Would this mesmerizing, infuriating man have gone on to found Apple had he been raised by his biological parents, or adopted by different parents, or raised in a different place than Silicon Valley on the cusp of the computer age? What unknowable alchemy of genes and upbringing turned Steve Jobs into Steve Jobs?
Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Jobs wisely does not attempt a definitive answer. But the contrapuntal themes of nature and nurture resonate throughout the fascinating narrative.
Jobs’s biological parents were political-science graduate students who later married and had another child who grew up to be the novelist Mona Simpson. It hardly seems coincidence that the same gene pool produced two artists of a different sort.
Jobs himself changed sides on the nature/nurture debate after meeting his biological sister when he was 27. ‘’I used to be way over on the nurture side, but I’ve swung way over to the nature side,’’ he told The New York Times in 1997. ‘’And it’s because of Mona and having kids. My daughter is 14 months old, and it’s already pretty clear what her personality is.’’
No parent of more than one child can be under any illusion about the degree to which aspects of personality and intellect are hard-wired in their offspring — undeniable echoes of parental traits.
Jobs’s biological mother was determined that her child be assured a college education, to the extent that, when she discovered her infant had been placed with a high-school dropout rather than the designated lawyer and his wife, she balked at the deal.
She relented only when Jobs’s adoptive parents agreed to sign a pledge to provide for his college education. It takes no great leap to trace a line from the ferocity of a 23-year-old unwed mother to Jobs’s own obstinacy.
Yet Isaacson’s biography is studded with nuggets for nurture advocates. Any number of Jobs’s friends ascribe his prickliness and drive to a sense of abandonment. Being given up by his birth parents left Jobs “full of broken glass,” said the mother of the daughter Jobs essentially abandoned during her early years.
Jobs rejected this assessment — but substituted a different interpretation. “Knowing I was adopted may have made me feel more independent, but I have never felt abandoned,” he told Isaacson. “I’ve always felt special. My parents made me feel special.”
Indeed, the accident of Jobs’ adoptive parents — the initial couple, a lawyer and his wife, decided at the last minute that they’d prefer a girl — represented a fortuitous match that seemed to mesh perfectly with Jobs’ innate personality.
Would the original couple, more attuned to traditional measures of success, have been as flexible and indulgent as were Paul and Clara Jobs with their unusually precocious — and unusually willful — son? “If you can’t keep him interested, it’s your fault,” Paul Jobs told exasperated teachers at his son’s elementary school.
Then there are the twin influences of Jobs’s machinist father and the Silicon Valley setting. Paul Jobs did not entirely succeed in passing on his love of mechanics and cars, but he instilled an appreciation for elegant design.
Showing Isaacson a fence that his father had built 50 years earlier, Jobs recalled how his father had stressed the importance of crafting “the backs of fences and cabinets properly, even though they were hidden. ‘He loved doing things right. He even cared about the look of the parts you couldn’t see.’” That perfectionism had its echo in Jobs’ control-freak obsession over the most minor details of Apple products.
Finally, would Jobs have been Jobs without having grown up in Silicon Valley during the birth of the high-tech industry? “What made the neighborhood different from the thousands of other spindly-tree subdivisions across America was that even the ne’er-do-wells tended to be engineers,” Isaacson writes.
The engineer down the street taught Jobs about electronics and steered him to the Hewlett-Packard Explorers Club, where Jobs heard lectures from the company’s engineers about their cutting-edge work and saw his first computer. When Jobs needed a part for an electronics project, he looked up Bill Hewlett’s phone number, called the CEO and ended up with a summer job.
Each of us is the unpredictable product of heredity and environment. So was Jobs — a man, as Isaacson compellingly describes him, both more flawed and more special than most.