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Steve Jobs Hardcover – October 24, 2011
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, November 2011: It is difficult to read the opening pages of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs without feeling melancholic. Jobs retired at the end of August and died about six weeks later. Now, just weeks after his death, you can open the book that bears his name and read about his youth, his promise, and his relentless press to succeed. But the initial sadness in starting the book is soon replaced by something else, which is the intensity of the read--mirroring the intensity of Jobs’s focus and vision for his products. Few in history have transformed their time like Steve Jobs, and one could argue that he stands with the Fords, Edisons, and Gutenbergs of the world. This is a timely and complete portrait that pulls no punches and gives insight into a man whose contradictions were in many ways his greatest strength. --Chris Schluep
Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Walter Isaacson
Q: It's becoming well known that Jobs was able to create his Reality Distortion Field when it served him. Was it difficult for you to cut through the RDF and get beneath the narrative that he created? How did you do it?
Isaacson: Andy Hertzfeld, who worked with Steve on the original Macintosh team, said that even if you were aware of his Reality Distortion Field, you still got caught up in it. But that is why Steve was so successful: He willfully bent reality so that you became convinced you could do the impossible, so you did. I never felt he was intentionally misleading me, but I did try to check every story. I did more than a hundred interviews. And he urged me not just to hear his version, but to interview as many people as possible. It was one of his many odd contradictions: He could distort reality, yet he was also brutally honest most of the time. He impressed upon me the value of honesty, rather than trying to whitewash things.
Q: How were the interviews with Jobs conducted? Did you ask lots of questions, or did he just talk?
Isaacson: I asked very few questions. We would take long walks or drives, or sit in his garden, and I would raise a topic and let him expound on it. Even during the more formal sessions in his living room, I would just sit quietly and listen. He loved to tell stories, and he would get very emotional, especially when talking about people in his life whom he admired or disdained.
Q: He was a powerful man who could hold a grudge. Was it easy to get others to talk about Jobs willingly? Were they afraid to talk?
Isaacson: Everyone was eager to talk about Steve. They all had stories to tell, and they loved to tell them. Even those who told me about his rough manner put it in the context of how inspiring he could be.
Q: Jobs embraced the counterculture and Buddhism. Yet he was a billionaire businessman with his own jet. In what way did Jobs' contradictions contribute to his success?
Isaacson: Steve was filled with contradictions. He was a counterculture rebel who became a billionaire. He eschewed material objects yet made objects of desire. He talked, at times, about how he wrestled with these contradictions. His counterculture background combined with his love of electronics and business was key to the products he created. They combined artistry and technology.
Q: Jobs could be notoriously difficult. Did you wind up liking him in the end?
Isaacson: Yes, I liked him and was inspired by him. But I knew he could be unkind and rough. These things can go together. When my book first came out, some people skimmed it quickly and cherry-picked the examples of his being rude to people. But that was only half the story. Fortunately, as people read the whole book, they saw the theme of the narrative: He could be petulant and rough, but this was driven by his passion and pursuit of perfection. He liked people to stand up to him, and he said that brutal honesty was required to be part of his team. And the teams he built became extremely loyal and inspired.
Q: Do you believe he was a genius?
Isaacson: He was a genius at connecting art to technology, of making leaps based on intuition and imagination. He knew how to make emotional connections with those around him and with his customers.
Q: Did he have regrets?
Isaacson: He had some regrets, which he expressed in his interviews. For example, he said that he did not handle well the pregnancy of his first girlfriend. But he was deeply satisfied by the creativity he ingrained at Apple and the loyalty of both his close colleagues and his family.
Q: What do you think is his legacy?
Isaacson: His legacy is transforming seven industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, digital publishing, and retail stores. His legacy is creating what became the most valuable company on earth, one that stood at the intersection of the humanities and technology, and is the company most likely still to be doing that a generation from now. His legacy, as he said in his "Think Different" ad, was reminding us that the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.
Photo credit: Patrice Gilbert Photography
About the Author
Walter Isaacson, University Professor of History at Tulane, has been CEO of the Aspen Institute, chairman of CNN, and editor of Time magazine. He is the author of Leonardo da Vinci; The Innovators; Steve Jobs; Einstein: His Life and Universe; Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; and Kissinger: A Biography, and the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. Facebook: Walter Isaacson, Twitter: @WalterIsaacson
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If Jobs was such a monster, why did at least 3 people say he was their very best friend (Jony Ive, Larry Ellison & Mona Simpson)? John Lasseter says Steve was like a brother to him. And countless others, including Al Gore, Bob Iger, Art Levinson and Tim Cook, remained close friends with Steve for decades. Either they are all wrong about Jobs, or Isaacson simply failed to include their unique perspectives in favor of all the old, worn-out stories about what a meanie Steve could be.
