Was Steve Jobs Really Insanely Great?

Ever since Steve Jobs died last week, I’ve been thinking about what it means or why everyone is so convinced he was a brilliant executive.

Of course Jobs was a gifted, creative man. It’s terrible when anyone with a family and thriving business is cut down in his fifties, and I was certainly saddened by news of his death, just as I was when he stepped down as Apple CEO in August. I’ve been a Mac loyalist for decades.

Steve Jobs, 2007

But just because I’m enamored of a brand, doesn’t mean everything its creator did has now turned to gold. And with all that’s been written about Jobs’s legacy, I’m uncomfortable with the notion that business success is the most important measure of a human being’s value to others.

"The world is immeasurably better because of Steve," Apple sighs—of course—but I see no major media outlets questioning this PR statement. Steven Levy, author of Insanely Great, his 1994 book about "The Life and Times of the Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything," even says in his recent Wired memorial that no one would ever "take issue" with it.

But I do. Much as I appreciate Levy’s credible analysis of Jobs, especially in his nuanced look at the many forces that made this adoptee who he was, I’m not convinced Jobs was the "most adored and admired business executive on the planet, maybe in history."

In fact, he was a legendary horrible boss, famous for charming employees in the morning and screaming abuse at them in the afternoon. After a week of fond remembrances, it’s refreshing to read this 2007 take by BNET’s Geoffrey James in "Don’t Tolerate Crazy Bosses":

"It’s childish, disgusting behavior and it’s a disgrace that it’s tolerated in the business world. Whenever I think of, say, Steve Jobs…behaving like a two-year-old at a meeting, I think of the Eminem video where a fast-food worker blows snot into other people’s food, a behavior that shows exactly the same level of maturity and self-respect."

Levy and many other commentators—including former managing editor of Time Walter Isaacson, whose authorized biography of Jobs is due out later this month, and Stanley Bing of Crazy Bosses fame—nod to the fact that he was an intense control freak who reamed out underlings. Yet, the tenor of all these memorials is that his genius excuses such behavior.

Does it? And if so, why? In mourning a complicated figure like Jobs, I’d like to examine what we’re really celebrating here and what notions get reinforced: the value of individual creativity; the primacy of profit as an indication of success; the belief that without Apple products—or the Model T, for that matter—the world would otherwise have descended into the Dark Ages.

The Story of Jobs is a tale the business press loves to hype. His cocky rise and fall—and most, important—his rise again with the iPod and iPhone makes him a hero. His youthful swashbuckling, with its New Age twist of travels to India and psychedelia, makes him an even more perfect icon for the boomers who craft the current business narrative: We all love our products now, don’t we? What matters is being a responsible consumer. 

The thing is, I find comparisons of Jobs to Leonardo Da Vinci and Thomas Edison tough to swallow. Henry Ford, maybe, given that Ford’s business success, much like Jobs’s, was based on the idea of turning cars into commodities for everyone and a giant publicity machine.

Even so, Jobs was not an engineer or inventor. More than anything, he was an entrepeneur, a designer, and a master of branding—and for that reason, I’d compare him to Coco Chanel.

Like Jobs, Chanel created a signature brand that represents a complete aesthetic—her little black dress is not unlike Jobs’s approach to "simplicity" in computer design—and her person became one with the brand. Like Jobs, Chanel spent years in exile, reviled as a Nazi sympathizer, but then returned to Paris, her brand blooming once more. (And like Jobs, she also lost her biological mother and father, growing up in an orphanage.)

I first thought of Chanel when I saw the black-and-white photo of young Jobs on Time‘s memorial cover—his arms crossed on top of the original Macintosh, which rests on his legs in the lotus position—black, white, gray; those angular, harmonious shapes.

Being compared to Coco Chanel is no small thing, yet I don’t see anyone outside the fashion industry doing it. (Jobs’s black turtlenecks have been called Chanel-inspired.) The fact that he’s lauded as an inventor who will be remembered hundreds of years from now—compared only to male geniuses and executives—indicates some telling gaps in The Story of Jobs.

In the wake of all the media outpourings of grief, I’ve been most surprised by the number of my progressive friends, on Facebook and elsewhere, who have mourned Jobs publicly, retweeted his quotes, recalled their first Macintoshes.

Some of it is about brushing against our own mortality. Jobs was just a little older than I and many of my fellow Reed College alums—and as one of Reed’s most famous dropouts, Jobs walked many of the same paths we did: My husband took that calligraphy class at Reed; I designed educational software in the mid-’80s for the Apple II; one friend of mine was a product-tester for the failed Lisa; other friends who commuted to Silicon Valley used to rave about spotting "sexy Steve" on the train.

I’ll miss him, too, but not because he’s the New Age version of Horatio Alger—and certainly not because I like the idea of mean bosses getting a pass. I appreciate him most as a creative guy who didn’t accept the kind of conventional business wisdom that’s now being peddled about him.

Of the many Jobs quotes I’ve seen this past week, here’s my favorite, something he once told Steven Levy:

"I’m a big believer in boredom…. All the [technology] stuff is wonderful, but having nothing to do can be wonderful, too.”


Photo: "Steve Jobs at the WWDC 07," June 17, 2007, by Acaben; Creative Commons license.


2 thoughts on “Was Steve Jobs Really Insanely Great?

  1. I am willing to allow the possibility that Jobs might have been “insanely great” only if it is admitted that there were a lot of insanely great people out there in his (our) time, not because we (the collective we of our generation) were born with any sort of exceptional gifts but because the peculiar cusp of history into which we were born gave genius more room to stretch its legs, so to speak. A few of them crashed and burned; more faded into obscurity either as fringe cranks or sellouts. (I hang my head in sorrow over what happened to Stewart Brand.) Jobs, more or less by luck, remained a public figure. (He has many peers in the realm of innovative design, but most are little known outside their disciplines.) In the end, his memory may stand out from among the ranks of this country’s industrial innovators mainly in that throwing tantrums may be the worst thing that can be said about him, in contrast to Edison, Ford and his competitor Bill Gates.

  2. I agree about the peculiar cusp of history, and the cult of creativity that blossomed in Silicon Valley and Redmond, WA. But as for the worst thing that can be said about Jobs being his tantrums, I don’t think so–unless you think Apple’s labor infractions in China and elsewhere are just standard operating procedure.

    Then there’s the company’s recent attempts to censor various forms of what it (that is, Jobs) called “defamatory” speech–non-hagiographic representations of Jobs, for example, or material it considered un-PC or “pornographic.” In these regards, I think he stands right up there with Gates, Edison, and maybe even Ford, with his mass-produced assembly lines.

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