The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Learning from the Life of Steve Jobs

Jobs never made a decision that was simply good enough.

Did Alexander Graham Bell do any market research before he invented the telephone?
- Steve Jobs
 

Like many of you, I have just read the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (2011). I'm happy to recommend it to any of you yet to take a look. It contains a wealth of compelling information not only about Jobs himself but the era in which he lived, which is to say the era in which all of us have lived and still do.

For no particularly good reason, I have not owned any Apple products, so what I knew about them was always one step removed, although many of my friends and colleagues have sung their praises to me over the years. Now I get it, and I may actually take an Apple plunge.

However, the central focus of the book is not the technology that Jobs helped bring to the world. The focus is on Jobs, and the picture conveyed is one of an incredibly complex and driven individual. The author provides plenty of biographical details that help to make psychological sense of Stephen Jobs and his signature style yet resists simplifying. The appeal of the biography is that each reader can use it to make his or her own sense of Steve Jobs.

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What follows in this essay is my sense.

My initial response while reading the book was sadness and dismay that such an accomplished person seemed to be unhappy so much of the time. From my perspective as a positive psychology researcher, Jobs had it all in terms of the ingredients of a satisfied life (a sense of meaning and purpose, engagement with his work, friends and family, accomplishments galore), yet satisfaction was often elusive.

Moreover, Jobs seemed to be a thoroughly difficult guy. He was impatient with others, harsh in his judgments, and manipulative. One of the recurring ideas in the book is that Jobs had a "reality distortion field" that led him to ignore the facts and indeed encouraged others to do the same. Again from my perspective as a positive psychology researcher, these tendencies should have made his life and career dual disasters, but they did not.

What most caught my attention about Jobs as described in the book was his perfectionism, which showed up not only with respect to his products but also with respect to how he lived his mundane life. One of the truisms of positive psychology, amply supported by research, is that those who "maximize" their choices and decisions, trying to make the best ones possible, are not as happy as those who "satisfice" their choices and decisions, trying to make those that are good enough but not necessarily perfect (Schwartz, 2002).

Jobs never made a decision that was simply good enough, whether it was designing a computer case, laying out an Apple store, or ordering a meal in a restaurant. For example, Jobs did not think computers should have an internal fan because the noise would disturb the experience of the user. Creating a fan-free computer was exceedingly difficult for Apple engineers but eventually possible. For another example, Jobs insisted that the inside of a computer be as attractive as the outside, never mind that a user would never see the inside1. And Jobs fretted mightily about the appearance and construction of the cardboard box in which an Apple computer was shipped, despite the fact that such boxes would of course be discarded.

There are two traditions in positive psychology (Bacon, 2005). One is a warm and fuzzy tradition that stresses positive emotions and harmonious relationships; many equate this tradition with the whole of positive psychology, and it is the perspective of this tradition that led to my initial dismay upon reading the biography of Steve Jobs. But the second tradition deserves as much attention. It stresses accomplishment and achievement. It is a tradition that smacks of elitism and is harder to hug because it may not hug back. But if our concern is with the good life, we need to acknowledge, celebrate, and understand both traditions.

Some critics have argued that Steve Jobs never really invented anything. I beg to differ. He invented the 21st century, and he did it his way. And his way became our way. If the life of Jobs does not conform to the pronouncements of psychology about the good life, then it is our theories that need to change and expand and - dare I say - become more perfect.

Footnote

1. "A story is told about the medieval stone masons who carved the gargoyles that adorn the great Gothic cathedrals. Sometimes their creations were positioned high upon the cathedral, hidden behind cornices or otherwise blocked from view, invisible from any vantage point on the ground. They sculpted these gargoyles as carefully as any of the others, even knowing that once the cathedral was completed and the scaffolding was taken down, their work would remain forever unseen by human eye. It was said that they carved for the eye of God. That, written in a thousand variations, is the story of human accomplishment" (Charles Murray, 2003, Human accomplishment, p. 458).

References

Bacon, S. F. (2005). Positive psychology's two cultures. Review of General Psychology, 9, 181-192.

Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs. New York; Simon & Schuster.

Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why less is more. New York: HarperCollins.

 

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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