Steve Jobs, staring down death, had just received a new liver. He lay in a Memphis hospital bed in 2009, floating in and out of consciousness, but he was alert enough — and acting like Steve Jobs, authoritarian design sage — that he pronounced an oxygen mask totally unacceptable. He disapproved of the design.
Jobs ordered his caretakers to bring him five options so he could choose the best one. This was not his only critique of the medical equipment. He also despised an oxygen monitor on his finger and proposed ways to revise the design for simplicity.
Walter Isaacson isn’t surprised by Jobs’s hospital-bed demeanor, and by the time the anecdote comes up more than 400 pages into this massive biography, readers won’t be either. Earlier in the book, Jobs had established himself as a design maniac, declaring that memory chips that no one would ever see inside the Macintosh computer were “ugly. The lines are too close together.”
Isaacson’s biography can be read in several ways. It is on the one hand a history of the most exciting time in the age of computers, when the machines first became personal and later, fashionable accessories. It is also a textbook study of the rise and fall and rise of Apple and the brutal clashes that destroyed friendships and careers. And it is a gadget lover’s dream, with fabulous, inside accounts of how the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone and iPad came into being.
But more than anything, Isaacson has crafted a biography of a complicated, peculiar personality — Jobs was charming, loathsome, lovable, obsessive, maddening — and the author shows how Jobs’s character was instrumental in shaping some of the greatest technological innovations of our time. As Isaacson rightly puts it, the Jobs-inspired products are bold and simple, in essence “poetry connected to engineering, arts and creativity intersecting with technology.”
Though Jobs delighted in his well-known and much-rehearsed onstage persona, he was extremely private. Yet he allowed Isaacson unfettered access to his life, his colleagues and his family because he wanted his children to know what he had accomplished while he was away so much. Jobs, who died this month, exerted no control over the story Isaacson wrote and in fact told his biographer near his death that he would probably dislike the book. He didn’t seem to entirely fear the portrait that would be revealed, and neither did his wife, Laurene Powell.
“There are parts of his life and personality that are extremely messy, and that’s the truth,” Powell told Isaacson. “You shouldn’t whitewash it. He’s good at spin, but he also has a remarkable story, and I’d like to see that it’s all told truthfully.”
Isaacson clearly admires Jobs and heaps justifiable praise on his accomplishments — putting him in a league with Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. But he still holds his subject to task for his often boorish behavior, pointing out that some of Jobs’s actions defied “all connection to reality.”
Shades of gray didn’t come easily to Jobs. “He craved perfection, and he was not always good at figuring out how to settle for something less,” Isaacson writes. “He did not like to wrestle with complexity or make accommodations. This was true in products, design, and furnishings for the house. It was also true when it came to personal commitments.”
He largely ignored a daughter he fathered in his 20s for the first years of her life, which seems inexplicable given that Jobs was adopted and angry at having been given up by his birth parents. He proposed marriage to Powell, who accepted, but then he ignored the proposal for months. Late in his life, after being given a diagnosis of cancer, he put off standard but difficult treatment for nine months, preferring instead to focus on kooky dietary regimens that he had relied on throughout life. (In his younger years, he convinced himself he needed to shower only once a week because he was on a diet of only fruit. People who sat near him disagreed.)
In his professional life, he was capable of seeing people in only two ways — as enlightened or as bozos. There was no in-between, and he would ruthlessly cast aside whoever he deemed a bozo. One time, Isaacson writes, Jobs decided a job candidate was too conventional and toyed with him “mercilessly,” suddenly asking the potential hire, “How old were you when you lost your virginity?” When the candidate later gave a dronelike answer to a technical question, Jobs mocked, “Gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble.”
Those who were deemed enlightened were granted the right to work with Jobs in his binary world where products were either “the best” or “totally [expletive],” Isaacson writes. It was in this hard-driving realm where Jobs’s brutal genius made magic, where his desire for simple-to-use and stylistically beautiful products achieved his stated goal in life: to connect technology with the liberal arts and make the journey — not the wealth — the reward.
Jobs operated within his own “reality distortion field,” as his colleagues dubbed it, where he was known to bend history, lie, cajole and erupt — often in the same sentence — to fulfill his technological fantasies. “In his presence, reality is malleable,” a colleague once said. “He can convince anyone of practically anything. . . . It was dangerous to get caught in Steve’s distortion field, but it was what led him to actually be able to change reality.”
When an engineer bristled at his suggestion that boot-up time on the Macintosh could be improved, Jobs asked, “If it could save a person’s life, would you find a way to save ten seconds off the boot time?” A few weeks later, the engineer shaved off 28 seconds.
His underlings would sometimes defy him successfully, but it took creativity. For example, when Apple engineers sought help from a Sony engineer, they insisted the rival hide in a closet. “No problem,” the Sony worker told his Apple collaborators. “But American business practices, they are very strange. Very strange.”
And never more so than when being shaped by Jobs. At the end of the book, before declaring Jobs “the greatest executive of our era, the one most certain to be remembered a century from now,” Isaacson takes the long view on his subject’s personality. “Polite and velvety leaders, who take care to avoid bruising others, are generally not as effective at forcing change,” Isaacson writes. “Dozens of the colleagues whom Jobs most abused ended their litany of horror stories by saying that he got them to do things they never dreamed possible.”
By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster, 630 pp. $35