Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (review)

by Gregory Frye

A lot of young, creative people will read this book, individuals – such as myself – who never really thought of or cared about business models, board meetings, and CEOs. And, of course, as Walter Isaacson’s exhaustively researched biography shows, Steve Jobs exemplified none of these things in the typical sense. He was a prototype, a worthy model for new thinking and future innovation.

With full access to Jobs, family members, friends, associates, colleagues current and former, Isaacson had finally agreed to write the biography on commission when he learned Jobs was about to undergo his first cancer operation in 2009. Jobs encouraged everyone to be open and honest with Isaacson, surprisingly giving the author full control over the finished manuscript – with exception to the cover design. Jobs’s primary desire behind the biography was that he wanted his four children to know him better.

What we’re left with is a candid and sometimes brutally honest look at the professional and private life of one of the world’s greatest modern innovators. From his birth in 1955, subsequent adoption, high school years in California, LSD experiments, dropping out of college and travelling to India for seventh months, to creating Apple in his parents’ garage with Steve Wozniak. We learn about the rise of Apple’s early years and how and why Jobs was ousted from his own company only to heroically return in 1997 for what many consider the most successful business story of our time.

The second half of the book mainly focuses on the development of Apple products after Jobs’s return, as well as his time with Pixar. It is interesting to see how Jobs functioned at the helm and rejuvenated the company but may not be enough to quench the appetite of hardcore tech enthusiasts and Apple junkies. (Hey, you can’t satisfy everybody.) Another fraction of readers, meanwhile, will have by this point decided Jobs was too much of an eccentric jerk to warrant their care or to demand much of their reading time, which is unfortunate and unfair.

Jobs viewed people and the world around him in binary terms. Everything for him was either trash or ingenious. No middle ground. This was a component of his own genius, which worked against him at times, especially when coupled with his ‘reality distortion field,’ a blatant disregard of facts in order to achieve perfection. Isaacson’s take on Jobs is balanced and honest enough, that a lot of readers will walk away with rounded view of Jobs.

Toward the end, Isaacson even writes himself into the book, which there is no way around, seeing as how he was part of Jobs’s life for those last two years. It is this proximity that makes the book’s only true shortcoming all the more surprising. The third major arc of Jobs’s life is his illness and death. Isaacson treats this in a detailed yet respectful manner but unfortunately misses the emotional impact found in Jobs’s sister Mona Simpson’s eulogy, published in the New York Times. Perhaps such insights are best left off the printed page, but on the other hand, Simpson’s words show that the way Job’s died carried more significance and beauty than anything he’d ever done, defining himself above all his other achievements. That his legacy has only just begun.

What Isaacson does capture is that Jobs always had a premonition that he would die relatively young. It explained the urgency in all his work and fuelled his desire to contribute and achieve.

There are enough lessons between the pages of this book to give the newer generations something to chew on as they approach the next age in innovation, biology intersected with technology, as Jobs accurately points out to Isaacson toward the end.

Isaacson’s biography serves as an important key to understanding Steve Jobs. His lessons on life you can carry around in your pocket if you want to engage in work that will help people, work that will change the world, work that will “make a dent in the universe.” Or at least you can try. Always try.


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