Making Sense of People

Decoding the mysteries of personality

Why Was Steve Jobs Sometimes So Mean?

Understanding the nasty edge of his personality.

The publication of Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs stimulated a flurry of comments. Many rhapsodized about the brilliant devices Jobs introduced. But others were mainly concerned with his personality.

Some commentators emphasized Jobs' positive side: exceptional creativity, relentless pursuit of excellence, and his ability to inspire extremely talented people. But others focused on his flaws, many of which Isaacson chronicled. One was his callous treatment of his earliest colleagues, including Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple whom Jobs befriended in high school, and Daniel Kottke, his college roommate and an early Apple employee. Another was his abandonment of his pregnant and needy girlfriend, Chrisann Brennan and his initial denial of the paternity of their daughter, Lisa, even in the face of DNA evidence. To Maureen Dowd what stood out in the biography was that Jobs "was capable of frightening coldness even with his oldest collaborators and his family."

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Jobs' coldness also offended many members of the general public. As one put it on a popular website: "I can't say I was ever fond of Jobs as a person but man did I hate his guts after hearing about the way he treated people... He's done a handful of cool things in his life... But he rides on the back of engineers who get no thanks so that he can take most of the credit. He treats others like trash and considered them expendable and replaceable. Not the kind of guy I'd be friends with."

Jobs' capacity to trash people wasn't restricted to those he knew. When addressing a group he would sometimes respond to a straightforward question from a stranger with a merciless harangue. To, Andy Hertzfeld, an early Apple engineer who stayed friends with Jobs, this didn't make sense. As he told Walter Isaacson "The one question I'd love Steve to answer is: ‘Why are you sometimes so mean?'"

Isaacson was also puzzled by this "nasty edge of his personality." So, too, were Jobs' family members who "wondered whether he simply lacked the filter that restrains people from venting their wounding thoughts or willfully bypassed it." But Jobs considered this behavior quite natural. When Isaacson asked Jobs Hertzfeld's question about his meanness he replied: "This is who I am and you can't expect me to be someone I'm not."

I think it's reasonable to conclude that Jobs was right, and that he may well have recognized that his mean streak was tightly linked to aspects of his personality that served him very well. One of these was his belief that he was so special that he was entitled to do whatever he wanted. Sometimes called narcissism, Jobs' sense of specialness gave him the confidence to take big risks and to inspire colleagues and customers. But it also gave him the license to take advantage of others without paying attention to their feelings or needs. And this, in turn, led him to be mean in two ways: through indifference, because he simply didn't realize that he was hurting someone; and through explicit attack if he detected the slightest hint that he was being challenged, especially by an underling or a person he didn't respect.

Another of Jobs' major characteristics, sometimes called compulsiveness, also had both productive and dark sides. This pattern includes Jobs' perfectionism, his insistence on complete control, and his meticulous attention to detail, all of which played a part in the creation of Apple's exceptional products. But his compulsiveness could also provoke anger if someone tried to get him to lower his standards or disagreed with his view of what was "insanely great."

Even Jobs' most transcendent characteristic, which psychologists call openness to experience, was not an unmitigated blessing. It includes his exceptional love of ideas, novelty, and beauty, which greatly enriched both his personal and professional life. But Jobs' esthetic sense was so strongly held that it sometimes caused him to look down his nose when he encountered people who lacked his sensibilities.

In Isaacson's view Jobs could have (and should have) controlled his disagreeable behavior. He could certainly be effusive and charming, and I can personally testify to his capacity to be friendly and considerate. But Jobs just wanted to be who he was, on his terms.

When we judge a person most of us are innately wired to pay closest attention to kindness and fairness. Observing kindness raises our sprits whereas unfairness triggers contempt, and these emotional reactions color our overall impression. The result, in Jobs case, is that many, like the commentator I cited, "hate his guts after hearing about the way he treated people."

But seeing Jobs' meanness in the context of his stunning virtues helps put it in perspective. He was, after all, admirable and remarkable in so many ways---truly special. Even though, from a moral viewpoint, his personal operating system was less perfect than that of his glorious machines.

Samuel Barondes, M.D., is a psychiatrist and neuroscientist and the author of Making Sense of People.

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