Friday, November 11, 2011

His Magical Thinking: "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson

The NotMakingThisUp Book Review

 So how did a guy who was described by one of his closest friends as “reflexively cruel and harmful to some people” and by the mother of his first child as “an enlightened being who was cruel”;
 Who honed a “trick of using stares and silences to master other people”;
Who took a bonus meant to be split with his best friend and future co-founder of Apple, Steve Wozniak—which “Woz” had earned for the duo by designing a video game with fewer chips than a preset maximum—and still denied it after he had become a multi-billionaire (Wozniak got paid all of $350 for his efforts);
 Who was described as sometimes “abusive” by an early business partner, as “the opposite of loyal…he has to abandon the people he is close to” by a longtime friend and as “frighteningly cold” by another;
 Who denied he was the father of his first child and according to the child’s mother “didn’t want to have anything to do with her or with me”;
 Who threw a “tantrum” when Apple’s first president gave him employee badge #2 while Wozniak got badge #1, then demanded, and got, badge #0;
 Who shouted down strangers at business meetings by yelling “Let’s stop this bullshit!” and wooed engineering prospects by telling them “Everything you’ve ever done in your life is shit, so why don’t you come work for me?”;
 Who parked his car in the handicapped spot at the front of his building so frequently that an Apple employee “painted over the handicapped wheelchair symbol with a Mercedes logo”;
 Who was described by his first supervisor as “a goddamn hippie with b.o.” and was considered by his first boss at that same company to be “not a great engineer”.…
 How, exactly, did Steven P. Jobs become the unstoppable force who, by intelligence, intuition and sheer willpower lead the creation of not one, but two dominant companies of their times, and directly affect the lives of more human beings than any other individual of his generation?
 For the answer to that question, read this book.
 What it mainly comes down to—and we’re not giving anything away here, because you’ll want to read it all—is that Jobs simply used what Apple veterans called his “reality distortion field” to talk people into doing things they didn’t think they could do.
 One of the best—among many—stories along this line occurs when an Apple engineer tries to explain why an early beta of the Mac operating system is taking so long to boot up, too long for Jobs:
…Jobs cut him off.  “If it could save a person’s life, would you find a way to shave ten seconds off the boot time?” he asked.  Kenyon allowed that he probably could.  Jobs went to a whiteboard and showed that if there were five million people using the Mac, and it took ten seconds extra to turn it on every day, that added up to three hundred million or so hours per year that people would save, which was the equivalent of at least one hundred lifetimes saved per year.  “Larry was suitably impressed, and a few weeks later he came back and it booted up twenty-eight seconds faster,” Atkinson recalled.  “Steve had a way of motivating by looking at the bigger picture.”
 And Isaacson tells the story of that bigger picture very, very well—mainly by letting other voices do the talking.
 They are the voices of those who were there early in Jobs’ career, when the defining impetus of his life—being given up for adoption—was shaping the personality that would alternately fascinate, disgust, energize and terrorize those who encountered that “reality distortion field.”
 They are the voices of those who influenced Jobs along the way (Atari founder Nolan Bushnell’s voice is especially delightful, and the simplicity of his instructions for Atari’s first Star Trek game—…uncomplicated enough that a stoned freshman could figure them out… “1. Insert quarter. 2. Avoid Klingons”—became a guiding principle behind Jobs’ own creations).
 They are the voices of those who were there when the Apple II, the Mac, the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad were born; when Jobs was creating—and failing with—NeXT; when Jobs returned to Apple somewhat older and somewhat wiser, and still a perfectionist; and when Pixar was saved and nourished into an animation powerhouse by Jobs.
 Also they are the voices of those with him when he was dying.

