Pluses: Well researched, well organized, workmanlike biography of the business icon who revolutionized six (or perhaps seven) major industries, and helped change the ways we interact with our world. Contains both inspiring and cautionary tales for business and life.
Minuses: Somewhat superficial; doesn’t really give one the feeling of knowing Jobs the man or Jobs the entrepreneur. The author is sometimes a little redundant.
Details: These days it seems that nearly everybody wants a piece of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, especially since his October 2011 death from cancer at the age of 56. In the months since then, the name of this business icon and endlessly creative entrepreneur has been waved about like a banner by everyone from politicians to rock stars to self-help gurus. American politicians have lauded Jobs for creating millions of sorely needed jobs, while others have wryly noted that many of those jobs are overseas. On the more touchy-feely side, Jobs has been praised by some as a spiritually aware, “heart-conscious” entrepreneur. Yet Chrisann Brennan, the woman whom he described as his “first real girlfriend,” and who is the mother of his oldest child, told author Walter Isaacson that Jobs was “an enlightened being who was cruel.” She added, “That’s a strange combination.”
This blend of enlightenment and cruelty was only one of the “strange combinations” that defined Steve Jobs. He was also both an abandoned child and a chosen one – abandoned by his birth parents, and not only chosen but doted upon by his adoptive parents. These dramatically contradictory circumstances of his early life somehow worked to shape him into a person who truly thought he was a Chosen One. As such, he was guided by a strong sense that the rules that applied to others did not apply to him.
But perhaps a more significant odd pairing was the unique fusion of technological savvy and artistic sensibility that made Jobs the force behind some of the most remarkable innovations of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. At one point when Isaacson’s biography was still merely in the talking stage, Jobs mused, “I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics. Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
Isaacson writes that it was almost as if Jobs, by saying that, was suggesting a theme for his biography – a theme that turned out to be valid. Indeed, notes Isaacson, the creativity resulting from the combination of humanities and the sciences in one strong personality was what interested him about two of his previous subjects, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. It was certainly one of the themes that interested him most about Jobs’ story, and he feels that this type of creativity will drive innovative economies in this century.
In his 56 years on Earth, Jobs managed to revolutionize six industries: personal computing, animated film, music, phones, tablet computing, and electronic publishing. Isaacson writes, “You might even add a seventh, retail stores, which Jobs did not quite revolutionize but did reimagine.” In addition, notes Isaacson, Jobs opened the way for a new market for digital content based on apps rather than web sites.
In a workmanlike style Isaacson lays out all of Jobs’ achievements – and the other events in his life – in chronological order. But the operative word here is “workmanlike.” If you are expecting a thoughtful psychological analysis, an emotional or spiritual portrait, or a deep and intimate glimpse into the mind and heart of Steve Jobs, you will not find it in Walter Isaacson’s massive biography. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading, especially for those who only know the basics of Steve Jobs’ life but want some details. It just means that this is not as complete a biography as it might have been.
Isaacson was hand-picked by Steve Jobs to write his story “because you’re good at getting people to talk,” he told him, and Jobs made it pretty clear that he wanted it to be a warts-and-all portrait. Accordingly, this book is a result of more than forty interviews between Isaacson and Jobs in a little over two years, as well as Isaacson’s interviews with over a hundred other folks who included family members, close friends, colleagues, competitors, and adversaries. And Isaacson clearly put a great deal of time and effort into researching and writing this book. He had a lot of material to work with, and organizing it into a cohesive whole was no small task. He does a fairly thorough job of documentation, and his book is competently organized and flows well overall.
Isaacson shares numerous interesting tidbits and the occasional insight not only about Jobs but also about the Silicon Valley culture – and many aspects of the larger popular culture – that molded him. Even so, the overall effect is that of reading vignettes of Jobs’ roller-coaster life. The book falls particularly short on the emotional aspects – the depictions of Jobs’ personal relationships, for example. (And at times it almost seems as if Isaacson deliberately chose to emphasize the warts rather than the more flattering points in his portraiture.) Moreover, while Isaacson does a good job of defining many of the themes that in turn defined Jobs’ life – those strange combinations and paradoxes mentioned earlier – he sometimes overstates his case to the point of redundancy. (“Reality distortion field,” anyone?)
There is a great deal of information in this book, but in the end, we really don’t feel as if we know Jobs the man or Jobs the inventor/entrepreneur as well as we could have if Isaacson had taken a different approach – perhaps a thematic rather than a chronological biography. Or he could have produced an oral biography of Jobs, somewhat like Gonzo, the cobbled-together portrait of the late Hunter S. Thompson, as told directly by the people who knew Thompson best. (Maybe Isaacson can take that approach in a subsequent book, and call it something such as, Steve Jobs: A Closer Look.)
Despite its limitations, however, Steve Jobs is an enough read, particularly, as indicated above, for those who want to be filled in on the parts of his remarkable life story that they didn’t know. It is obvious that Isaacson did his homework, and perhaps one can blame the publisher as well as the author for some of the book’s limitations. This book was originally slated to be published in March of 2012, but it is possible – if not likely – that news of Jobs’ imminent death rushed the project somewhat.
Beyond the fact that Jobs is an intriguing subject, what lessons are there in these pages for the busy entrepreneur? The fact that Jobs permanently altered the business landscape in so many extraordinary ways might be reason enough for many business owners to be interested in his story. But are there practical lessons here as well? Obviously, not everyone is a Steve Jobs, or even close to it. Even so, this account is full of both inspiring and cautionary tales that can perhaps be applied in some way to business as well as life, even for the non-Jobs entrepreneurs among us. It would be a stretch to say that Steve Jobs is an indispensable part of every business library, but if you have the time to read it, by all means do so. (You know you want to.) If nothing else, you’ll be reminded again that every human being – not just the entrepreneurial geniuses that fascinate us so – is incredibly complex and, yes, downright contradictory at times. You might also be reminded that it is generally a mistake to use the life story of anyone – even the extraordinary Mr. Jobs – to prove a point of any kind, because there is almost always an equally compelling counterpoint.
* Steve Jobs is available in several print, audio, and digital formats.
Based on this review, would you read this book?
The author of this review was provided the book by Capital Access Network, Inc. The views expressed represent those of the author and do not reflect those of Capital Access Network, Inc. nor its subsidiaries. Any opinions and/or advice expressed by the author do not imply endorsement by Capital Access Network, Inc. nor its subsidiaries.