The Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs

by Russ Roberts on April 19, 2012

in Books, Technology

I have been listening to the Audible version of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs (hardcover, Kindle, Audible) while I’ve been working out. I’m about 2/3 of the way through the book–Jobs has returned to Apple, Apple is profitable again and Apple is taking the risky step of opening retail stores.

I wasn’t going to read the book. The main thing I’ve heard about the book from reviews and casual comments is that Jobs comes off as a monster, a horrible person. That didn’t sound very interesting. But a friend of mine told me he enjoyed listening to it while he worked out so I thought I’d try it.

It is a fantastic book.

Jobs does not come across as a monster. He comes across as a self-centered insensitive visionary whose self-centeredness, but not cruelty, hurts others. His self-centeredness is that of a child who never quite grew up. But he is a self-centered insensitive visionary that a lot of people want to be around. I have known many people like that–people who give little to others but they are so charismatic or successful, that people put up with their personal flaws.

What is interesting about the book and about Jobs is how close he came to failure. He dropped out of college and almost didn’t amount to much of anything. He was not a great engineer. He was rude and delighted in being a contrarian in how he dressed and ate. In a different time or place, his story might have turned out very differently. His obsession with detail, and seemingly trivial aspects of design often cost him dearly, delaying product launches, imposing absurd costs on Apple when it could not afford those costs, and driving people around him crazy.

But his passion for excellence overcame everything. He learned, a little bit at least, about when to give in. Not much, though. What shines through is his love of beauty and his emotional attachment to the idea of the Apple brand. That attachment allowed him in the final ten years of his life to inspire a team and help that team create what he called insanely great products.

It is a tragedy that he died young. What a gift that during his life, he achieved what he did.

Here is the video of Jobs launching the Macintosh. So much of what it did seemed like eye-candy at the time and Jobs was really into stuff that was cool just for the sake of cool. But that dedication to beauty ended up yielding such fruit.

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