After posting my thoughts on the Isaacson Steve Jobs biography a couple weeks
ago, I finally let myself check out some of the deeper pieces on the topic by
folks I respect. John Siracusa’s take was particularly enlightening, as his
familiarity with the existing sources empowers a deeply authoritative critique
of the biography. But it’s John Gruber’s “Getting Steve Jobs Wrong” that
validates my general feeling of dissatisfaction with Isaacson’s biography. This
bit nails it:
Jobs understood technology but was not an engineer. He had profoundly
exquisite taste but was not a designer. What it was that Jobs actually did is
much of the mystery of his life and his work, and Isaacson, frustratingly, had
seemingly little interest in that, or any recognition that there even was any
sort of mystery as to just what Jobs’s gifts really were.
Yes, exactly! Isaacson does not seem interested in what made Jobs tick; that’s
a real shame for those of us who are. I was ready to cut Isaacson a bit of
slack, as writing a biography is very difficult, and writing a definitive one
damn near impossible. But since Gruber hits the same point I tried make, and
Siracusa has pretty thoroughly decimated Isaacson’s authority, I’m now far less
willing to do so. Isaacson just seems incurious about his subject, whereas the
best biographers are obsessed. A lack of curiosity ought to disqualify one for
As Siracusa says, Steve Jobs picked the wrong guy.
Until a few weeks ago, the biography I read most recently was Dutch, Edmund
Morris’s authorized portrait of Ronald Reagan. I read it not because I was
interested in Reagan, but because Morris did something unique: he inserted
himself into Reagan’s story as a (mostly) fictional character. Why would he do
that? Morris grew up in Kenya, far from Reagan’s childhood in Illinois, not to
mention years later. And yet there he was, a peripheral character throughout the
story of Reagan’s life. What was the point?
Reading the book, the most striking thing about Reagan was how impenetrable he
was. No one ever got through to him, to really know him. Perhaps it’s because
there was no there there, or maybe there was an interesting person under the
bland exterior he used to keep everyone out. It was impossible to know.
Such a personality must frustrate biographers. I want a deep understanding of
the subject of a biography, to know what makes her tick, what her motivations
and drives are. I want to get inside her head. But Morris couldn’t do that with
Reagan. No one could.
I hypothesize that Morris stuck himself in the story, calling it a “Memoir of
Ronald Reagan,” to contrast his subject with someone who’s head he could get
into. And through that contrast, he drew out a little bit of something to
demonstrate what made Reagan tick. Not a lot mind you, but it was an interesting
I thought about this as I read Steve Jobs, an authorized biography by Walter
Isaacson. I’ve been a fan of Apple’s products and vision for many years, but
never delved deeply into the wealth of literature on Jobs himself or personal
stories such as the birth of the Mac. My main exposure to Steve has been
through his keynotepresentations and variousinterviews and
appearances over the years. I watch Apple relatively closely, but not Steve.
In reading the biography, I wanted to get to know him, to get a feel for the
man, and, above all, to find out what makes him tick.
Steve Jobs did give me a feel for the man. Many of the stories about his
personality appear to be true. Steve Jobs was clearly a tyrant, but a tyrant
with taste. I was struck by the constant theme that Jobs somehow believed that
the usual rules don’t apply to him. At one point, pulled over for driving over
100 MPH, Jobs impatiently waits for the ticket, even demanding that the Chippy
hurry up. Ticket at last in hand, he drives right up over 100 MPH again, despite
a warning that he could lose his license.
Jobs’s famed reality distortion field let him pretend that rules didn’t apply to
him, that the world was exactly what he imagined it to be. This ability had
advantages (cajoling the CEO of Corning to complete the “impossible” task to
start producing huge volumes of Gorilla Glass virtually over night) and
disadvantages (trying to cure his cancer with extreme diets).
It was that supreme confidence, combined with his taste, that shaped Jobs’s
career and the success of Apple. When it comes to taste, Steve was continually,
obsessively product-focused. The quality of the products had to be top notch.
You get a feeling for this not so much in the successes of the Macintosh, iPod,
iPhone, and iPad, which are well-known, but on the things that shouldn’t matter.
Deathly ill following his liver transplant, Jobs was still Jobs:
At one point the pulmonologist tried to put a mask over his face when he was
deeply sedated. Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and
refused to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five
different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked. The
doctors looked at Powell, puzzled. She was finally able to distract him so
they could put on the mask. He also hated the oxygen monitor they put on his
finger. He told them it was ugly and too complex. He suggested ways it could
be designed more simply. “He was very attuned to every nuance of the
environment and objects around him, and that drained him,” Powell recalled.