I haven't read his biographies of Ben Franklin or Albert Einstein, but unlike these previous subjects, Isaacson was given the exclusive opportunity to interview a live subject and tell us what it actually felt like to be Steve Jobs. Apparently this was not Isaacson's goal. Rather, I believe he fancies himself as a historian who was merely charged with the telling of history. And the result would be no different had Jobs already been gone for 100 years or more--just like Isaacson's previous works. I don't dispute anything that's contained in this book, but I do question why so many positive personal insights were completely left out in favor of the slow and steady drumbeat that Steve was a jerk--first, last and always. I believe Isaacson's main goal in writing this dry, incomplete, one-sided monstrosity was to persuade readers to dislike Jobs as much as he did. It is biased beyond belief, and therefore, cannot be considered a serious historical accounting.
The book felt disjointed in the way it was broken into chapters according to the development and launch of Jobs' companies and products, such as iMac, Pixar, iPhone, etc., rather than in true chronological order. This caused a great deal of going back and forward in time to the point where I had to stop reading and actually Google certain events, just to keep the timeline straight in my mind. The actual date of one key event in Jobs' life, the acquisition of Pixar by Disney, was missing altogether. Telling the story of Steve Jobs' life according to his creations (which often overlapped), rather than by a more cohesive chronology, is reminiscent of the way mercenary hackers dissect each new iThing the moment it goes on sale, so they can disseminate which supplier's components are inside. Such data may be valuable to Apple's competitors and Wall Street, but says nothing of the essence of the product--or in the case of this biography, the essence of Steve Jobs.
In addition to the lack of a cohesive timeline, there were instances of a lack of context. For example, on one occasion, Steve Jobs gets a call from then-President Bill Clinton, asking Jobs what he should do about the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Jobs tells him that if it's true, he needs to tell the truth to America. No doubt, this is an interesting tidbit, but there was no reference in the book that the two men had ever met one another, let alone built a close relationship that one would expect from this type of interaction. Without any type of context provided for their relationship, either before or after this phone call, its inclusion in the book seems more like name-dropping than anything else. And if Steve Jobs and Bill Clinton were such good friends and confidantes, then wouldn't the next obvious question be to ask Jobs how he balanced his friendships with Clinton and Ross Perot (Jobs' backer in NeXT), when they were running against one another for POTUS--the highest office in the land? Sorry, folks. No mention of any such thing. Just the phone call that seemed to come from out of nowhere. Another question left unanswered is how Al Gore came to serve on Apple's board of directors. There is no mention whatsoever of the two men having any kind of relationship at all.
Of all his amazing accomplishments, Jobs believed his greatest legacy was his family and the company he built. But you'd never know it by reading this biography. The love of his life, Laurene, barely got more mention than his old flames, Chrisann Brennan and Tina Redse. And both of these old flames received far more attention than any of his three children with Laurene. Jobs' entire relationship with Patty, the sister he was raised with and who was also adopted by Clara & Paul Jobs, was relegated to one sentence saying the two had never been close. But if this is an accurate representation of their relationship, why did Patty hold vigil at Steve's bedside in the final days and hours of his passing? Likewise, there was no mention whatsoever of the passing of Steve's beloved dad, Paul.
Jobs told Isaacson that he wanted to live to see his son Reed graduate, and the book briefly mentions that after Reed's graduation, the family had a graduation party at which everyone took turns dancing with Reed. Yet, a neighbor mentioned briefly in a blog post the night Jobs retired from Apple that he was so proud of Reed, he had tears streaming down his face during the graduation ceremony. Mona Simpson said in her brother's eulogy, "None of us who attended Reed's graduation party will ever forget the scene of Reed and Steve slow dancing." The distinction to me is that Isaacson's description was almost a non-event. But two other people--in just a single sentence from each--provided enormous insights into the same event and how much Reed meant to Steve. This simple distinction best exemplifies Isaacson's historical textbook style of writing, in which he seems incapable or unwilling to include many of the warm fuzzies that were also true of Steve Jobs.
The final 20 pages of the book appeared to be thrown together in Simon & Schuster's rush to capitalize on Steve Jobs' death after witnessing the worldwide outpouring of love and grief. Originally scheduled for March 2012, the publishers moved up the publication date to October 24--just 19 days after Steve's passing. And it shows.
