I finally finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, three months after my boss’s brother dropped a copy off at my desk. I learned more about Apple than I cared to know, and was slightly disappointed by the lack of insight of and from his family, but that in itself is a facet of Jobs’ life. Yet I can’t imagine anyone else having written Jobs’ story as completely as he did. Isaacson is not my favorite biographer (that distinction belongs to Ron Chernow – yeah cry your heart out, Isaacson) but I don’t know if Jobs’ story, if written by another hand, could have been as illuminating, or if Jobs would have wanted his story told any other way, which, I suppose, is why he chose Isaacson rather than the other way around.
I asked Jobs why he wanted me to be the one to write his biography.
“I think you’re good at getting people to talk,” he replied. That was an unexpected answer. I knew that I would have to interview scores of people he had fired, abused, abandoned, or otherwise infuriated, and I feared he would not be comfortable with my getting them to talk. And indeed he did turn out to be skittish when word trickled back to him of people that I was interviewing. But after a couple of months, he began encouraging people to talk to me, even foes and former girlfriends. Nor did he try to put anything off-limits. “I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, such as getting my girlfriend pregnant when I was twenty-three and the way I handled that,” he said. “But I don’t have any skeletons in my closet that can’t be allowed out.”
I leave it to the reader to assess whether I have succeeded in this mission. I’m sure there are players in this drama would will remember some of the events differently or think that I sometimes got trapped in Job’s reality distortion field. As happened when I wrote a book about Henry Kissinger, which in some ways was good preparation for this project, I found that people had such strong positive and negative emotions about Jobs that the Rashomon effect was often evident. But I’ve done the best I can to balance conflicting accounts fairly and be transparent about the sources I used.
“I had a lot of trepidation about this project,” [Steve Jobs] finally said, referring to his decision to cooperate with this book. “I was really worried.”
“Why did you do it?” I asked.
“I wanted my kids to know me,” he said. “I wasn’t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did. Also, when I got sick, I realized other people would write about me if I died, and they wouldn’t know anything. They’d get it all wrong. So I wanted to make sure someone heard what I had to say.”
-Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs
There’s so much of Jobs’ own voice in there that you don’t have to waste time wondering, “Well, did Jobs himself see it this way?”
My boss had a copy of the book on his iPad, which he said he was reading during his workouts, but when I asked him about it a few weeks after the book came out, he scoffed and said he didn’t have time to read it.
He nodded towards his computer monitor where his inbox was displayed.
“I have to read all this other shit.”
More than a biography, Isaacson’s book is a great management tool, not just for companies but for oneself. This is what I loved reading about most: Jobs’ lifelong mantra of simplicity. Taking away rather than adding to, a funny math that leads to success and sometimes, a legacy.
Jobs’s intensity was also evident in his ability to focus. He would set priorities, aim his laser attention on them, and filter out distractions. If something engaged him – the user interface for the original Macintosh, the design of the iPod and iPhone, getting music companies into the iTunes Store- he was relentless. But if he did not want to deal with something – a legal annoyance, a business issue, his cancer diagnosis, a family tug – he would resolutely ignore it. That focus allowed him to say no. He got Apple back on track by cutting all except a few core products. He made devices simpler by eliminating buttons, software simpler by eliminating features, and interfaces simpler by eliminating options.
That focus has always eluded me and, I think, escapes not only my generation, but generations before and after. This was my fundamental problem upon entering college – I saw all the choices ahead of me and felt compelled to pursue all of them, which of course meant I could pursue none of them well. But now, I’m beginning to “get” it. What do I need? What do I want? For starters, I know what I don’t want.
But there will always need to be sacrifices in pursuit of this simplicity. Jobs sacrificed (or perhaps for him, “sacrifice” is the wrong word) better relationships with his family. What will I sacrifice? More importantly, what will I eliminate?
I’m working on it.