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 / Winter 2012 / Issue 69(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2012: Biography

Early on, Jobs forces his much-loved adoptive parents to cripple themselves financially by sending him to expensive Reed College — then bristles at the concept of a curriculum, drops out after six months, hangs around auditing classes that suit his aesthetic tastes (such as modern dance), and lives on money scrounged by cashing in soda bottles for deposits. (Eventually, he gave his parents Apple stock.) The younger Jobs trips on LSD, pirates Bob Dylan tapes, flirts with the Hare Krishna movement, and refuses to bathe. At one point, a Hindu holy man in the Himalayas spots, or perhaps smells, Jobs, and grabs him in order to lather and shave him. Unfortunately, the lesson did not stick.

Jobs would later attribute much of his success to this period, even making the preposterous claim that had he not audited a calligraphy class, “it’s likely that no personal computer” would have had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. Fortunately, he soon began working with Steve Wozniak, a former high school classmate who had a sizable tolerance for grandiosity. The two had bonded as teenagers over an idea spotted in an Esquire article by Wozniak’s mother that described how hackers pirated free phone calls. Wozniak built a circuit that could control AT&T’s routers, which Jobs figured out how to package and market at a 78 percent profit margin. This experience taught the two teenagers they could “control billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure,” writes Isaacson. It also, says Wozniak, “gave us a taste of what we could do with my engineering skills and his vision.” It was the first of many visions based on breaking rules.

Reunited in 1976, the pair founded Apple Computer in the proverbial garage with US$1,300, with Wozniak as engineer and Jobs in the role he would eventually settle into permanently: visionary and promoter. Jobs’s journey as a manager and business partner covered much rougher ground. Among the many unfortunate episodes are his ungracious treatment of Wozniak and his love–hate (mostly hate) relationship with Bill Gates, who was generous in his comments about Jobs for the book, only to be repaid with insults. Jobs’s greatest business error took place when Apple went through a Silicon Valley rite of passage, the transition from the founder–CEO to professional management. Jobs lost the confidence of CEO John Sculley through his insistence on (mis)managing the Macintosh division, which led to his ouster as chairman. But being rejected by his own brainchild at age 30 focused Jobs on what mattered. The ensuing years brought the NeXT computer; animation by Pixar; and eventually, a second chance at Apple that yielded iTunes, iPhoto, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad.

Isaacson details these stories as evolutionary rungs on a ladder of creativity. One innovation follows another, as Jobs and his company ascend to iconic heights. Each of these products also came to market accompanied by lots of collateral damage. Jobs’s relationships in business were complicated by the fact that he was, as a contemporary describes, “full of broken glass” as a result of his early abandonment to adoption. He was “the opposite of loyal…anti-loyal,” according to a colleague: a tyrant at work and a “frighteningly cold,” rejecting narcissist in his personal life, who attracted people through brief displays of interest, only to mistreat and abandon them.

Implicitly, Steve Jobs raises the question of whether indifference to social norms and a degree of madness are requirements of creative genius. As he rises, Jobs lives on fruit to ward off mucus, soaks his feet in the toilet to relieve stress, offends his colleagues with his filthy body, falls into fits of tears during business meetings, and turns orange from eating only carrots.

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