Almost anyone could have written an historical account of Steve Jobs' amazing achievements. But Jobs gave Isaacson the rare opportunity to share much more than this. Just as Steve Jobs designed the iPad 30 years before it was launched, and always knew what the world would want well before it did, Steve also knew that the world didn't need another book about him that merely dwelt on his creations and character deficiencies. He gave Isaacson two precious gifts that he had never given to any other human being: 1) authorization for the biography and unprecedented access with over 40 interviews and countless emails and phone conversations; and 2) complete trust in the telling of his life's story--a supremely difficult and courageous thing to do for someone who guarded his privacy and knew no other way than to micromanage everything with which he was associated. Wouldn't his life's story be much more precious to him than anything he'd ever accomplished? With these facts in mind, Isaacson clearly whiffed on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in favor of being petty, biased and small.
There's no question in my mind what Steve would have thought of this book. While it may be true that the key to Steve's genius was all about "what he left out," sadly, the same cannot be said of Walter Isaacson, because the precious pieces he left out of Steve's life's story say more about the author than the subject. In the end, it may well be that Walter Isaacson is just the latest on the long list of people who betrayed Steve Jobs. However, it is worth the read for its interesting tidbits, but only if you put the book down occasionally to bring it to life by watching online videos of Steve's iconic product launches, TV commercials and other interviews in which Steve quite clearly spoke for himself. At least for now, if you want to know Steve Jobs, watch his Stanford commencement speech and read Mona Simpson's eulogy for her brother.
No other book on Jobs has been based on first hand information from the Master himself, his colleagues and his detractors. There is no other way to know the man who changed the way we live and work. The fact that the book is engaging is a big bonus.
First Jobs' personal life, personality and beliefs. Like all fascinating people in history, Jobs was a bundle of contradictions. Born out of wedlock, he was an American icon and yet born of a Syrian Muslim whom he never knew, but had accidentally met. Adopted at birth by working class parents, he became skeptical of the Church as the all-knowing god did not help the starving children in Biafra and alternated between being a believer and a non-believer. He was, at different times, a vegan and a fruitarian (hence the name Apple). Jobs was influenced by the counter cultural ideas of the 60's and the 70's and yet become one of the most revered corporate figures of all time. He was a multi-billionaire who lived on a regular street with no high fenced compound, security or live-in servants; a Zen Buddhist who was obsessed with Zen-like simplicity but did not possess Zen-like tranquility; a son who tried to abandon his child like the way he had thought he was abandoned; a leader who was highly demanding of his colleagues and coworkers; a vastly influential figure in computing who neither built computers not wrote codes himself; a genius who was mean to many people. All these factoids had to have some influence on who he was and who he became and may keep interested psychologists busy for years. Yet, it is not for these tabloid fodder that he is looked upon with awe. To get caught up in the contradictions of a man is to miss the man.
So who is the man then? Isaacson presents Jobs life and work as a play in three acts.
During the first act, two unlikely partners named Steves (Jobs and Woz) create the world's first commercially viable personal computer, Apple II. Jobs then creates the revolutionary but unsuccessful Lisa. Apple goes public, Jobs creates the Mac, which carves itself a distinct niche. He then brings in Pepsi's Scully to manage the company only to find himself ousted from the company he founded. During his exile Jobs creates another revolutionary but not-so-successful computer NeXT. But Jobs other venture, Pixar, an outstanding animation company, is a huge commercial success.
The second act is Jobs' return to Apple. Apple was in decline and it buys the money losing NeXT. Job returns to the company he founded as the interim CEO. Introduces a series of products: peppermint colored iMacs followed b y 21st Century Macs.
The third act is the post-pc revolution, the most dramatic of all: the creation of ipod (almost 10 years ago to the day), paradigm-changing iphone and the category-creating ipad, along with many other things and cloud computing. We can't imagine a world today without ipads, ipods and iphones. The rewards are high. Apple first surpasses Microsoft and becomes the most valuable tech company. Then Apple becomes, for brief periods of time, the most valuable company in the world.
But this is not the story of Apple, but of Job. What was happening in the background while the three act play is being staged - to his family, his health, his odd beliefs that might have cost him his life, and his relationships with other giants of technology - is the focus of this book. The story is told with many interesting anecdotes such as Bill Gates incredulously exclaiming "Do ALL of you live here?" when visiting for the first time Steve Jobs' modest house.
This is an "authorized biography" and I'm wary of "authorized" biographies. Always thought they were full-length PR pieces. This one is different. Jobs gave Isaacson complete freedom to write the book and Jobs didn't demand editorial control. He didn't even want to see the book before it was published. And it shows. You see Jobs as he was. Warts and all. This is Jobs' last gift to those of us who admired his vision of the world, but wondered about the essence of the man behind it all. Now we know.
As you finish reading Job's biography of nearly 600 pages, something strikes you as odd. Steve Jobs' death is not mentioned in the book. Not the date, not the time and not even the fact that he is no more. Strangely fascinating. Like the man himself.