 The book flows quickly and it flows without a hitch, because even though the author spent a great deal of time with Jobs in the waning days of his life, he does not interject himself, except when absolutely necessary to tell the story.
 Also, it’s not written as a straight chronology: it jumps ahead at times—for example, to explain Jobs’ bond with Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design guru, before going back to the ‘aha’ moments that led to the iPod, the design of which Ive and Jobs shaped together—and always to good effect.
 And, as you've already figured out, Isaacson sugarcoats very little.
 Most important of all, along the way in this great story you’ll learn where Jobs got his love of craftsmanship; how the first product Wozniak and Jobs came up with was in fact illegal; why Apple was named “Apple”; how employees manipulated Jobs to (sometimes) reach the conclusion they thought he should reach; why the first iPod was all-white (even the ear-buds); how Jobs’ work at NeXT and Pixar informed his return to Apple; how Jobs’ exile in Italy after his first Apple career influenced the floors you walk on today in every Apple store; why Jobs wore turtlenecks;  what he told Larry Page about how to manage Google, and, more interestingly, what he told the CEO of Corning while successfully persuading him to resurrect a failed Corning glass R&D project into what became the rugged but clear glass screen on your iPhone; and, over and over, how the perfectionist Jobs could obsess over any detail when it came to the design of a product, a hotel room, a business card—even an oxygen mask in the hospital as he lay near death.
 Indeed, the word “obsess” appears nine times in this book, the word “tantrum” eight times, and the phrase “Jobs insisted” appears—we are not making this up—28 times in the book.
 Jobs’ favorite derogatory term for bad work—“shit”—appears early and often, in various forms (“this is shit” appears four times, “it’s shit” once); while “sucks,” another favored Jobs adjective for bad people or bad things, appears five times, including once when Jobs simply combines the two adjectives into “he’s a shithead who sucks.”
 Still, the word that sticks in the mind after reading all of Steve Jobs is neither.  In fact, it is in no way negative.
 The word is “magical,” and it appears 19 times in the book, including three times when it’s used by Jobs describing a technology or a product.
 But the most poignant, and powerful use of the word comes from Jobs’ wife who, in explaining how he at first avoided coming to terms with his initial cancer diagnosis—in a similar fashion to the way he routinely avoided coming to terms with the limitations of fellow human beings, thereby pushing them into making products that literally changed the world—summed up the mindset that nursed Pixar from a struggling graphics design shop into the savior of Disney and, at the same time, pushed Apple onto a path that would make it the most valuable company in the world before he died.
 It was, she called it, “his magical thinking.”

 So read this book.
 If you’re a teenager who “thinks different” and wants to understand how Jobs took that same quality and turned it from a liability to a world-changing asset; if you’re a geek who wants to understand how Jobs identified break-through technologies and made them commercial; if you’re an investor who wants to understand how a company learns less from great success than from failure; if you’re a board member who wants to understand how destructive a creative genius can be, and how to harness that genius without destroying a company; if you’re a CEO who wants to discover what makes a product a flop like Microsoft’s Zune instead of a hit like the iPod; if you’re a design student who doesn’t care about business but wants to understand why the iPad feels so comfortable to pick up (hint: rounded, not square, edges); if you’re an advertiser who wants to understand how two frames can be the difference between a “great” TV commercial and a “shit” commercial; if you don’t care about any of that but just want to understand how all these products came to be…read this book.
 It’s great.
 Maybe even insanely great.

Jeff Matthews
Author “Secrets in Plain Sight: Business and Investing Secrets of Warren Buffett”
(eBooks on Investing, 2011)    Available now at

© 2011 NotMakingThisUp, LLC


rcyran said...

Like most people, his strengths were also his weaknesses. He could will nearly impossible things into existence, but he ran into trouble trying to will things out of existence (Microsoft, cancer).

One part that I took away was how Jobs was inspired by Land (of Polaroid).

Here's an excellent article on what he did at Polaroid, and all the spooky parallels between the two men.

TheAcsMan said...

Great review.

If there was ever a proof that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts", it is Steve Jobs.

It is amazing that what we may perceive as individual character flaws, when assembled and examined on a macro level, result in a nearly universal feeling of awe and respect.

Anonymous said...

you wrote: "but two dominate companies of their times"

that should be "but two dominant companies of their times"

I do not find interesting a man who designed (not invented) overpriced-but-aesthetically-pleasing gadgets.

Indeed, I've never owned an Apple gadget.

