Sunday, June 3, 2012

Book Review: "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson

Screen capture from my iPad.
Steve Jobs passed away on October 5, 2011, one day after my own birthday on October 4th, which that year involved me gallivanting around the island of Manhattan all day until I could no longer walk. Yet Job's death soured my mood very quickly and cast a pallor over my 27th year (I turned 26, FYI). I was not alone. Around the nation, vigils were held at Apple Stores. People wept, lit candles, and sang together in memory of Steve Jobs. Never in my life (albeit not that long a time) had I witnessed such public and universal grief over the death of a public speaker. Though it should not be surprising, as so many of us, starting with our first iPod, had invited him and his guidance into the most intimate part of our lives.

I had hoped that reading his life story might help me process the strange emotions his death brought about in me. The last biography (though it was a memoir) I read was George W. Bush's "Decision Points," which was a very pleasant experience that allowed me to relive some of my best memories of the last decade. So it is ironic that rather than being a repeat of that experience, "Steve Jobs" was a tale of power, darkness, and tragedy.

Jobs' life was something of a miracle, though he himself rarely recognized anything but the tragedy. He was born to an unwed, interracial couple in the mid-1950's. As his mother's parents did not approve of the union, no marriage was planned, and so his mother could choose to abort him (an illegal procedure at the time) or give him up for adoption. She chose the latter, and Jobs later would be thankful for this, though he still bore the sting of rejection throughout his life, considering it a sort of curse.

His life story is full of such double edged blessings. From creating a breakthrough company, to losing it, to getting it back bloodied and damaged. Though his highest points were definitely his business, creative, and material successes, his lowest points were found in his relationships. He openly admits he lacked as a father, and his romantic relationships were fraught with troubles.

Interestingly, Isaacson draws a connection (one that Jobs insisted was essential) between the drug and hippie movements of the late 60s and early 70s and the computer revolution of the late 70s and early 80s. To put it simply, they were the same people. These status quo challenging rebels first rebelled against a culture and then against an industry. Jobs famously asked a class of Stanford students in 1982, "How many of you are virgins? How many of you have taken LSD?" He truly believed that sex and drug use were indispensable if one wished to truly open their mind to new possibilities and higher levels of thought. As a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, Jobs had a very spiritual way of viewing human experience that informed all his work.

There is much we can learn from Jobs. Certainly, as a business man and creator there is much we can aspire to be. The book points to his successes not only at Apple but also at Pixar. Until Isaacson reminded me, I had already forgotten that there was a time not too long ago that Disney planned to kick Pixar to the curb and make their own films based on the characters Pixar had created but by right belonged to Disney. Ultimately, Jobs left us two companies that greatly impact our culture and society for good in very different ways. This is worth studying, as neither company's success has truly been replicated.

He possessed keen insight. When talking to President Obama in the fall of 2010, he told him that the U.S. had a shortage of engineers qualified to support heavy manufacturing, and that to compensate, students from other nations who receive an engineering degree here in this country should be granted work visas automatically so that their education could be used here. President Obama was unable to separate this idea from the DREAM Act, which is of course quite different, and this frustrated Jobs. He predicted that Obama would only serve one term unless he was able to have a better relationship with businesses.

Yet there is also much to beware. After reading this book, I am even more convinced that great success comes at great personal cost, both to oneself and one's family and close associates. Jobs hurt many people; some perhaps will never truly emotionally recover. It forces one to ask the question, would you trade what this man lacked (and many normal, even poor people, have) for his wealth, success, and power?

"Steve Jobs" is a long book, but one I highly recommend reading. The history of computers and technology development wasn't taught in my college American History course in 2003, but it is definitely history now and should be studied and learned from. This technology shapes our world in extremely powerful ways; we should understand it, where it came from, and the men who built it.
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