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Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson

By Avinash Patra, Sr. |  April, 22 2015

The fabulous Walter Isaacson has become the James Boswell of genius. For the past 25 years, Mr. Isaacson has been examining the lives of subjects whose common thread is that they have been judged to have exceptional intellectual abilities that give them unprecedented insight. That last phrase, by the way, is the Wikipedia definition of genius. So there.

Unless one was living under a rock during 2011, it was impossible not to notice the death of Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs, itself a media event, was accompanied by the immediate post-mortem publication of this biography, which became an international book sensation. Its record sales were undoubtedly helped by the iconic status of Jobs, who when he died sparked a mourning that rivaled the death of Princess Diana.

Now, months after its release, the book chugs along at the top of best-seller rankings without even breathing hard. This is because Mr. Isaacson lets us look into the abyss of a very dark soul indeed, and as repellent as parts of it may be, it still fascinates. Mr. Isaacson also makes it easy to read. He has provided an accessible history of the personal computer phenomenon which even nontechies will find instructive. At the same time, the author lets Jobs reveal himself as the complex and troubling personality he was in life.

Steve Jobs, it seems, was not a nice man. Abandoned by his birth mother, Jobs would in turn abandon a daughter of his own, only to end up offering some support if not love. He was a bully, a cry-baby and a dissembler with his employees. With rivals he was less than trustworthy. In fact, he invented none of the technologies most associated with Apple. Personal computers, cellphones, tablets, music downloads all were the products of other inventors and iterations of them were available often years before Jobs would unveil with theatrical fanfare his market-dominating version.

While we accept that great men often are not nice men, we will excuse them if they are geniuses by our definition. That topic also is a theme that occupies Mr. Isaacson and he should know by now.

He began his examination of exceptional intellects in 1986 when he co-wrote “Wise Men,” about a group of men - Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, George Kennan and others - who skillfully negotiated the slippery slopes leading to the Cold War. That led him to examine Henry Kissinger, the genius of foreign policy realpolitik. Next, he produced a mammoth biography of Benjamin Franklin, followed by one on Albert Einstein.

One wonders whether all of those efforts were warm-up exercises for Mr. Isaacson before he tackled not just the sometimes sordid life of Steve Jobs but also man’s place in the industrial and economic phenomenon of our age - computer technology and its applications.

Kissinger of course survives in coldly arrogant isolation. But so much of what was thought to be so daringly creative about his international strategic thinking now looks in retrospect to have come out of the playbook from the Congress of Vienna. If Einstein even stands out now, it is in part because he stands on the shoulders of other mathematicians who were more skilled than he. And then there is Benjamin Franklin, that master synthesizer. Franklin did not “discover” electricity, after all. What he did was “imagine” the invisible imbalances between electrical charges - positive versus negative - that produced electricity.

What Jobs did was use that same imaginative ability to look at the complicated technologies devised by others and imagine ways to make it both more accessible - and more fun - for ordinary mortals to rush into stores to acquire it.

Without descending into psycho-babble, Mr. Isaacson also leads the reader to consider another facet of genius - the narcissism that seems an integral part of it. The narcissist is driven by shame, early abuse or abandonment to the point where they see only themselves as reality and others as either objects to be manipulated or threats to be vanquished.

In addition to imagination, they also are extremely intuitive about other people’s desires and vulnerabilities. Thus, they are no strangers to politics or the executive suite since only through constant testing and triumph can they assuage that dark inner feeling of inadequacy and fear. They are dissemblers and often can be dangerous. They can invest intense emotional investments in someone else only to turn coldly against them for some imagined slight. So Einstein was morally obtuse when it came to women. Franklin could disown his son over politics and send John Adams scurrying from Paris to Holland in fear for his life.

Throughout this fascinating, well-written and well-balanced examination, Mr. Isaacson also contrasts the emotionally flawed Jobs with his iconic rival Bill Gates. If ever there was a nice guy it is the superintelligent, if somewhat wonky but nonetheless saintly, Mr. Gates. Mr. Isaacson thinks Mr. Gates is both smart as well as good. And Jobs?

Mr. Isaacson answers his own question at the end of the book, “Was he smart? No, not exceptionally. Instead, he was a genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical … Like a pathfinder, he could absorb information, sniff the winds, and sense what lay ahead.”

Perhaps the funniest passage in Walter Isaacson's monumental book about Steve Jobs comes three quarters of the way through. It is 2009 and Jobs is recovering from a liver transplant and pneumonia. At one point the pulmonologist tries to put a mask over his face when he is deeply sedated. Jobs rips it off and mumbles that he hates the design and refuses to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he orders them to bring five different options for the mask so that he can pick a design he likes. Even in the depths of his hallucinations, Jobs was a control-freak and a rude sod to boot. Imagine what he was like in the pink of health. As it happens, you don't need to: every discoverable fact about how Jobs, ahem, coaxed excellence from his co-workers is here.

