Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Busy Being Born; a review of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

I wrote this review for tomorrow's Durango Telegraph. Enjoy.

As I start this piece I can barely handle looking at the cover of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Jobs, the co-founder and longtime CEO of Apple, who passed away last October, was known to be harsh on those he felt weren’t working to their full potential, and even in death his portrait on the cover seems to hold me accountable for every word I’m about to write here.

Walter Isaacson has previously published biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, and he was courted by Jobs to write this exclusive biography. Initially Isaacson declined the offer, saying he might be interested in another decade or two when Jobs retired, until he found out that Jobs had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Jobs, who was well known to be a control freak, admirably put nothing off-limits, and didn’t ask to read a copy of the book before it was published.

Steve Jobs, the book, was written after extensive research on a man that some have said possessed the best and worst qualities of a human being. Isaacson conducted more than forty interview with Jobs, and a hundred-plus interviews of family members, friends, adversaries, competitors, colleagues, former girlfriends and foes. The result is an honest portrayal of an American icon who felt throughout his life that he was destined to die young, and in his own words wanted to “put a dent in the universe.”

Most Americans know a bit of the story of Steve Jobs and Apple, which is now the world’s most valuable company. Some will read this book merely for that fact, and some sage business guidance can certainly be found within the covers. The great joy of this book is the cautionary, very American tale of someone who changed the world during his short 56 years on the planet.

The Steve Jobs that changed the world was a product of California and the movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He loved Bob Dylan’s music, smoked marijuana, dropped LSD, refused to shower regularly, and walked around barefoot, while practicing and preaching about his fruitarian diet (which was his justification for not showering). He dropped out of college after one year, and lived in a garage without heat afterwards and dropping in on courses that interested him. A pilgrimage to India left a lifelong impression on him, especially the intuitive sense that the people he encountered there possessed.

Isaacson writes about this creative side of Jobs, as well as he does the technical side. While Jobs was swept up in mystical visions and cosmic vibrations, he also was in love with computers. He worked at Atari for awhile, and tinkered with electronics at a young age. At 12 years old Jobs looked up a founder of Hewlett-Packard in the phone book, and called him up for help with finding some parts for a frequency counter he was building.

Jobs got rich quick and young with Apple computers. His ego swelled and his demeanor became erratic, and this was part of the reason Jobs was fired from the very company he founded. He was an emotional rollercoaster and mean to people who were working for him. One phrase that is printed repeatedly in the book is Jobs saying, “This is shit,” to his employees.

The various dynamics in Jobs’ personality make for some interesting reading, but in the end he would have not been remembered if it weren’t for his tremendous successes. As with many successful people he learned from his failures. I was reminded of the Dylan lyric, “There’s no success like failure, but failures no success at all.” After his ousting from Apple he started another computer company NeXT, where Jobs indulged in all his instincts, good and bad. Most products didn’t sell well, but the company was solid enough that the failing Apple computers of the mid-1990s purchased it, and eventually Jobs became CEO of Apple. What happened at Apple, under his leadership from 1997 till his death in 2011, was the creation of products like the iPod, iPhone and iPad; products that led to Apple’s worldwide success.

In repose while staring back at Jobs on the cover of his book I look back and don’t really feel like I understand him, as a person. He was obsessed with his vegetarian diet, but didn’t seem to be a healthy person. He was enlightened but not content. Isaacson referred to him as “being driven by demons.” In the end, to understand Jobs may not be the point of this 500 plus page book. It is to read his story, to take the journey of an LSD influenced, hippie, computer guy, who founded a very American company in the most positive sense; a company that is worth billions and produces user-friendly, intuitive products.

Though this book is a clunker (reading it as an e-book would be more convenient) after finishing it, I still found myself curious for more of Steve Jobs, especially the philosophies he believed in, that guided his, and Apple’s way. As 2011 winded down Jobs was featured on the cover of many mainstream newspapers and magazines. Most offered small blurbs about his life and his success with Apple, but very few captured the essence of his brilliant mind and driven spirit. I dug around some more, and on YouTube came across the 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University that Jobs delivered not long after having surgery for pancreatic cancer. The address is the best commencement speech I’ve ever heard: beautiful, inspiring, and concise. The entire thing is worth a watch, and I’ll leave you with a few words from his speech here.

“Sometimes life is going to hit you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. You’ve got to find what you love, and this is as true for work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

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