Mike Kueber's Blog

March 4, 2012

Sunday Book Review #65 – Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Filed under: Book reviews,Business — Mike Kueber @ 8:09 am
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Although Steve Jobs and the company he founded, Apple, are two of the most significant icons of my time, I knew little about them prior to reading this book.  They always seemed elitist because their products seemed to have been designed for a niche that was willing to pay a lot more for something that was only a little better.  Because I didn’t like elitists, I tried to marginalize them.  But after reading this book, I find it impossible to marginalize Jobs.  As Isaacson concludes in the final chapter, “History will place him in the pantheon right next to Edison and Ford.”

Jobs reminds me of a friend I went to high school with.  My friend was not the sharpest tool in the shed and had minimal personal skills, but he was strong-willed and obsessively focused.  He and a partner created a health-food product, with the partner doing most of the creating and my friend doing most of the marketing, and they ended up millionaires.  That is precisely what happened with Jobs.  He founded Apple in the 90s with Steve Wozniak, with Wozniak being the genius who created the Apple computer and Jobs being the genius who was able to successfully bring it to market.

But Jobs was not a mere marketer who leeched off Wozniak.  In the mid-90s, both Jobs and Wozniak left Apple, with the result that the company almost foundered and Wozniak failed at starting his own computer company.  Only Jobs thrived – he joined with Pixar to produce a thriving animated movie studio and founded a successful computer company called NeXT.     

In 1997, Jobs returned to Apple to save the company he had founded.  Within short order, he ensured Apple’s revival by shepherding the revolutionary development of the Mac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and iPad.  Jobs was not a typical CEO, but rather played an invaluable role in virtually every aspect the product development.  By the end of the decade, Apple was the most valuable company in the world, with a market value in excess of $500 billion.

Isaacson does not sugarcoat Jobs’ lack of personal skills.  Throughout his life, Jobs was a self-described “asshole,” and he excuses this character flaw as a part of his DNA.  Isaacson is not so generous, however, and he opines that much of Jobs’ “asshole” behavior hurt his effectiveness much more than it helped.

Isaacson indulged Jobs by including in the book’s last chapter a lengthy “legacy” written by Jobs.  Not surprisingly, Jobs believed that his legacy was “to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products.”  He contrasted himself from entrepreneurs who are out to make a quick buck and then cash in.  Unfortunately, it is also not surprising that Jobs’ self-described legacy does not include his family or all of the personal relationships that he failed to give any priority.  All of which reminds me of the adage to use things and love people instead of loving things and using people.  I think Jobs got it backwards.  Even as he was dying of pancreatic cancer, he seemed to put a higher priority on Apple products than he did on his kids.

In October 2003, Jobs gave a commencement address at Stanford University that Isaacson thinks was one of the best ever, especially the following passage:

  • Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.  Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.  Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.  You are already naked.  There is no reason not to follow your heart. 

Jobs’ was raised a Lutheran, but he started questioning Christianity at the age of 13 because he couldn’t imagine why God would allow the starving children in Biafra.  In his own words, “The juice goes out of Christianity when it becomes too focused on faith rather than living like Jesus or seeing the world as Jesus saw it.  I think different religions are different doors to the same house.  Sometimes I think the house exists, and sometimes I don’t.  It’s a great mystery.”

The book ends with an especially poignant comment on religion by Jobs:

  • I’m about 50-50 on believing in God,” he said.  “For most of my life, I’ve felt that there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.”  He admitted that, as he faced death, he might be overestimating the odds out of a desire to believe in an afterlife.  “I like to think that something survives after you die,” he said.  “It’s strange to think that you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and it just goes away.  So really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures.”  He fell silent for a long time.  “But on the other hand, perhaps it’s like an on-off switch,” he said.  “Click!  Any you’re gone.”  Then he paused again and smiled slightly.  “Maybe that why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices.”

In either event, Jobs lived his life consistent with his philosophy that “the journey is the reward.”



  1. Read it again.

    Gates is a perfect example of the clinical narcissist. He made lots of other people’s lives pretty miserable, and was almost entirely devoid of human empathy. I have a friend who was a high school friend of his, and he was famous for being a manipulative, exploitive jerk.

    For better or worse, he was a visionary jerk. Because of Apple’s history and cultural position, it was the only tech company that could impose a singular vision upon its products. He invented nothing. He could not program, or engineer, or do QA. But he had internalized an ethic of simplicity and engineering elegance, and was in a structural position to impose it upon his products.

    That’s all for the good. But the recent cult of Saint Steve misunderstands the man. He was 2% visionary, 3% leader, and 95% pathological asshole.

    Comment by Snarky McSnarksnark — March 4, 2012 @ 11:56 pm | Reply

  2. Snarky, I assume you meant that Jobs is a narcissist, not Gates. Your trenchant comments are consistent with the person described in the book.

    Comment by Mike Kueber — March 5, 2012 @ 1:26 am | Reply

  3. Ay yi yi — Sorry Bill.

    Jobs is what Jobs is, and it doen’t have to be explained to anyone who knew him. But this recent cult of worship around “Steve” that’s popped up since his death is a little bit scary.

    Malcolm Gladwell wrote a recent article for the New Yorker about Jobs that really understands .

    Comment by Snarky McSnarksnark — March 5, 2012 @ 4:36 am | Reply

  4. obs is what Jobs is, and it doen’t have to be explained to anyone who knew him. But this recent cult of worship around “Steve” that’s popped up since his death is a little bit scary.

    Malcolm Gladwell wrote a recent article for the New Yorker about Jobs that really understands what his real gift was:

    Comment by Snarky McSnarksnark — March 5, 2012 @ 4:37 am | Reply

  5. Gladwell’s article is excellent, but mostly he merely tweaked Isaacson’s enthralling book.

    Comment by Mike Kueber — March 5, 2012 @ 12:28 pm | Reply

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