add something to that flow. That’s what has driven me.”
Jobs inspires because he made exceptional and uncompromising use of the time, opportunities, and gifts endowed upon him.

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