Walter Isaacson‘s candid and hard-hitting biography followed so quickly on the death of its superstar subject that it has been endlessly dissected in the popular press. Sometimes sensational revelations about Steve Jobs’ personal life have been endlessly bandied about, so there’s no need to itemize them here. Suffice it to say that Steve Jobs was a consummately complex person, riddled with contradictions.
What impressed me the most about Isaacson’s study of Jobs’ life and work was the extent to which Jobs invited him into his life — virtually into his family — and insisted that he write about the dark side as well as the more laudable aspects of his career. This is an authorized biography, but one unlike any other I’ve encountered, since Isaacson leavened his obvious admiration for Jobs as a creative genius and a gifted business leader with unvarnished and seemingly endless anecdotes about his subject’s notoriously difficult personality. He describes Jobs (or quotes other doing so) as a tyrant, cruel, mean, and an asshole. In fact, honesty required him to do so, since tales of Jobs’ disgusting behavior are legend in Silicon Valley. Bill Gates, too, was well known to be intolerant of coworkers who were less intelligent than he — which may include practically everyone in the State of Washington — but his temper tantrums were not even remotely comparable to Jobs’.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson ★★★★★
However, there is no denying the historic role that Steve Jobs played in the evolution of American business. With Steve Wozniak, he created the first personal computer. In the Macintosh a decade later, he made available to a wide public the first user-friendly computer. At Pixar and later Disney, he enabled the production of animated films that broke the mold in the industry and set new sales records. Back at Apple, he took over a company on the verge of collapse and turned it around in record time, releasing a series of revolutionary products that individually disrupted several industries: music, telephony, and books. Each of these new devices — the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad — is already finding its way into museums as exemplars of industry-busting products as well as brilliant design.
Was Steve Jobs truly a genius? In my opinion, there can be no debate about that question. His extraordinary accomplishments prove the point. But the key to that genius wasn’t intelligence per se, Isaacson suggests. It was Jobs’ ferocious intensity and ability to focus. For example, when he turned around Apple in the late 1990s, he drastically cut back the number of products and the number of features in each software program and focused the entire company — then already a billion-dollar enterprise — on three products at a time. It’s no wonder that members of his board, some of them legendary business leaders in their own right, were in awe of Jobs’ performance as an executive. They may have disliked him intensely because of his dismissive and often insulting behavior, but they rarely questioned his business judgment.
Isaacson — the masterful biographer of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein — ranks Jobs with Edison and Ford in the pantheon of American industry. Based on everything I now know about the man, much though far from all of it learned from this book, I agree.
For additional reading
I’ve also reviewed The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson (CRISPR technology may change the world as we know it).
Like to read good biography? Check out Great biographies I’ve reviewed: my 10 favorites.
If you enjoy reading nonfiction in general, you might also enjoy:
- Science explained in 10 excellent popular books (plus dozens of others)
- My 10 favorite books about business history
- Top 10 nonfiction books about politics (plus dozens of runners-up)
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.