Steve Jobs Bio – Part One: Slow unravelling of a flawed genius

Steve bookSome books are meant to be savoured. Consumed slowly. Every page cherished. Enjoyed at leisure.
For me, Walter Isaacson’s long awaited biography on Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs is one such book. It’s like that last juicy mouthful, kept one side as an incentive to clear the bedside table of half-read orphans.
These past few days proved it has been worth the wait.
To prolong the experience, I’ll also be treating my book review differently. Instead of flashing through the pages and scribbling random thoughts at the end, this will be a review in instalments. Revisited after digesting chunks of around 150 pages at a time – so four “reviews” in all. Here’s the first.

It doesn’t take us long to discover that although Jobs participated fully with the research and spent hours with the author, this isn’t a paid-for snow job. Walter Isaacson is on no payroll. From the outset he shows Jobs with all his warts. Sometimes too many of them. Jobs rapidly emerges as a highly complex character full of complexes, some terribly disturbing.
Before I opened this book, Jobs’s revolutionary contribution to the world made him one of my icons. A role model for one weaned on an Apple IIe and now totally addicted to my AppleMacs, iPad, iPhone and iPod. Just a quarter the way into the book, I’m now not so sure. There’s no longer this deep regret our paths never physically crossed.
I always loved the idea of Jobs’ Zen Buddhism, disdain for filthy lucre, inability to become affected by the fabulous wealth his business skills produced. Like Warren Buffett who still drives his own car and lives modestly. But Isaacson paints the young Jobs as a man with a cruel, cold, brattish demeanour often given to throwing tantrums or bursting into tears to get his way. A spoilt juvenile. A side which offsets his better-documented spiritual connection forged during seven months of wandering around India in his late teens. This is not a chum to have fun with. The man’s intensity bores you right through the pages.
We learn straight up that Jobs was a perfectionist. With a capital P. That his ability to spot talent and get them to do his bidding was perhaps his greatest gift. Jobs’ ability to bend others to his will began at an early age with his adoptive parents. The spell continued with Steve Wozniak, a brilliant electronics engineer and Apple’s co-founder. Woz, a technical genius, loved Jobs like a brother but chose balance ahead of ambition. Isaacson warms us to Woz whose dealing with people made him, well, almost the anti-Jobs.
We also learn in the first few chapters how the young Jobs was an LSD-experimenting hippy who dressed in dirty jeans and was mostly barefoot. Obsessed with having been abandoned by his biological parents, he also had a deep belief in being “special” – reinforced by adoptive parents who told him often they had picked him from a long line of babies. This appreciation of being exceptional was cemented at an early age when Steve discovered he was smarter than his Dad. And pretty much everyone else he came into contact with.
Greatest of the early ironies for this highly complex character came in his 20s when Jobs repeated his own abandonment pattern by initially disowning his daughter Lisa, produced by his first real girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan. He did set this right, but only after ensuring that Chrisann got none of the riches that flowed from Apple’s IPO which made Jobs a hugely wealthy man at the ripe young age of 25.
Isaacson paints the young Jobs as a smelly, drug-taking product of early 70s California. But we soon realise that beneath the hairy, kaftanned exterior lurked the mind of an perfectionist with burning ambition. A man so confident in his own abilities he spent 20 minutes on the phone to legendary Bill Hewlett eliciting advice on a school project – and ended up getting a job at HP. Jobs was even more determined after deciding he wanted to work at early game making pioneer Atari: he ensconced himself in the reception area, threatening to stay there until the boss employed him. He did.
A wise man once told me great businesses are built through 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Jobs knew this instinctively, turning the brilliant engineering of Woz and others into tangible, saleable products. Looking wherever he could for an advantage.
Among the lessons other businesses can learn from Jobs is his rejection of the “not invented here” approach subscribed in many boardrooms. He sometimes took this to excess. Like when badgering Xerox until it lifted the veil on the PARC development centre where Jobs and his team acquired pretty much all of the revolutionary ideas for the first Apple Computer. Jobs liked to quote Picasso who said “good artists copy, great artists steal” adding, “we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”
I’ve reached the part where Apple’s shares listed on the stock market in December 1980. Just four years before, when first involving angel investor Mike Markkula, Jobs and Woz valued their business at $5 309. After the IPO, Apple was worth $1.9bn. Even by explosive growth standards of the Personal Computer Era, that was extraordinary. What made Apple even more special is how it kicked on while most the others failed. Setting in motion the chain that by August 2011 made it the most valuable business on earth. More of that coming up soon. Not too soon though. There’s another 150 or so pages to savour before hitting the keys again. You don’t rush a treat.