Manjoo: The New Steve Jobs Biography Offers Gossip, but Not Insight

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Oct. 25 2011 6:45 PM

Jobs the Jerk

Walter Isaacson’s new biography of the Apple CEO is full of juicy tales about Jobs’ ego, but it doesn’t explain what made him tick.

Steve Jobs
The new, authorized biography of Steve Jobs only goes so far

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

In the aftermath of his resignation and then his death, the Web erupted with stories about Steve Jobs—anecdotes from friends, employees, and rivals that were meant to burnish our image of the Apple co-founder as an otherworldly genius, a guy whose quirks and bruising personality could be excused by his admirably fanatical devotion to making world-changing products. There was the (alleged) time he asked engineers on the original iPod team to stay up all night fiddling with the headphone jack so that it made a more satisfying clicking sound, for example, or the morning he called up Vic Gundotra, a Google executive, to complain about the shade of yellow in the icon for Google’s iPhone app. Several of these stories implied that deep down, the hard-charging CEO was really a very nice, down-to-earth guy. Not long ago, a family standing outside Apple’s headquarters stopped Jobs to ask him to snap a group photo. Jobs saw that they had no idea who he was, and he happily, and carefully, composed a nice shot. See? Despite what you’d heard, such stories suggested, Steve Jobs wasn’t so hard to get along with after all.

It turns out, though, that he was much worse than you ever suspected. There are several admiring Steve Jobs stories in Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s much-anticipated authorized biography, but they’re overshadowed by the many, many more instances in which Jobs comes off as a world-class jerk. Jobs was rude, mean, abusive, and often neglectful to everyone in his life; the people he hated got it bad, but the people he loved sometimes got it worse. Some of this isn’t surprising. Jobs’ arrogance, his monumental self-regard, his irresponsibility, and his unremitting cruelty to those who failed to live up to his expectations have always dogged his image. During his life, Jobs did express regret for some of his actions—including abandoning his first daughter, Lisa, for several years after she was conceived out of wedlock. (He continued to suggest that he might not be her father even after a paternity test proved he was.)

But Isaacson has compiled so many instances of personal and professional thuggery—and so many from Jobs’ later, allegedly “mellower” years—that even longtime Jobs admirers (a group in which I count myself) will struggle to like the guy in this book. I suspect that Jobs wouldn’t have minded this portrayal. “I don’t have any skeletons in my closet that can’t be allowed out,” he told Isaacson, and clearly he didn’t care what people thought about him. (Anyone who didn’t like him was probably a “bozo,” his favorite put-down; “fucking dickless assholes” was his best.)

Yet Jobs also said that he wanted a biographer to make sure that his kids had some sense of who he was, and to be able to explain the choices he’d made. And that’s what’s so odd, and disappointing, about this book: Isaacson conducted more than 40 interviews with Jobs, but the CEO seemed unwilling to reflect on his life with any real depth. Even when he was dying, Jobs wasn’t in the mood to analyze his strengths, his weaknesses, his victories, or his mistakes.

He embodied so many contradictions—he was enamored of anti-materialist, Buddhist philosophy yet became the most successful materialist of his day; he celebrated freewheeling hacker culture yet locked down everything he made—but Jobs doesn’t care to explain, or even address, many of them. Key questions go unanswered; for instance, Jobs doesn’t say what he learned during his exile from Apple that allowed him to be so spectacularly successful when he returned in the mid-1990s. He also doesn’t explain his penchant for corporate secrecy—why did hiding his innovations become such a huge part of his marketing plan? And how did he develop his signature product-unveiling presentation style? He doesn’t say.

When friends and colleagues offer theories about Jobs—several say that both his genius and his cruelty stem from the fact that he was put up for adoption by his biological parents—Jobs dismisses them. He can’t explain even the smallest of his quirks. Why did he refuse to have a license plate on his car? He admits that his initial reason, privacy, became moot in the age of Google Maps. So in the end he didn’t have a plate “because I don’t.” Illuminating!

Isaacson tries valiantly to add some depth to the profile. In addition to the theme of parental abandonment, the author noodles on the idea of Jobs’ detachment from reality: He was so bad to people, and so good with products, because he was able to focus on his work like nothing else in the world mattered to him (which, perhaps, was true). Jobs “feels that the normal rules of social engagement don’t apply to him,” Jony Ive, Apple’s longtime design chief, tells Isaacson; perhaps that’s why he parked in handicapped spots, was rude to every waiter he ever encountered, and believed he didn’t have to bathe. (There’s been some talk of a movie based on Isaacson’s book, but it’s hard to see how any screen treatment could improve on Curb Your Enthusiasm.)

