Becoming Steve Jobs

I never wrote my standard blurb about the Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. It just didn’t seem worth it. The book was a huge letdown: at one level, lacking insight in its analysis of the life of Steve Jobs and on another level, it felt somehow pedestrian, telling the personal story of an interesting person, but never getting around to the impact of his universe-denting achievements.

In contrast, Becoming Steve Jobs is definitely worth spending a few sentences on. It’s by no means perfect, but the business-oriented perspective of the authors (authors who, it’s worth noting, have more than a superficial understanding of computers) enable a depth of analysis that make it clear just how exceptional Steve Jobs was.

What made Steve Jobs exceptional? I certainly don’t presume to be able to distill the nuance of Steve Jobs into bite-sized bullet points, but my take-aways from the book were:

(1) Clarity of vision — Steve Jobs recognized the future when he saw it and managed to put all of his energy into realizing that future. He also had incredibly discerning tastes, reveared quality, and never settled. That restless need to build and improve can only happen when you see flaws clearly.

(2) Persistence — in tackling problems and facing challenges he seems to have had an unmatchable drive that enabled him to acheive his goals. The ultimate success of Pixar and the acquisition of Next by Apple strike me as prime examples of Steve Jobs persisting in the face of adversity and enduring where others would have wilted.

(3) Willingness to change his mind — in some ways this contradicts point 2, but it’s also how he acheived point 1, he was able to cast asside beliefs and pet projects in the face of new information and better ideas. The shift from iMovie to iTunes as well as the eventual creation of iTunes for Windows and the ultimate decision to allow third party apps for the iPhone all showed that despite Jobs’ strong opinions, his mind could be changed and he wasn’t always correct from the outset.

Intriguingly, the thing still missing is how the hell Steve managed to motiviate so many people to do their best work. That strikes me as the still unaddressed and maybe impossible to understand aspect of Steve Jobs’ career. Ultimately this strikes me as the single most important factor that enabled him to acheive his success. From Woz, to the Macintosh team, to the entire organization at Next, and even his dealings with Pixar, he had a sort of Midas touch for getting the most out of people. Perhaps it was the combination of the 3 points above that resulted in a devoted following or simply (not simply) some element of charisma and character.

In many instances, this was also a sort of anti-Midas touch: there were numerous examples of his personality rubbing people the wrong way (indeed this is the oft-cited narrative of a cantankerous genius who merely stole his success).

But history is pretty clear: Steve Jobs made several significant dents in the universe. None of that would have been possible without a team of talented individuals rallied around their fearless leader.