Saturday, February 4, 2012

Steve Jobs, Genius and asshole

I just finished reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, racing through almost six hundred pages in two days. 

It is a riveting history of our own time, at least one facet of it. I'm old enough to remember Apple II's on a desk at school. And here I am writing on an iPad 2.

It is also fascinating as a business history. Even in a company that turns out to be (eventually) as successful as Apple, the amount of internal resistance and bickering and nastiness and infighting is remarkable. Getting anything useful done seems to elicit fierce resistance.

And I really enjoyed the story of how Toy Story came together at Pixar, partly because of the teleological overtone:

The idea that John Lasseter pitched was called “Toy Story.” It sprang from a belief, which he and Jobs shared, that products have an essence to them, a purpose for which they were made. If the object were to have feelings, these would be based on its desire to fulfill its essence. The purpose of a glass, for example, is to hold water; if it had feelings, it would be happy when full and sad when empty. The essence of a computer screen is to interface with a human. The essence of a unicycle is to be ridden in a circus. As for toys, their purpose is to be played with by kids, and thus their existential fear is of being discarded or upstaged by newer toys. 

But Jobs comes across as one of the meanest, nastiest individuals of recent history as well. He abandoned and denied his daughter for years, pointlessly insulted people, got thrown out of his own company because people had no confidence in him. He succeeded despite his lack of tact, not because of it. 

He had tremendous ability to focus, but it also meant he could disengage and fail to deal with issues.

Jobs’s intensity was also evident in his ability to focus. He would set priorities, aim his laser attention on them, and filter out distractions. If something engaged him—the user interface for the original Macintosh, the design of the iPod and iPhone, getting music companies into the iTunes Store—he was relentless. But if he did not want to deal with something—a legal annoyance, a business issue, his cancer diagnosis, a family tug—he would resolutely ignore it.

Did the meanness work?

The nasty edge to his personality was not necessary. It hindered him more than it helped him. But it did, at times, serve a purpose. Polite and velvety leaders, who take care to avoid bruising others, are generally not as effective at forcing change. 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. And he created a corporation crammed with A players. 


I do buy into his belief that if you start having lots of B players in an organization, they start hiring Cs and before long you are ruined. You need really good people. But he had good people spend months refitting factories just to change the color of the assembly machines. That was just crazy tyranny. 


So what was it?

Was he smart? No, not exceptionally. Instead, he was a genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical. He was, indeed, an example of what the mathematician Mark Kac called a magician genius, someone whose insights come out of the blue and require intuition more than mere mental processing power. Like a pathfinder, he could absorb information, sniff the winds, and sense what lay ahead.   

That is something. But it came with a lot of petulance and idiosyncrasy. He had the weirdest diet habits, like long fasts and eating nothing but carrots for three weeks, then abandoning it for some other vegan affectation. He seems very screwed up. 

Isaacson gives the last word to Jobs. This is nice as a philosophy of life,  however:

Everything I do depends on other members of our species and the shoulders that we stand on. And a lot of us want to contribute something back to our species and to add something to the flow. It’s about trying to express something in the only way that most of us know how—because we can’t write Bob Dylan songs or Tom Stoppard plays. We try to use the talents we do have to express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation of all the contributions that came before us, and to add something to that flow. That’s what has driven me. 

So most of us are not billionaires who transform entire industries at a time. And that's OK. The people closest to Jobs often paid the price.

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