Jobs also seemed to suspect that he wasn’t really wounding the people he berated. If you were a bozo, why wouldn’t you want to know it? “I don’t stay mad,” he protested to Ive. Some friends suggest that he simply lacked empathy—or, as Tina Redse, a longtime former girlfriend, says, that he suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It’s also quite likely that he was afflicted with an eating disorder. All his life, Jobs experimented with various extreme diets. (He’d fast for days, eat only certain kinds of fruits for weeks, and proclaim himself cleansed and invigorated after all of it.) He kept this up even after he got sick—indeed, for nine months after his cancer diagnosis, he refused surgery and tried various dietary cures, some of which he found online. His wife explored psychiatric treatment for his food issues, but Jobs refused.

Instead of offering any substantive explanations for what made Jobs so good at what he did, then, Isaacson’s book functions as a breezy chronology of his life. Some of it is thrilling—the tick-tock on Jobs’ ouster from Apple, the few chapters devoted to his time at Pixar, and the passages on his early experiments with Buddhism and Eastern philosophies are great yarns. Even the stories of his personal deficiencies are fun to read. Once, when he was dating Joan Baez, he told her about a beautiful Ralph Lauren dress that “would be perfect for you.” When Baez said she’d never been to a Polo shop, he drove her there in his Mercedes. “I said to myself, far out, terrific, I’m with one of the world’s richest men and he wants me to have this beautiful dress,” Baez says. But when they got to the store, Jobs showed her the dress, then bought some shirts for himself. “You really ought to buy it,” he told Baez—and when she told him she couldn’t afford it, they left the store without the dress. He never mentioned it again. “He was both romantic and afraid to be romantic,” Baez said. His relationship with Laurene Powell, the saintly woman who would become his wife, was similarly quirky. In 1990, he proposed to her twice—each time, she accepted, and each time, he demurred about whether he really wanted to marry her. The second time, he even began to ask friends if Powell was good enough for him: “Who was prettier, Tina or Laurene? Who did they like better? Whom should he marry?”

Jobs’ death prompted a flurry of hagiographic tributes, and in some ways, Isaacson’s book serves as a necessary corrective. Jobs was a genius, and what he accomplished at Apple will be remembered for decades to come. But the book neatly pierces the myth that he was the font of all the company’s great ideas. In fact, it’s best when it recounts his many mistakes and near-mistakes: His time at NeXT, the company he founded after being pushed out from Apple, was a comedy of autocratic excess. (He spent an inordinate amount of time choosing the color of the paint for machines in his factories—machines that later sat idle.) He was also on the wrong side of some of the most pivotal decisions Apple has made over the last decade. He didn’t want to make a Windows version of the iPod and iTunes; when all of his lieutenants fought him on it, he eventually conceded they were right, though grudgingly: “Screw it. I’m sick of listening to you assholes. Go do whatever the hell you want.” He was also against adding apps to the iPhone, and it took him a long time to see that Pixar’s greatest asset was its filmmakers. (He’d initially been interested in making a mass-market version of its software.)

It’s clear that in Jobs’ last 15 years of life, something in him changed: He suddenly became a better manager, he got better at predicting the kinds of technologies that people would want, and he got better at picking experienced subordinates (and, sometimes, at listening to what they had to say). The only time Jobs really alludes to these changes is in a mesmerizing section that is ostensibly about the music he listens to. During an interview in his living room, he plays two versions of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” recorded by Glenn Gould—the first recording made when Gould was 22, and the second nearly 30 years later. Jobs also plays two takes of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” the first recorded in 1969, and the second in 2000. “It’s interesting how people age,” he tells Isaacson as he listens to the music. Later on, just after he resigns from Apple, he tells a friend, “I did learn some things. I really did.” But that’s all we get. Jobs recognizes that he changed for the better as he aged, and he sees that he learned some things along the way. How he changed, why, what he learned, and how he was able to pull off the greatest corporate miracle the world has ever seen remains a mystery. And, sadly, it may remain one forever.

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