Profundis: Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Apple’s late CEO is a powerful, unflinching look into the life and mind of one of the great technological visionaries of modern history.

In 2016 it can be hard to remember that Macintosh and Microsoft computers are just machines for acting on and storing bits, but that’s because Jobs successfully made his devices a fashion statement, all while doing remarkable work in the markets for portable music players, digital music, smart phones, and tablet computing.

And something I didn’t know before reading Isaacson’s book was that Jobs was also the CEO of Pixar for a time, overseeing the development of films like Toy Story which were completely revolutionary at the time.

But the above shouldn’t be taken to mean that Isaacson shies away from Jobs’ dark side. Despite being an adopted child himself and struggling with the concomitant abandonment issues, Jobs also had an illegitimate daughter that he spent years neglecting. There’s compelling evidence that he deliberately swindled Apple’s cofounder Steve Wozniak in the very early days of their joint venture, and he gained some notoriety for his habit of blatantly taking credit for other people’s ideas. His manners were atrocious, he had body odor because he believed (incredibly!) that a diet of fruits and vegetables obviated the need to bathe, and though we’ll never know for sure whether he would have survived if he had listened to his doctors from the outset, there is a real chance that his stubborn insistence on trying to treat his cancer through diet contributed to his early demise.

Nevertheless, he stood a Titan at the intersection of the humanities and technology, and cast a shadow in which anyone that wants to work in the same space will be forced to stand.

When I read biographies like this it’s with an eye toward traits and habits that I can use to cultivate greatness in myself. There are a few things about Jobs that stand out as especially worthy of emulation:

  1. He had an astonishing devotion to craftsmanship and cared about every detail of Apple products down to the screws used in the cases and the layouts of circuits on the internal components.
  2. His attention to detail was almost preternatural. Isaacson relays a story wherein Jobs was reviewing an advertisement that was getting ready for shipment, and he noticed that the agency in charge of production had removed two frames from the ad which caused the changing images on the screen to be ever so slightly out of time with the accompanying music. He ordered the frames reinserted, and the commercial was better for it.
  3. He understood that computers are devices meant to be used by humans, and not just programmer humans. The haptic feedback of a touchscreen, the sleek aesthetics of the Apple product line, the ruthless simplicity, the aggressively intuitive user interfaces, and everything else that make Apple distinctive, exist in no small part because of his grasp of this fact.
  4. He cared passionately about art, artists, and design. Just because a computer is a tool doesn’t mean it should be quotidian, ugly, or poorly made. The Jobs family spent weeks agonizing over the decision to buy a common household appliance because for Steve it was a priority to be surrounded by things he could admireA dishwasher may not be a sculpture, but it’s also not an entirely different thing, either. Since reading this biography I have come to better appreciate the fact that there is a continuum, not a barrier, between things that are meant to be contemplated or admired and things that are meant to be used.
  5. Much of the success he had as Apple’s CEO was due to his ability to spot the highest-return opportunities available and to narrow the list down to just a handful of great products. Shortly after returning to Apple as the CEO, he gutted huge swathes of the product line and re-oriented Apple towards building just a handful of great products for specific niches.

Like many captivating personalities Jobs was a bundle of contradictions. He was a Zen enthusiast that obsessed over the tiniest aspects of the products made by his company — the most valuable on Earth as of this writing. His callous willingness to hurt and even betray the people closest to him was legendary, but so was his profound understanding of what consumers wanted and needed when they interacted with their devices.

Jobs set out to build a truly great company that “made a dent in the universe”. There’s simply no denying that he was a man of many flaws; but for those of us who are still alive in a world that feels as though it’s lost its swagger and its sense of the possible, Jobs’ life is a testament to what can be accomplished through focus, drive, and a fanatical devotion to excellence.


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