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Reading 2012: Steve Jobs

January 12, 2012

Last week I finished reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, making it the first book I completed for my 2012 reading. In short, it was a fascinating biography. The forty-two chapters devoted to telling Jobs’ life story reflect just a small amount of the work the author poured into this book. Isaacson was hand-picked by Steve Jobs to write his biography (he had previously written biographies of Einstein and Benjamin Franklin), and although Isaacson did not weed out the bad and ugly from the good of Jobs’ life, I think Jobs would have been pleased with the final product.

There are just a handful of companies which are known worldwide and are instantly recognizable by name or logo. Apple is one of them. But there are few such brands where a human name is just as easily and universally recognizable as the brand with which it is connected. Perhaps that’s what has made the life of Steve Jobs so fascinating to so many people around the world, myself included. (Not to mention, I’m typing this from my MacBook Pro.)

The Early Years

Adopted as a newborn by Paul and Clara Jobs, Steve never questioned whether or not they loved him and truly accepted him as their son. At the same time, the hurt he felt from being “abandoned” by his birth parents was felt from early childhood onward. Although his parents were not college educated (one of the unmet “requirements” his biological mother had for the adoptive parents), it was their hope to provide Steve with the best education that their incomes could provide. It was quickly clear that Steve was brilliant, and his intelligence often contributed to enhancing his troublemaking and love for technology. Combining these loves and the fact that he grew up in the just-developing Silicon Valley of California, Steve was well on his way to having many opportunities to learn about the developing technologies of his time.

The late teen and early adult years of Jobs were filled with dabbling in sex, drugs, religion, and technology. It was during that time that his first child (Lisa) was born, he experimented with LSD (relating that experience as “one of the two or three most important things in [his] life”), he began to study and take interest in Buddhism (which led to a pilgrimage to India) and extreme diets, and also worked with Steve Wozniak to design their first personal computer, the Apple I. It was also during those unstable years that Steve did indeed follow his parents’ wishes and attend Reed College. There, he would become disappointed with having to take core classes that he was uninterested in, and would drop out of college after just one semester (for one, he felt he was wasting his parents’ money by spending it on education he wasn’t interested in). However, the administration took such fascination in him and his reasoning regarding this that they permitted him to audit courses, free of charge, that interested him. One such course was a calligraphy class—an art that would heavily influence his passion for beautiful typography in computer graphic display. And that passion would influence the rest of the tech world and how they did graphic interface.

Apple, Next, Pixar, Return to Apple

Although in this review I’ve given more description to Steve Jobs’ early years, the biography spends proportionately  (proportionally, at least for a nearly 600-page book) less time on that part of Steve’s life, though there are constant references to it throughout the book.

The majority of the book traces Steve’s life as he and friends found and develop Apple, the turbulence at Apple, Steve’s moving on and remaking his brand as Next, his help in founding Pixar, and his eventual return to Apple. Those same years included his romantic relationships, his marriage to Laurene Powell, the births of their three children Reed, Erin, and Eve, and his health decline.

Although much of Steve’s interpersonal relationships could be summed up with the word “jerk,” there are still moments in his life that reflect  warmth, love, and tenderness:  his thankfulness for his parents (he gave his parents around $750,000 in shares after he was successful, and frequently expressed public thanks to them), his devotion to his wife (his open realization that it took a special person to live with him and his special efforts to show thanks to her for their 2oth anniversary), and his love and hope for his children (his inclusion of his son Reed in special business meetings, his attendance at his daughter Lisa’s recital while holding his infant child in his arms), though even in each of those relationships his words and actions hurt them, too.

In the early days of Apple, Steve personally attempted to persuade the then-CEO of Pepsi, John Sculley, to become the CEO of Apple with these words: “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” Such persuasion was successful with Sculley, but it would appear that Steve Jobs was also, in some small way, successful in changing the world.

He was the first to push (very hard pushes) for the marriage of design and tech in personal computing, and the rest of the technology world worked feverishly to follow his lead. He was driven by his passions in a way that few are, and though it left a path of hurting people in his wake, those close to him have often said Apple products would not be what they are today without such a passion.

This is certainly not a book that people will be reading in order to emulate Steve Jobs’ leadership style. Most people that are like Jobs don’t have the genius to allow that type of personality to go unchecked. (My husband and I have known a couple of people to lead companies or organizations with narcissism and disregard for people’s feelings. We’ve wondered how they rise to leadership and still have respect. Well, reading about Steve Jobs made us realize a big part of that dynamic.)

Spiritual Thoughts and The End of Jobs’ Journey

Jobs’ spiritual journey was a lifelong and unanswered one in the end. In one of his final interviews with Isaacson (571), Steve Jobs remarked, “I’m about fifty-fifty on believing in God,” he said. “For most of my life I’ve felt there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.” Continuing on this train of thought, he pondered “It’s strange to think that you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures.”

In a 2005 address given at Stanford, he made these profound remarks:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.”

“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.”

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

He knew death would come, and he seemed to not fear it in the way one would perhaps expect. Yet his fearlessness, his passion, nor his genius could prevent Steve Jobs from meeting eternity face to face, as he did on October 5, 2011, at just 56 years old.

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