As Isaacson makes clear, Jobs wasn't a visionary or even a particularly talented electronic engineer. But he was a businessman of astonishing flair and focus, a marketing genius, and – when he was getting it right, which wasn't always – had an intuitive sense of what the customer would want before the customer had any idea. He was obsessed with the products, rather than with the money: happily, as he discovered, if you get the products right, the money will come.

Isaacson's book is studded with moments that make you go "wow". There's the Apple flotation, which made the 25-year-old Jobs $256m in the days when that was a lot of money. There's his turnaround of the company after he returned as CEO in 1997: in the previous fiscal year the company lost $1.04bn, but he returned it to profit in his first quarter. There's the launch of the iTunes store: expected to sell a million songs in six months, it sold a million songs in six days.

When Jobs died, iShrines popped up all over the place, personal tributes filled Facebook and his quotable wisdom – management-consultant banalities, for the most part – was passed from inbox to inbox. This biography – commissioned by Jobs and informed by hours and hours of interviews with him – is designed to serve the cult. That's by no means to say that it's a snow-job: Isaacson is all over Jobs's personal shortcomings and occasional business bungles, and Jobs sought no copy approval (though, typically, he got worked up over the cover design).

But its sheer bulk bespeaks a sort of reverence, and it's clear from the way it's put together that there's not much Jobs did that Isaacson doesn't regard as vital to the historical record. We get a whole chapter on one cheesy ad ("Think Different"). We get half a page on how Jobs went about choosing a washing machine – itself lifted from an interview Jobs, bizarrely, gave on the subject to Wired. Want to know the patent number for the box an iPod Nano comes in? It's right there on page 347. Similarly, the empty vocabulary of corporate PR sometimes seeps into Isaacson's prose, as exemplified by the recurrence of the word "passion". There's a lot of passion in this book. Steve's "passion for perfection", "passion for industrial design", "passion for awesome products" and so on. If I'd been reading this on an iPad, the temptation to search-and-replace "passion" to "turnip" or "erection" would have been overwhelming.

Isaacson writes dutiful, lumbering American news-mag journalese and suffers – as did Jobs himself – from a lack of sense of proportion. Chapter headings evoke Icarus and Prometheus. The one on the Apple II is subtitled "Dawn of a New Age", the one on Jobs's return to Apple is called "The Second Coming", and when writing about the origins of Apple's graphical user interface (Jobs pinched the idea from Xerox), Isaacson writes with splendid bathos: "There falls a [sic] shadow, as TS Eliot noted, between the conception and the creation."

But get past all that pomp and there's much to enjoy. Did you know that the Apple Macintosh was nearly called the Apple Bicycle? Or that so obsessed was Jobs with designing swanky-looking factories (white walls, brightly coloured machines) that he kept breaking the machines by painting them – for example bright blue?

As well as being a sort-of-genius, Jobs was a truly weird man. As a young man, he was once put on the night-shift so co-workers wouldn't have to endure his BO. (Jobs was convinced his vegan diet meant he didn't need to wear deodorant or shower more than once a week.) He was perpetually shedding his shoes, and sometimes, to relieve stress, soaked his feet in the toilet. His on-off veganism was allied to cranky theories about health. When he rebuked the chairman of Lotus Software for spreading butter on his toast ("Have you ever heard of serum cholesterol?"), the man responded: "I'll make you a deal. You stay away from commenting on my dietary habits, and I will stay away from the subject of your personality."

That personality. An ex-girlfriend – and one, it should be said, who was very fond of him – told Isaacson that she thought Jobs suffered from narcissistic personality disorder. Jobs's personal life is sketchily covered, but what details there are don't charm. When he got an on/off girlfriend pregnant in his early 20s, he cut her off and aggressively denied paternity – though he later, uncharacteristically, admitted regretting his behaviour and sought to build a relationship with his daughter. (Jobs himself was adopted, and seems to have had what Americans call "issues around abandonment".)

He cheated his friends out of money. He cut old colleagues out of stock options. He fired people with peremptoriness. He bullied waiters, insulted business contacts and humiliated interviewees for jobs. He lied his pants off whenever it suited him – "reality distortion field" is Isaacson's preferred phrase. Like many bullies, he was also a cry-baby. Whenever he was thwarted – not being made "Man of the Year" by Time magazine when he was 27, for instance – he burst into tears.

As for critiquing the work of others, Jobs's analytical style was forthright: "too gay" (rabbit icon on desktop); "a shithead who sucks" (colleague Jef Raskin); "fucking dickless assholes" (his suppliers); "a dick" (the head of Sony music); "brain-dead" (mobile phones not made by Apple).

Nowadays we are taught that being nice is the way to get on. Steve Jobs is a fine counter-example. In 2008, when Fortune magazine was on the point of running a damaging article about him, Jobs summoned their managing editor to Cupertino to demand he spike the piece: "He leaned into Serwer's face and asked, 'So, you've uncovered the fact that I'm an asshole. Why is that news?'"

This is a book that will make the reader think, not just about the subject, but about others who demand our unquestioned regard.