Notes on Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs, 2011.
“If something isn’t right, you can’t just ignore it and say you’ll fix it later,” he said. “That’s what other companies do.”
Despite the occasional dud product and brink-of-death corporate experience, it's impressive how Apple systemised the creation of excellent products and services. They do it by being brutally focused, by simplifying, by pursuing high quality and emotionally resonant products over short-term profit, by vertically integrating and tightly controlling the components, processes and experience as much as possible. All qualities to inspire.
The great products raised the design and desirability bar, uniting consumers in a high-end version of Warhol's dictum about mass-manufactured products - you know that Liz Taylor drinks Coke too 1. There's a fair bit of honesty about earlier hardware products that weren't so insanely great, but less on the recent - there's nothing on the horrible spaghetti that iTunes bloated into 2.
There is something interesting in the way that the act of selling is concentrated into Jobs himself 3, into his deal-making with Gates, Disney et al, and later the one-last-thing-ing at Apple's events, and to a lesser extent into the product itself, the adverts, the Apple stores. We don't read much about the analysts in Apple's sales and marketing organisations. But all that's to be expected in a biography.
Because its lens is the individual, a biography inevitably supports the great man theory 4 of management, in which a hero single-handedly achieves great things, often against the odds. The theory is common in management analysis today - Jobs the visionary - but is problematic: Asymco has a nice trio of posts querying the structural integrity of the great/stupid manager theory: Apple, Nokia, RIM. And indeed even within Apple the hero narrative rankled. Ive: "it hurts when he takes credit for one of my designs" 5.
People were either “enlightened” or “an asshole.” Their work was either “the best” or “totally shitty.”
Jobs was a very talented and driven man, but he was also capricious and troubled, and must have been very unpleasant to work for at times.
“He would shout at a meeting, ‘You asshole, you never do anything right,’” Debi Coleman recalled. “It was like an hourly occurrence.
there are other times, I think honestly, when he’s very frustrated, and his way to achieve catharsis is to hurt somebody. And I think he feels he has a liberty and a license to do that. The normal rules of social engagement, he feels, don’t apply to him.
Now that we know the full story - the roller coaster and triumph at work and his illness and unfairly early death - it's tempting to re-interpret the narrative, to read Apple's products as the Freudian (solid state) death drive rendered in glass and aluminium, a collective memento mori in the cloud, the thanatological sublime. Or as the opposite: to describe his project as an attempt to make products that utterly transcend their ephemerality, denying their and his ultimate end-point ("I am here."). But neither would be correct: this was simply an intense man who believed in and for most part achieved the consumer electronic products he wanted.
Jobs's epiphany, 2005:
Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
But how terribly sad to have spent so little time with your wife and family. In pouring so much energy and attention into the work, a deficit was surely felt in life, at home.
“Why did you do it?” I asked. “I wanted my kids to know me,” he said.
- The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again), 1975: "What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it."
Incidentally, Warhol and Keith Haring tried MacPaint at Sean Lennon's ninth birthday party in 1985 - Jobs had brought Lennon a Macintosh as a present. Warhol: "Look! Keith! I drew a circle!", but we don't know if the circle was perfect.
- I'd hoped for but didn't get insight into the conversation about the apparent design disconnect between minimal hardware design and kitschy software design. A guess then: either Apple isn't as integrated and consistent as we'd all believe, or Apple unashamedly aims for that emotional resonance over a strict truth to the material.
- Not from the Isaacson book, but Mossberg: "He could sell. Man, he could sell." - from Myslewski's The Life and Times of Steven Paul Jobs, 2011.
- Heroic pre-history starts with the Greek myths, but Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes develops a theory of great men in 1841, Herbert Spencer's criticism of it fifty years later in The Study of Sociology is that the theory is obviously massively reductive, and he suggests that society maketh the man before the man can remake his society.
- Although compare Tim Cook: "I've never given a rat's ass about that."