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Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson

Today I finished reading Walter Isaacson's excellent biography of Steve Jobs. As a long-time Apple user, I was vaguely aware of most of the key facts of Jobs' life, but Isaacson has pulled it all together and filled it out with data from 40 interviews with the man himself and many more with the people in his life. I would have said 'business life' but in Jobs case it's an artificial distinction. He may have had a wife and children, but it's pretty clear from the book that his real family was the company he founded. His life's work was to infuse it with his business DNA to such an extent that his personality would live on. And what a personality.

Isaacson constantly highlights the contradiction between the counter-culture, right-on Jobs persona and his business ruthlessness; particularly the shocking way he would treat the people around him. They were heroes or morons. Their work was genius or crap. He was, ironically, very binary in his thinking. He had his name on many patents, but the book makes pretty clear that his contribution to design was to reject endless versions proposed by his staff until one was exactly right. He had a hippyish disdain for money as a business motivator (claiming profits were only relevant in that they allowed the company to make more great products). He eschewed the trappings of wealth, living relatively simply with no bodyguards or home security. He lived so frugally (by the standards of billionaires) that his young son described another computer mogul on whose yacht the Jobs family sometimes stayed as 'our rich friend'. Yet he was aggressive in demanding that his contribution be recognised by financial rewards.

This was a man so obsessed with manufacturing perfection that he took months to agree to buy his family a washing machine. A man who sat in an empty mansion because he couldn't find furniture made to his standards. A driven, often rather nasty man who did not suffer fools at all. He had an unpleasant term for what happens when businesses grow large and coasting second-raters fill the payroll. He didn't want his company 'larded' with such people. He was an impulsive hirer and a ruthless firer.

Reflecting on the book, I am not sure that there's any contradiction between his veganism, his Eastern mysticism, his acid-dropping out-thereness and his ruthlessness. The youth culture of the 60s made a new ethic out of that generation's selfishness. It destroyed the frail net of social obligations that tied people together in families and communities, insisting instead on a voyage of self-discovery and a shallow obsession with self-gratification; chemical, sexual or otherwise. Jobs was really just the ultimate hippy. Only from within his famous 'reality distortion field' could he have continued to rail against the East Coast suits of corporate America while heading the most valuable corporation on the planet.

He called so many people assholes (and worse) that - depite this blog's usual mild language - I feel little compunction in saying he was the greatest hippy asshole of them all. On the one hand he refused a dedicated parking space because he wasn't that kind of CEO, but on the other hand he parked his licence-plate free Mercedes in the disabled bay. Unlike most self-indulgent 60s types, however, he worked tirelessly to make something of lasting value. His products were so 'amazingly great' that I really wanted to like him. It's simply impossible alas. However, I can enjoy Wagner's work without liking the man and I can do the same with Apple's products.

As a Apple stockholder, I hope Jobs achieved his ambition of steeping the company in his business values. I find it hard to imagine that the submissive types who could bear to work closely with such a screaming monster can possibly become charismatic leaders themselves. Time will tell. If not, maybe that won't be such a bad thing as long as Steve Jobs' only endearing quality - his love for quality products - lives on.

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