Apple itself, I'd guess, is headed for a long and slow fall. It's probably not time to short the stock. That will come after the release of the last Jobs-designed gadget to come out of Apple, which will be the iPhone 5 or the iTV.

Jeff Matthews said...

Correction made, thank you.

Calling iPhones, iPads et al "gadgets"...well, what's not a gadget then?

As for the stock price, we never comment on stock prices and never will...although Jobs was unusually sensitive to the stock price--not as a measure of his own net worth, but as a measure of his value to the world.



Nick said...

No one is talking about the very distastful, stock option back-dating incident and the subsequent lie he used when pressed on the issue.
I like Apple products and am sorry that Steve Jobs didn't live a longer life.
Jeff, Does Isaacson shed any light on this issue?

Jeff Matthews said...

Nick, the back-dating is there, not in depth but it's there. As disturbing (as I tried to make clear, Isaacson doesn't shy away from the dark side of Jobs) is what happened before the back-dating began. I'll leave it at that.


Anonymous said...

This review certainly made me reconsider reading the book.

It's interesting that you touched on the "destructive" part of Jobs and how the book can help understand that more. It appears that the many Apple fanboys out there have missed a lot of darker lessons to be learned from personality like Steve Jobs. I find it strange that a huge topic such as eating disorders (in males) has not gained more prominence in light of Jobs' accelerated demise due to his inability to treat his lifelong disorder. Idolizing should not be the only way to learn and gain from one's life.

farmland investment said...

I had not thought much about buying the book, but after reading this review I am going to go on Amazon and give it a good hard look as it sounds extremely compelling. I think like many gifted geniuses, Jobs was a man of contradictions. Its not necessarily the "nicest" or most emotionally healthy people who change the world, but frequently those with the dark side that it looks like Jobs had. Remember, Bill Gates admitted once that he probably had a mild case of aspergers, and Vermeer cut off his ear! Genius and happiness do not necessarily go together.

Anonymous said...

No one is talking about how Jobs found his ideas. Genius is the wrong word--I would use opportunist.

All were stolen from the very beginning: the UI (xerox parc), the the iPod (paid a stipend) the iPhone, the iPad(another xerox parc idea), and so on. Maybe he never mentioned this to his Isaacson. The theft was always such that the cost was nil or nonexistent because he saw the idea then built it with resources most don't have and being fully aware the ideas were unprotected or unprotectable.

Jeff Matthews said...

Anonymous makes the mistake of not reading before criticizing.

As I said in this review, Isaacson pulls no punches. Jobs' visit to Xerox PARC is one of the best scenes in the book.

Jobs himself called it "stealing."


Anonymous said...


You are right I have not read the book yet. Been around since before he started his company, so those of us from the bay area know his reputation well. What I was commenting on was more the way Jobs has attained great fame and nauseating reverence as some kind of genius inventor and it has stuck. Has nothing to do with the book.

Jeff Matthews said...

Right, but Isaacson doesn't pull punches, that's what makes it very very interesting all the way through. It's not a cover-up. He lays it all out there.



john said...

Curious for your response to his interactions w/ Apple's Board of Directors, Jeff. They seem to be more involved than I would have expected, particularly on an issue like switching to Intel chips.

Also, some of the stuff at the end seems overblown -- 'Antenna-gate' gets nearly four pages, for instance. Seems a bit much. Same for the negotiations w/ the NY Times and WSJ.

Some other quibbles here/there, but mostly an engaging and fun book...

Jeff Matthews said...

I agree on the board involvement--the options negotiations were an eye-opener too, but the external fallout from the investigation wasn't too filled-in.

Antenna-gate was worth 4 pages, I thought, because it showed internally how Jobs stonewalled then reacted.

At the time a lot of people thought it was a major problem: seeing how he handled what was probably the first major screw-up in the post-iPod era was interesting.


Shayari SMS said...

A nice read and gives insight about initial days of Apple. Love the part where Steve replaced Soda with fruit juices.
Also got to know that GUI was NOT stolen from Xerox but was a deal between Apple and Xerox as Xerox management did not believe in GUI/mouse concept.