loving the Jobs idea

It pains me to say it, but we react to people -- even in our most intimate relationships -- as ideas rather than as people.  This is certainly true of people who are more distant from us.  Thus, our friends occur to us primarily as images and associations, rather than as actual, living human beings.

This is quadruply true with famous people.  One recent prominent example is Steve Jobs.  I know because I have been doing an experiment by carrying around his biography, by Walter Isaacson, in Brooklyn and New York City.  I had written about Jobs on his death through a fake "heavenly" interview with him.  The Isaacson book hadn't come out yet.  I had heard of Jobs' foibles, and included them in the interview.  But I didn't understand a quarter of his personality before reading the bio.

On the subway last night, a young man next to me was reading a book about how to make money, which he obviously thought was pretty good, since he told me I should read it next after finishing the Jobs book. As though I were reading about Jobs to figure out how to become rich myself (okay, I did get one or two ideas that way).  Or as though the Jobs story was about the incredible wealth he acquired.

Jobs himself would have objected in the extreme to this characterization (however much money he made) by saying that he was different from Bill Gates -- and everybody else in the PC, consumer electronics, whatever industry -- because he cared only about making great, usable, simple, beautiful products.  Which was also far from true.

And this morning, the guy at the coffee shop reacted by saying, "He had so many ideas he didn't tell us -- he was storing them all away until we were ready for them."  This is the idea of Jobs as the genius incarnate, as though the idea for each product -- Pixar's films, the Mac, the iPod, the iPad, the iPhone, Apple stores, the APP Store -- occurred to Jobs at birth, or soon after.

This isn't true.  Jobs (with Stephen Wozniak) did create the precursor to the Mac and founded Apple at an early age.  But the rest was making the best of circumstances, responding to opening doorways, and sometimes missing the mark -- but coming back to hit it on a second (or later) try.  And, of course, Jobs himself hardly came up with anything but groovy design ideas and demands for others to meet.  He couldn't have imagined these products in their entirety -- they evolved through time and the efforts of others.

Jobs' greatest magic act of all has been his emergence as our consumer electronics era's idea of the guru genius.  Virtually all of his obituaries and tributes highlight this aspect of his persona.  But this image hides a horrible set of secrets about his personality.  As I said in my "interview" with Jobs as he entered heaven: "A lot of people are surprised to learn that I'm here at all. I guess God really appreciates success."  I didn't know the half of it.

The idea of Steve Jobs was that he was impatient with others for not being the genius that he was.  That idea falls far short of reality.  Jobs was cruel, totally selfish, and incapable of considering others' feelings.  He regularly lambasted his partners and workers by issuing devastating critiques of them as worthless human beings and their efforts as crap.  No amount of success, of efforts by those closest to Jobs, of awareness of his impending death could change this about him.

Those who worked best with Jobs found ways to compensate.  Since he regularly rejected new ideas that weren't his own, these co-workers and employees found that the best approach was to present an idea gradually, or to show Jobs worse alternatives before getting to what they thought was a good product idea, or to simply wait for Jobs to decide he liked the idea -- after which he would claim it as his own.  His closest colleagues -- like his long-time design maven partner, Jony Ive -- ended up bitterly disappointed that Jobs would never acknowledge that they contributed to Apple's great inventions.

But that wasn't the worst of it.  These people at least opted to work with Jobs -- or if they didn't like it, they could leave (and, at that level, they could always find employment elsewhere).  But Jobs also treated people on the street, sometimes very vulnerable people, like shit.  Not long after leaving the hospital and a near-death experience, Jobs went with a close colleague to get a smoothie.  When it didn't meet his standards (Jobs regularly returned everything he ordered, like he rejected every idea from his engineers and products by other companies), he humiliated the senior-age woman who had made the drink -- even though it was probably identical to many he had previously consumed and the one he eventually drank.

Imagine being a responsible person and half-way decent human being who saw Jobs do that to coworkers and strangers.  You would have to say to yourself (as such people perpetually did), "That's just Steve being Steve.  But he's so great and valuable -- to me, to Apple, and to the world -- that I'll accept this, and allow him to decimate other human beings in my presence."

But that's not the worst of it.  Much has been made of Jobs' rejecting his daughter from a relationship he had before his marriage. One obituary for Jobs that was less idolatrous than the rest was Maureen Dowd's, which emphasized Jobs' failures with intimacy, with women, and with family.  But Dowd didn't really get down to the worst of it.  Jobs eventually reconciled with the daughter from his prior relationship -- sort of.  By the end of his life, they were rarely in contact -- and then only around hospital beds Jobs occupied.

But that's not the worst of it.  Here's Isaacson about Jobs' relationships with his two daughters in his "stable" marriage:

Jobs developed a strong relationship with Reed (his son), but with his daughters he was more distant.  As he would with others, he would occasionally focus on them, but just as often would completely ignore them. . . . "He focuses on his work, and at times he has not been there for the girls," Powell said (his wife, Laurene Powell).

How did Jobs -- the man who could not give credit -- think about this? 

At one point Jobs marveled to his wife at how well their kids were turning out, "especially since we were not always there for them."  This amused, and slightly annoyed, Powell, because she had given up her career when Reed turned two and she decided she wanted to have more children.

"Slightly" annoyed?

Which brings us to the strangest story of all -- Jobs' marriage.  Powell was a beautiful, loving, capable woman (she had already been a success at Goldman Sachs when Jobs met her as a Stanford Business School student).  Why did she put up with Jobs -- for example, his saying that they would marry then dropping the subject with her while he asked friends whether she was more beautiful than another blonde he had considered marrying -- until she temporarily moved out of their home? But, more importantly, how could she accept a man who ignored their two daughters?

When you're rich and successful -- among the richest and in some ways most successful people in the world -- you create an idea of yourself.  And that idea is so powerful, it overcomes everything else -- in the minds of the public, your colleagues, and even those who love you most.  This idea can even become more important than the person they actually may know.

Follow Stanton on Twitter

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers:

You are reading

Addiction in Society

Roy Moore, Sex, Republicans, and Religious Conservatism

Conservative Republicans and Christians aren't against sex -- just adult sex

"Lady Bird" II: To Be, or Not To Be, Traumatized

A film that dares to remember what used to be regarded as normal development.

American Cinema Has Produced Its First Woman Auteur

Greta Gerwig voices the displacement of the Continental divide