This is perhaps the most striking of many examples of Jobs’s obsession with
quality and taste, and deftly captures the essence of it. I imagine Jobs thought
about how to improve things in his life every second of his life. In his dreams,
he might be improving the design of his pajamas or bedroom dresser.
The product obsession drives the book’s narrative, right down to its
organization. A few chapters necessarily cover personal events, such as early
years, love and marriage, and illness. More are organized around products.
Relevant chapter titles:
4: Atari and India: Zen and the Art of Game Design
5: The Apple I: Turn On, Boot Up, Jack In…
6: The Apple II: Dawn of a New Age
8: Xerox and Lisa: Graphical User Interfaces
10: The Mac is Born: You Say You Want a Revolution
12: Design: Real Artists Simplify
13: Building the Mac: The Journey is the Reward
15: The Launch: A Dent in the Universe
18: NeXT: Prometheus Unbound
19: Pixar: Technology Meets Art
22: Toy Story: Buzz and Woody to the Rescue
27: The iMac: Hello (Again)
29: Apple Stores; Genius Bars and Sienna Sandstone
30: The Digital Hub: From iTunes to the iPod
31: The iTunes Store: I’m the Pied Piper
34: Twenty-first-century Macs: Setting Apple Apart
36: The iPhone: Three Revolutionary Products in One
38: The iPad: Into the Post-PC Era
40: To Infinity: The Cloud, the Spaceship, and Beyond
That’s nearly half of them, and all but a few of the others also include
extensive discussion of products and design. Clearly Jobs was a man obsessed,
that obsession shaped every facet of his life, and it therefore shaped the
narrative of his biography.
But where does this come from? From whence derives the absolute faith in even
the most most questionable ideas, the unwavering belief in his own
infallibility, the near complete obsession with the design of everyday things? I
see the ticks, but what makes him tick?
The truth is we don’t know. Isaacson doesn’t know. Sure, there are a few
hypotheses about his adoption, about his parents insisting he was special. But I
don’t know. Explaining Steve Jobs by his adoption seems like a cop-out. There
are millions of adopted people, many with no doubt similar histories (educated
biological parents, doting middle-class adoptive parents). But there’s only one
Steve Jobs. Jobs himself didn’t buy it, saying he hardly thought about his
There is also discussion of his study of Zen Buddhism, and his love for simple,
beautiful places like Kyoto and Kona Village. I’ve studied a bit of Zen Buddhism
and visited Kyoto and Kona Village too, and have a deep appreciation for the
beauty of all three. But I’m no Steve Jobs. Perhaps Steve dove very deeply into
Zen Buddhism, so that through years of study and practice he became who he was
(though, let’s face it, his personality couldn’t be much less Zen). But if so, I
think it gets short shrift in Isaacson’s telling.
Perhaps it’s unfair to demand so much of a biographer. I want to go into the
head of his subject, on a quest for a deeper understanding of the essence of the
person, and come away with a greater knowledge his humanity. Such was impossible
for Morris to do with Reagan, and it’s not fair to expect more of Isaacson with
Steve Jobs. Not only was Jobs a deeply complex man with an impenetrable presence
(one wonders how well Laurene Powell really got to know him; I’d like to read
her book), but, hey, how much can one understand anyone else? People have
been trying for centuries to understand Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin
(including Isaacson!), with, let’s face it, limited success. It’s rare that a
biography becomes so completely deep and authoritative — so true, the
definitive telling — that no more biographies follow. More often new folks come
along, taking different tacks to understand the ticks. Perhaps the best sense we
get of an elephant is through the descriptions of all the blind people feeling
different parts of the elephant.
I think my favorite tidbit from the book is Jobs playing a rare bootleg CD with
a dozen taped sessions of the Beatles “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a gift from
Andy Hertzfeld. Listening to the CD with Isaacson, Jobs talks about how the
Beatles kept iterating, kept improving the song, working on every aspect over a
period of time, getting it “closer to perfect.” Then he says:
The way we build stuff at Apple is often this way. Even the number of models
we’d make of a new notebook or iPod. We would start off with a version and
then begin refining and refining, doing detailed models of the design, or the
buttons, or how a function operates. It’s a lot of work, but in the end it
just gets better, and soon its like, “Wow, how did they do that?!? Where are
So maybe it’s fair that the narrative is largely product-driven. Jobs talked
often over the years about how important good products are to him, much more
important than profit, and the book reinforces that. He lived and breathed taste
and products, to the exclusion of all else, including, at times, his family and
Perhaps, then, what made Jobs tick was the iPhone and the iPad, and the
exultation of being a part of creating a truly inspiring product.