The Tao of Steve
By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster, 656 pages
In 2008, after a six-month leave for a liver transplant made necessary by pancreatic cancer, Steve Jobs returned to Apple headquarters to resume his daily routine. In his authorized biography, Walter Isaacson describes Jobs’s first day back at the office: “He startled his team by throwing a series of tantrums. He ripped apart people he had not seen for six months, tore up some marketing plans, and chewed out a couple of people whose work he found shoddy.”
Apparently it was therapeutic for him. “I had the greatest time being back today,” Jobs said. “I can’t believe how creative I’m feeling.”
Jobs’s persistent ability to combine supremely confident charm with a horrifically foul temper is a recurring theme in Isaacson’s probing and unvarnished biography. In many ways, Steve Jobs is a work of business history without precedent. Published only weeks after Jobs’s death at age 56, Steve Jobs is the result of two years of work during which Isaacson was granted unlimited, unrestricted access to Jobs, his family, his friends, and his competitors.
Isaacson took full advantage, and the result is a book Jobs could never possibly have fully approved. Despite his celebrity as a business figure, Jobs was an obsessively private man. In Steve Jobs, we learn never-published details about his childhood and the parents who adopted him as an infant. We see photos of his three children for the first time. We learn what music is on his iPod. And we have striking, candid interviews with him about his industry, his competitors, and his legacy. Much of this material was gathered from interviews that took place when Jobs knew he had only months to live.
The basic outlines of Jobs’s career will be familiar to most readers. He was the co-creator of the personal computer. He launched Apple and was subsequently fired from the company at age 30. He made a triumphant return a decade later and went on to create the digital devices that shape our world. But the Jobs we get to know here, in an account that is often painful to read, is also a delusional egomaniac, a sadistic and tyrannical boss, and an indifferent spouse and father.
Yet against the backdrop of this abrasive personality, Isaacson’s book offers an overriding message that is more consistent with the public image of Jobs: he was a creative genius whose profound understanding of consumer appetites allowed him to create technology that no one else imagined or even thought feasible.
Isaacson builds a persuasive case that, throughout his career, Jobs reshaped seven different businesses: personal computing, animated movies, music, mobile phones, tablet computing, digital publishing, and retail stores. In every case, we see how Jobs’s success was inextricably linked to his personality—to his maddening standards of perfection, his insistence on making impossible demands of employees (which they actually found they could meet), and his unshakable opinions about how consumers ought to experience technology.
In the modern era, we have seen many remarkable managers (Jack Welch of General Electric, Andy Grove of Intel), entrepreneurs (Ray Kroc of McDonald’s, Sam Walton of Walmart), and far-sighted innovators (Michael Dell of Dell, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook). Yet none has managed to fashion a business colossus—at one point this year, Apple eclipsed the market value of ExxonMobil—while continuously changing the direction of his industry.
To what can we attribute this success? Isaacson floats a number of theories. One is that Jobs saw a hero in Polaroid’s Edward Land and, like Land, tried to place himself at the intersection of art and technology. By emphasizing both design and function, Apple was able to create products that not only advanced the range of digital life, but also made complex devices a joy to use.
Elsewhere, Isaacson suggests that Jobs was the product of the cultural revolution of the 1960s, deeply influenced by music, drugs, communes, and an 18-month spiritual wandering through India. “Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life,” Jobs tells Isaacson in one of their 40 interviews. Yet it is impossible to separate Jobs’s flower-child persona, replete with vegan diets, Zen meditation, and modest sartorial style, from his deep roots in the nerdy electronics hobbyist culture that was thriving at nearby Stanford University when he was growing up. Steve Jobs, it seems, was at home with both geeks and gurus.
But the most compelling explanation for Jobs’s influence is that, almost alone in the world of consumer technology, he insisted that software and hardware be integrated by a single company to create devices consumers didn’t know they needed and would immediately find impossible to live without. Sony, Microsoft, Intel, and Google all excelled, but they did so only on the software or the hardware side of the equation; they could never bring both sides together in what Isaacson calls an “end-to-end” approach to technology.
What emerges most clearly from this biography is that while Jobs was a showman on a P.T. Barnum scale, Apple’s landmark products were never the result of individual creative genius. The most compelling passages in the biography are descriptions of Jobs’s engagement with other people—how he was tapping their ideas, finding new ways to work together, and pushing them to do what they didn’t think could be done. Indeed, Jobs’s greatest strength was collaboration. He formed invaluable fellowships with Apple’s chief designer, Jonny Ives; animator John Lasseter, the creative force behind Pixar; and even (to the horror of his politically correct wife) Rupert Murdoch.
Of course, most of his relationships were not so warm. “You have your heads up your ass,” he told music-industry executives. “Your product sucks,” he shouted to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, the most powerful figure in the cable industry. “Everything you’ve ever done in your life is shit,” he yelled at a Xerox engineer as part of his effort to recruit him to Apple.
Yet sometimes, the confrontation was constructive. When he met with the CEO of Corning, a mild-mannered but self-confident executive named Wendell Weeks, Jobs began a lengthy lecture on the qualities of the glass he needed. “Can you shut up and let me teach you some science?” an impatient Weeks finally interjected. Within months, Corning was producing the glass to be used in iPads in record volume.
The most intriguing relationship in the book is that between Steve Jobs and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. In Isaacson’s narrative, Gates is never far from the scene. There are extensive, groundbreaking interviews with each that reveal the two defining figures of their age constantly carping and cooperating. “Bill is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything,” Jobs complains. And Gates, in turn, thought Jobs was “weirdly flawed as a human being.”
And yet the computer age would be incomplete without them both. In case anyone missed this point, Isaacson underscores it when he tells us that, with only weeks left to live, Jobs invited Gates to visit him at home. The two spent a nostalgic afternoon together reflecting on their professional and personal lives. Jobs, with all his criticism of Microsoft, still knew that Gates democratized computing. And, although his company was often the target of Jobs’s caustic criticism, Gates could never suppress his admiration for Apple’s beautiful products.
For all that Steve Jobs reveals, there does remain one significant omission in Isaacson’s biography. Despite all the access he had to the world of Apple, Isaacson offers no telling insights into how the company became such a superior operation. From the founding of Apple until his defenestration in the mid-1980s, Jobs was, by any measure, a terrible manager. At NeXT, his experimental start-up focused on educational computers, he was an unqualified flop. How then, at age 41, did he return to Apple and quickly become the most successful executive in modern business?
At one point, Isaacson casually mentions that no division at Apple produces a separate profit-and-loss statement—a radical departure from the practice of every other Fortune 500 company. But beyond that cryptic revelation, we don’t get to see much of what life inside Apple was like under Jobs. The biography never tells us how Steve Jobs managed a company of 50,000 employees and tens of thousands of contractors around the world in near-complete secrecy.
The arrival of Steve Jobs only reinforces the question that has been on everyone’s mind since its subject’s death: Can the company survive him?
The embedded place that Apple now enjoys in music, tablets, and publishing certainly ensures that the company will remain a creative force for a long time to come. But Isaacson’s book is also a reminder of how creative destruction is an intrinsic part of technology innovation. In reading Steve Jobs’s story, one can’t but be struck by how many once universal brands have been left behind in his wake: Atari, Compaq, Lotus.
The lesson is not only that Jobs and his company were better competitors (they were), but that the past 30 years of technological innovation have been characterized both by continuous tumult and the passions of ambitious, outsize personalities. Jobs’s legacy is unlikely to be surpassed. But there will be plenty of people trying to build on the impact of the products he created. The world of disruptive inventiveness that Steve Jobs shaped assures that some will succeed.