It is difficult to read the opening pages of Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs without feeling melancholic. Jobs retired at the end of August and died about six weeks later. Now, less than three weeks after his death, you can open the book that bears his name and read about is youth, his promise, and his relentless press to succeed.
How the book came to be is practically lore already: Walter Isaacson, who has written about Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, was asked by Jobs in 2004 to take a walk in Aspen so that they could talk. During the walk Jobs asked him to write his biography, but Isaacson declined. By 2009, aware that Jobs was suffering from the cancer that would eventually take his life, he finally accepted.
The initial sense of sadness in starting the book is soon replaced by something else, which is the intensity of the read"”mirroring the intensity of Jobs's focus and vision for his products"”and the end result is something that is satisfying, complete, and gives insight into a man whose contradictions were in many ways his greatest strength.
Despite an embargo, much has already been written about the book. Yes, there are surprises and fascinating disclosures in Steve Jobs. And the book paints a clear-eyed picture of the man. Some might argue that the biggest star (or at least the most sympathetic protagonist) is each and every product that Steve Jobs worked on in his brilliant career. But Jobs was so closely linked to his products that it's almost impossible not to think of the Mac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone, or iPad without picturing in your mind the already iconic photo of Steve Jobs that graces the book's cover.
What's also clear is that-- even if he was tempted to take all the credit for himself-- Steve Jobs knew to surround himself with talented people.
That instinct started early when Jobs, still in high school, struck up a friendship with Steve Wozniak, who was five years his elder. In the words of Isaacson, "It may have been the most significant meeting in a Silicon Valley garage since Hewlett and Packard's thirty two years earlier." The two shared a love for electronics, pranks, and Bob Dylan, and it is obvoius that, though "Woz" knew more about electronics than Jobs ever would, you would have never heard of Woz if it hadn't been for Jobs's marketing savvy and plain guts and brashness. The same can be said for most people who worked with Jobs. He was obsessed with surrounding himself with great people, even if we read that he was often abusive to them, and he pushed, prodded, motivated, and manipulated those people to get what he needed out of them. His unique gifts were his vision, focus, and passionate dedication to quality. But he couldn't execute all by himself.
So we learn that Jobs was both an inspiration and a terror to the people he worked with. He was abrasive and not a very good manager. In fact, you could argue that he was a bad one. Eventually he was even kicked out of his own company. But that setback only seemed to spur Jobs forward, as he sold his Apple stock and used the money to start Next computers (which failed) and to buy Pixar (which was wildly successful and turned him from a millionaire to a billionaire). And, of course, there's the fact that Apple eventually hired him back.
Jobs was a man of wild contradictions, all of which he seemed to spin into strengths. One major contradiction was the fact that he was the head of a Fortune 500 company who also embraced the counterculture. Jobs spends the first quarter of the book walking around barefoot, eating strange diets, and not showering (the attention to diet continues throughout the book). He goes to India, studies Buddhism, and at the same time builds a successful computer company and becomes a twenty-something millionaire. He aspires to the Mother Jones motto, "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish," and yet the force of his personality (something that those who worked for him called his "reality distortion field") is almost impossible to fathom even as we read about it. And he's all around us. Apple is second only to Exxon Mobile in terms of company value. There's a very good chance you're using one of his devices at this very moment.
So what was his secret?
-- He was intensely focused. When Jobs embraced an idea, he did so with an almost shocking intensity and dedicaton.
-- He valued Intuition. When Jobs went to India as a young man, he marked how rational thought was a learned Western process, noting how people in the Indian countryside successfully exercised the power of intuition over rational thought on a regular basis. A strong belief in his own intuition would serve him well over time.
-- He loved design. Jobs purposely positioned himself at the intersection of technology and design. He studied fonts, took design cues from a Cuisinart, and embraced the simplicity and intuitiveness of Buddhism and the look of Bauhaus. He also observed that most tech companies "just didn't get it."
--He thought big. Jobs worked on principles that ruled his practices"”simplicity, intuitiveness, beauty, and grace for the mass market. But he had an even bigger goal, which was to "make a dent in the universe."
--He was a survivor. How many people get kicked out of their company, only to be brought back and given the opportunity to take it from the brink of bankruptcy to being perhaps the top company in the world? Answer: one.
--He was a control freak. There are good and bad sides to this quality. One positive is that the same control issues that kept Jobs from licensing software out to external companies (thus, shrinking his potential market when he first launched Apple computers) eventually made it possible for him to integrate all his hardware and software into one product (hello, iPhone!).
--Steve Jobs was a salesman. His ability to believe what he was saying, even if that belief required a certain amount of reality distortion, was essential to his success.
--He was an idealist. When it came to products, Jobs wanted to be "insanely great." When it came to people and relationships, maybe not so much.
It may be splitting hairs, but Steve Jobs was not Albert Einstein or Benjamin Franklin. Still, he did manage to become insanely great in what he accomplished, and he does have analogs in history. Reading Steve Jobs, it's almost impossible not to wonder what it would have been like to get the same kind of access into the minds of those analogs. What would Gutenberg have told us about his real motivations? What dark shadows drove Edison or Ford?
We will never have a view into those minds like Walter Isaacson has given us here. And it never could have happened without Jobs's cooperation. What we get in the end is a great book about a great and flawed man. Steve Jobs may sell more copies than any other book this year, and if it does, it will have earned that distinction. This is a wonderful book.