Thursday, October 6, 2011

In memoriam: Steve Jobs

I didn't put up a post last night about Steve Jobs' death, because I was in two minds whether or not to do so. You see, I wanted to be honest about him, but at the same time, there's the old saying: De mortuis nil nisi bonum. However, the uncritical, almost adoring paeans of praise showered upon his memory by so many others have decided me to put in my $0.02 worth, if only to provide a rather different perspective on his life.

I have no argument with those who've lavished praise upon his technological vision and business prowess. I think Steve Jobs unquestionably changed the way the human race interacts with technology, searches for information, and applies knowledge to our everyday problems. You can probably count on the fingers of one hand other people who've had a similar impact over the past fifty years. He was, and will remain, a giant in his field. I've no doubt that centuries from now, he'll be remembered and studied as one of the men who changed his era.

On the other hand, I've long held serious doubts about him as a human being. From an early age, he demonstrated a self-centered ruthlessness and - let's not mince words - a fundamental dishonesty that I found very jarring in someone so gifted. A couple of examples:

  • In the early 1970's Atari challenged their employees (including a young Steve Jobs) to design a computer using less than 100 chips. They offered a bonus of $100 for every chip less than that figure. Jobs got his friend, Steve Wozniak, to design a computer that required only 46 chips - but told Wozniak that the bonus was only $600, and gave him half of that, or $300. He kept almost all of the real bonus for himself.
  • Jobs had a relationship with Chris-Ann Brennan that resulted in the birth of his first child, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. However, he initially would not acknowledge her as his daughter. He refused to undergo a paternity test, even claiming in a court submission that he was sterile and infertile, and thus could not be her father. Jobs was by this time a multimillionaire, but his refusal to pay child support forced Ms. Brennan to go on welfare for a time. Jobs was eventually forced to acknowledge paternity, and paid child support.

His attitudes carried over to his otherwise highly successful career at Apple. The Telegraph points out:

He oozed arrogance, was vicious about business rivals, and in contrast to, say, Bill Gates, refused to have any truck with notions of corporate responsibility. He habitually parked his Mercedes in the disabled parking slot at Apple headquarters and one of his first acts on returning to the company in 1997 was to terminate all of its corporate philanthropy programmes.

Jobs's management style owed less to Zen Buddhism than to George Orwell. No aspect of corporate life was immune from his authority and he was almost pathologically controlling when it came to dealing with the press.

Journalists found that he would try to stifle even anodyne stories if they had not received his blessing. One described getting an interview with Jobs as about as easy as getting an interview with Saddam Hussein, "except Saddam would probably be more helpful and certainly more polite".

He ruled Apple with a combination of foul-mouthed tantrums and charm, withering scorn and carefully judged flattery. People were either geniuses or "bozos", and those in his regular orbit found that they could flip with no warning from one category to the other, in what became known as the "hero-shithead roller coaster". Employees worried about getting trapped with Jobs in a lift, afraid that they might not have a job when the doors opened.

One senior executive admitted that before heading into a meeting with Jobs, she embraced the mindset of a bullfighter entering the ring: "I pretend I'm already dead."

There's more at the link.

I'm sorry that Mr. Jobs died so young. Who knows what he might have achieved in future years? Yet, at the same time, I'm sorry for him, that he didn't seem to develop a more open, warmer, more caring personality over time. He was a Buddhist. I'm sorry he didn't appear to attach greater importance to that religion's understanding of karma (which can be expressed "as you sow, so shall you reap", if not in this life, then in the next). He may have inspired, overseen the development of, and marketed a great number of revolutionary products, but he left an awful lot of very unhappy, even miserable, human beings in the dust behind him as he did so.

I don't seek to judge Mr. Jobs' soul. I have far too many sins, flaws, faults and failings of my own to judge anyone else! I'll need God's mercy every bit as much as he will, possibly (probably?) more. Yet, that doesn't prevent me - us - from examining his life, and doing our best to learn from it. Just as we're inspired by his business acumen and technological savvy, let's be informed by what he got wrong in his personal life and the flaws in his personality, and try to do better in our own. That may be a more fitting memorial to him, in the long run.

In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, Mr. Jobs said this:

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

I submit these words demonstrate what may have been at the root of many of his personality flaws. They portray an introspective, almost introverted focus, concentrating on what you want, what's important to you, and dismissing anyone and everyone, anything and everything else as 'secondary'. Whilst it's undoubtedly vital to have goals, priorities and desires, I submit that taking their impact on others into account, and trying not to harm or diminish others while striving to achieve them, is equally important. Otherwise, we end up in a 'dog-eat-dog' world, where to achieve our own success, we must cause someone else's failure.

I'm sorry if what I've written here upsets some of Mr. Jobs' more uncritical admirers. As I said earlier, I fully accept and admire his genius. I don't think it detracts from that to point out that, like all of us, he had feet of clay. We can learn as much from the latter as from the former, if we're willing.



Anonymous said...

Steve Jobs was a consummate visionary. He reminded me of the famous Cosmologist/astronomer Carl Segan.

Each had a unique personality which was inspirational and they passed that to their followers and audiences.

In addition, both were totally dedicated to their professions and utterly enthusiastic about mankind's future.

Both passed from this earth much too soon.


Joe in PNG said...

He reminds me more of uncompromising automakers Enzo Ferrari and Lotus' Colin Chapman. Both men could be kind of... interesting in many ways, but they could sure build some great hardware.

Noons said...

Well noted. Most of these IT demi-gods would prove to have clay feet if closely analysed. And the reports on SJ's attitude are far from as bad as other's that are still with us...

SiGraybeard said...

The "bastard-ness" attributed to Jobs can be (is) attributed to many successful visionaries. The company I work for was founded in the 1930s by a boy-genius barely out of his teens, and grew on the strength of his vision. He, too, was known for throwing prototypes off his desk, intimidating subordinates and striking fear into the hearts of people sharing a ride in an elevator, while insisting the new products be great. That they are heavily collected 60 and 70 years later shows his success.

I suspect it's part of the personality it takes to be such a visionary.

The most surprising thing I've learned about Jobs was that he was involved with the guys who eradicated smallpox, contributing to Larry Brilliant's Seva Foundation with early money he made at Apple.

Anonymous said...

The concepts of success and celebrity are not synonymous with nice or kind'


Anonymous said...

Jobs has been compared to Edison, and Edison is as famous for being a rat bastard as for being a brilliant inventor.


The Raving Prophet said...

The list of brilliant innovators who were extremely unpleasant personalities is not a short one. Jobs, Edison, Ford, and those are just three from relatively recent history. Then there's those who are likewise brilliant but somewhere over the hazy line into madness, like Nikolai Tesla.

Mr. Jobs was a tremendous visionary, but I might caution those who enjoy the products he made to take a step back from assuming a competent designer and marketer must also be someone worthy of emulation in other respects as well. The cult of personality that welled up in people whose only experience was in iDevices was just silly.