The hardest thing about getting lost in a book is having to find your way back out of it when you finish the last page and close the cover. One of my hardest reentry periods was the time I finished Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth during a summer class in college. I was living back at home with my parents, and I came downstairs and stumbled through the kitchen, sobbing, "Lily Bart!" They were alarmed that something was seriously wrong, so I had to explain to them through my broken sobs that it was just about a book. And about a fictional character, no less.
I felt a similar kind of pain last night. For the past week, I have been so deeply captivated by the ups and downs of Steve Jobs' career, relationships, and illness that I was overcome with sadness when I closed the cover of Walter Isaacson's biography of him. It felt like a death in my own family.
What I knew about Steve Jobs prior to reading this biography was pretty simplistic and straightforward: 1) he co-founded and later ran Apple and delivered a series of gorgeous and delightful computers and devices, and 2) he was an asshole. That dimension of his personality is widely understood and pervasively spoken of, to the extent that I had previously felt no real longing to learn more about him. I try to be a nice person. I don't really see the necessity for cruelty. But while this biography is certainly candid about a demand for perfection so exacting and excruciating that it trampled egos and earnest hearts alike, it also opened my eyes to the utterly extraordinary genius and vision that Jobs possessed and gave to our world. It's obviously impossible to say what course history would have taken if an event hadn't happened or a person hadn't been born, but he is clearly responsible for prioritizing design and user friendliness in the tech world to such a degree that a creative, largely analog person like me -- a reader and writer and artist type who never possessed a natural inclination toward machines -- could intuitively adopt, use and benefit from computers in a way that might not have otherwise occurred at such an early point in history, or in quite the same way.
Although I highly recommend this biography to anyone who's got the slightest interest in Steve Jobs' life or in the computer boom of the late 20th century, a couple of moments stand out to me as worth remembering:
One of Jobs' chief skills and accomplishments was fiercely protecting creativity. When Disney and Pixar began their dalliance and Toy Story began to go off the rails, Jobs realized how necessary it was for John Lasseter and the Pixar animators to have creative control over their team, their space, and their culture. And part of that meant having financial leverage. So he planned to take Pixar public immediately following the debut of Toy Story -- a gutsy gamble -- but one that paid off handsomely and allowed Pixar to have the leverage to re-negotiate the contract (which was not yet up) with Disney in order to split future profits 50/50. He was adamant and relentless about negotiating deals that protected creatives with physical space and financial margin, releasing them from unnecessary distraction and allowing them tunnel vision on their creations.
Another quality that I deeply admire of Jobs' is his belief in the possibility of bending reality to his will, or his so-called "reality distortion field." Though it could rub both ways and allowed him to ignore things of sometimes grave importance (such as his initial cancerous tumor), the book is full of story after story about Jobs asking for something -- of his own team or of collaborators -- that they believed would not be factually possible. And story after story ends with people delivering outcomes that met his wishes. Here's my favorite passage on that score as Apple was planning the iPhone:
Jobs... said he wanted as much gorilla glass as Corning could make within six months. "We don't have the capacity," Weeks replied. "None of our plants make the glass now."
"Don't be afraid," Jobs replied. This stunned Weeks, who was good-humored and confident but not used to Jobs's reality distortion field. He tried to explain that a false sense of confidence would not overcome engineering challenges, but that was a premise that Jobs had repeatedly shown he didn't accept. He stared at Weeks unblinking. "Yes, you can do it," he said. "Get your mind around it. You can do it."
As Weeks retold this story, he shook his head in astonishment. "We did it in under six months," he said. "We produced a glass that had never been made." Corning's facility in Harrisburg, Kentucky, which had been making LCD displays, was converted almost overnight to make gorilla glass full-time. "We put our best scientists and engineers on it, and we just made it work." In his airy office, Weeks has just one framed memento on display. It's a message Jobs sent the day the iPhone came out: "We couldn't have done it without you."
I have always believed that we are capable of so much more than we imagine when presented with high expectations and high stakes. Steve Jobs' extreme, superhuman embodiment of that belief illustrates that extraordinary feats are indeed possible when we shift our beliefs and imagine our assumptions about possibility are themselves faulty.
One other important takeaway for me was how Steve Jobs' used spatial planning to generate chance encounters in order to spur creativity and collaboration. When designing the headquarters for Pixar, instead of putting every project and department in its own silo as was typical in other movie studios, Jobs created a central atrium that every department branched off of. The atrium was where the mailboxes were, where the café was, where the screening theaters were accessed. All roads led to the atrium, which had a natural way of repeatedly bringing people into face-to-face contact. Because I often feel like phones isolate as much as they connect, it is fascinating to know that Jobs deeply valued, prioritized, and believed in the necessity of in-person human connection.
Jobs' temperament obviously made him plenty of unnecessary enemies, but one passage that was also instructive to me was about his ouster from Apple. The board of directors, full of people who had been mentors and father-figures to Jobs, one by one chose to stick with the CEO they had hired away from Pepsi, effectively shutting Jobs out. But in the wake of the ouster, Apple engineers and developers he had worked with on the Macintosh came calling. He was interested in starting a new company, and they wanted to come with him. Fully understanding his flaws, eyes wide open, careers otherwise intact, this team of people still chose to risk it all and work with him. I imagine they understood better than anyone what an innovative visionary he was and that working with him was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they had better not pass up, no matter the costs.
For Jobs, the goal was never money. It was creation. Making products that didn't exist before and tangibly changing history in the process. Which is why people have so much reverence, I suspect, for their Apple devices. There's an ethos around them that makes them not simply objects but objects that help to engender a world in which creative people can thrive. That seems to be what Jobs was always after, from a place of pure and intense passion that doesn't excuse his flaws but does account for them. And nowhere is there a clearer or more powerful statement of that ethos than the Think Different campaign Jobs launched upon his return to Apple in 1997.
Now please excuse me while I stumble around my house for a while sobbing, "Steve Jobs!" I'll eventually find my way back to the world outside of this book, probably with the help of the glow from my iPhone.