Steve Jobs and his crazy dark genius

Nov 19, 2011

I read “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson.

Much that’s to be said about the book has already been said elsewhere, e.g by my good friend Matt. I’ve read many Jobs- and Apple-related books and this is definitely one of the better ones. Although the broad strokes of many storylines and plots are familiar to Apple fans, this book adds a lot of nuance and detail. Many other works are based on anecdotes or second-hand reporting, but this book is all about original material and good journalistic writing in the form of facts, letting the readers draw their own conclusions.

The two key ideas of this book and indeed Steve Jobs’ life, repeated over and over, are:

  • He was an amazing product person, and had people produce brilliant work under his direction.
  • He had very little regard for most people and their feelings.

The most interesting question to me is, is there any correlation or causal relationship between the two?

“He didn’t care about people because he was an amazing product person” doesn’t make any sense. Already from a young age, before he had anything to do with products, he believed he was special and outside the “system”. He went through his troubled period of personal growth and I believe he got his attitudes towards people long before had anything to do with products or Apple.

The other direction is more interesting. If A and B happen together, it can be that B happens because of A, or maybe B happens in spite of B. Consider these:

“Jobs was an amazing product person because he did not care about most people’s feelings.”

“Jobs was an amazing product person even though he did not care about most people’s feelings.”

Did not caring about others help or hurt his work? Throughout the book it’s suggested that if only Steve had paid a little more attention to the slurs flowing out of his mouth, he would have kept some good people around longer and done even more amazing things.

I’m not convinced. I don’t like speculation and “what-ifs”. His work remains incredible. I can only say out of my own experience that I’ve produced some of my own best work and learned the most about myself under incredibly tight conditions, deadlines and technical constraints. Motivation by verbal abuse might very well fit into that picture. Many Apple people have looked back at their own work and concluded that they did indeed do amazing things.

I’m not saying that “Steve-style management” is the only way to do good work, but being nice and cozy sounds somewhat close to sticking to one’s comfort zone, where you aren’t pushed to learn or innovate much. What brings me joy at work day to day more than anything else, is being asked hard questions and being faced with difficult problems, crunching through those, and coming up with a solution. And then rinsing and repeating.