Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Turn on/Tune in/Drop out/Log on

The awesomeness of Steve Jobs has been given a canonical accounting with the publication of Walter Isaacson’s 570-page authorized biography of his life. So just how did Jobs transmogrify the world? The CEO Messiah of User Experience claimed he did it by standing at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. But there’s much more to his story than that. By the end of the book one thing is clear – Jobs’ accomplishment at Apple Computer is the greatest legacy to come out of the Bay Area’s “turn on, tune in, drop out” hippie culture of the 1960s.

But at its heart this is also book about a man who was described by a former girlfriend as “an enlightened being who was also cruel.” To quote the dust jacket, he was “driven by demons. Jobs could drive those around him to fury and despair.” Isaacson and Jobs agreed that the book should not sanitize his life and many episodes reveal a dark side to his personality. Jobs was given up for adoption as an infant and wrestled with deep-seated feelings of abandonment throughout his life. It is understandable how such beginnings might engender a defensive and spiteful attitude towards the world. But from Jobs’ point of view, his cruelty was not a psychological reflex but a form of truth speaking. He was given to rationalizing his rough manners as a way of ensuring quality control. He felt it was a part of his job description to be brutally honest when critiquing other’s work for the sake of the product and Apple’s reputation. For Jobs, being true to himself was a priority, no matter how ugly it might appear from the outside.

Troubles with Tribble and Beyond

Isaacson has traced Jobs’ phenomenal guru-like influence over others through extensive interviews with friends, family and colleagues. Throughout his life, Jobs repeatedly inspired those working around him to go beyond themselves. In a burst of inspired geek-speak Bud Tribble, a software designer at Apple in the early days of the company, coined the term “reality distortion field” to describe Jobs’ effect over others. Chapter Eleven recounts a conversation between Tribble and Andy Hertzfeld who was a new Apple employee at the time.

    When Andy Hertzfeld joined the Macintosh team, he got a briefing from Bud Tribble, the other software designer, about the huge amount of work that still needed to be done. Jobs wanted it finished by January 1982, less than a year away. “That’s crazy,” Hertzfeld said. “There’s no way.” Tribble said that Jobs would not accept any contrary facts. ”The best way to describe the situation is a term from Star Trek,” Tribble explained. “Steve has a reality distortion field…in his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything.

Tribble remembered the term from an episode of Star Trek called “Menagerie” in which the aliens have the power to construct reality out of the sheer force of their mental powers. Job’s distortion field had a positive and a negative side. “It was dangerous to get caught in Steve’s distortion field, but it was what led him to actually be able to change reality.”

The launch of the Macintosh was one occasion in which Jobs deployed the distortion field in order to spur his engineers to hit a seemingly impossible deadline. The timing was critical. Apple had launched its remarkable 1984 Super Bowl ad campaign and expectations for a revolutionary product were running high. Any delays would have undermine the carefully constructed expectations surrounding the launch of the Mac. The only problem was the engineers were still behind schedule with the operating system. At a conference call they prepared to give Jobs a recommendation to send out a demo version of the software to be followed up with a final version two weeks later. They carefully pleaded their case and sat back…

    There was a pause. Jobs did not get angry; instead he spoke in cold, somber tones. He told them they were really great. So great, in fact, that he knew they could get this done. “There’s no way we’re slipping!” he declared. There was a collective gasp…”You guys have been working on this stuff for months now, another couple weeks isn’t going to make that much difference. You may as well get it over with. I’m going to ship the code a week from Monday, with your names on it.”

…and he did.

Perhaps the most poignant example of the distortion field working against Jobs was when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003. Isaacson observes, “The flipside of his wondrous ability to focus was the fearsome willingness to filter out things he did not wish to deal with.” After his initial diagnosis, Jobs put off medical intervention for nine months. He had been a vegetarian almost all his life and was known for his adherence to strict, some would say insane, eating habits, including binging and purging of food. He often spoke of the energy and mental power his diets gave him. Therefore he was reluctant to undergo what he considered orthodox medical intervention and instead pursued a series of diet cures and new age remedies. Despite a phalanx of friends and family members urging him to do what was best for his health, he resisted. In the end, facing death after an eight-year battle with cancer, he expressed regret he had not acted more aggressively in battling his illness when it was still in its early stages of development.

Steve Jobs sitting in the lotus position.

Steve Jobs sitting in the lotus position. Photo by Diane Walker.

Zen Apples

The word Zen is often associated with the ease of use of Apple products and is a direct result of Jobs’ study of Zen Buddhism that he began as an undergraduate at Reed College in Oregon. Chapter Three of the book describes the years Jobs lived on a commune after dropping out of college. He was responsible for tending a grove of apple trees on the commune grounds. He learned to prune, water and harvest the apples and sell them to earn money for the commune’s operating costs. During this time he also practiced meditation and dropped copious amounts of LSD. All this activity disciplined his mind in an intense way and honed his ability to sustain single point focus for long periods of time. “Jobs’ intensity was evident in his ability to focus. He would set priorities, aim his laser attention on them, and filter out distractions,” explains Isaacson. Nourishing the mind’s powers of intuition was at the root of his integrity as a human being and of his Promethean creativity. Jobs respected direct experience. He disdained decisions based on committees, Power Point presentations and market studies. He dismissed people who did so as “bozos.” His faith in the mind’s intuition over rational thinking and logical decision-making was the fruit of his Zen spirituality and it lay behind the design philosophy of all Apple products. Bodhidharma, the Indian patriarch renowned for bring Buddhism to China around 475 AD, identified the mind as the source of enlightenment. The following passage is from the “Breakthrough Sermon”

    The mind is the root from which all things grow. If you can understand the mind, everything else is included. It’s like the root of a tree. All a tree’s fruit and flowers, branches and leaves depend on its root. If you nourish its root, a tree multiplies. If you cut its root, it dies. Those who understand the mind reach enlightenment with minimal effort.

The metaphor embedded in the quotation has obvious relevance to the history of Steve Jobs and Apple Computer Inc. But it is also indicates that at the root of his success in the field of technology was a worldview based on the idea of the universe as an organism. This binary narrative of the organic and the technological was woven deeply into Apple’s culture and distinguished it from Microsoft and other competitors.

Now that Jobs is no longer alive and the force of his distortion field begins to fade, the public image of the man and his company is bound to shift. But for the time being his legacy seems to be how he humanized technology by force of his will. Isaacson returns to this theme repeatedly. The final pages close with Job’s speaking in his own voice. “Edwin Land of Polaroid talked about the intersection of the humanities and science. I like that intersection. There’s something magical about that place. There are a lot of people innovating and that’s not the main distinction of my career. The reason Apple resonates with people is that there’s a deep current of humanity in our innovation.”