Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Greatness is hard to define – especially in an era where we want to know the verdict of history when the events about which we’re concerned are at most only a few months old. I purposefully left reading this book a little while to allow the dust to settle  – there was a period a few months ago when opinion about Steve Jobs, his work, his influence and his legacy were inescapable. I didn’t want to read and reflect on this book in the light of all that chatter. I wanted space to myself.

So the book. It’s a biography which Jobs himself approved, gave several interviews to the author for but did not seek to influence. He knew it would present to the world things about him which he wouldn’t like or always agree with; most of the main players in the Jobs story give their own perspective too. It’s detailed, but a relatively easy read.

Two easy conclusions. The first is that in reading this we’re reminded that Jobs’ fingerprints are all over much of what we do and consume now. I’m writing this post on my MacBook, with my iPad and iPhone within easy reach. I love Pixar movies. Like it or not, the influence of Steve Jobs might as well be in the air we breathe. What I didn’t realise, though, is the extent to which Jobs’ philosophy really was aimed at people like me. I’m not a technophobe, but neither am I technically minded. I like technology, but I don’t go deep into it. I have learning disabilities, so I need technology to work easily for me, to make my work as little like hard work as possible. I remember the first time I used an iPod (at the time I was using a different mp3 player) and being astonished that it just worked. Easily. Without giving me a headache. It wasn’t long before I moved to a MacBook. I remember being blown away that within 10 minutes of it arriving I was working on it, and enjoying the work, not stressed about how to use the machine I was working on. I kept using the word ‘intuitive’ to describe this experience of using the Apple products to people – which I genuinely didn’t know until reading this is exactly the word Jobs uses to describe what he wanted his products to be: intuitive. I find work and many of the things I need and want to do much easier and much less stressful since doing them on Apple products. By that yardstick the achievements which Jobs lead and drove are great ones – his legacy is significant.

The second easy conclusion is that Jobs was a nasty piece of work. It’s hard, frankly, to read this book and imagine someone doing so thinking ‘I’d really love to have spent some time with him’. You wouldn’t. He humiliated colleagues; he was unpredictable, moody and by his own admission very hard to live, love and work with. As a result his company was driven to some astonishing destinations and people achieved things they had thought were impossible. You are left wondering, though, what the cost to them was. There’s only so many times you can say damaging things to people before you start seriously wounding them. A weakness of the book is in not really tackling that – though it is honest enough to portray the difficult side of working around Jobs.

There are many debates around Jobs and the Apple philosophy which are touched on here – especially the ‘closed’ versus ‘open’ systems debate. Apple systems can’t be added to or used on a variety of platforms – you’re locked in to one way of doing things. Android, Microsoft etc allow a more open approach. That leads me to an uncomfortable sense of dislocation – intellectually I’m more on the open side, but Apple works well for me. Very well. It makes work less like work and much less stressful. So I choose Apple. I may not for every; but for now I do. Reading this biography confirmed and sharpened that sense for me – that the Apple systems work so well for me I end up contradicting some of what I think to use them. For now.

It’s a good, lengthy read. At times for me there’s more technical information that I need, want or will remember. That’s inevitable, though – you can’t do a major work on a subject like this without going into some technical detail. It’s written by a believer, but with enough clarity to leave me more aware of my previously nagging sense of discomfort at some of the choices I’ve made. As someone who leads, I see enough in Jobs to inspire and challenge – but also much I want to reject as incompatible with a life of servant leadership seeking to release gifts and leadership on others. For a book about just one man’s life, that’s a quite a place to be taken to.

I rated this book 4/5 on

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