I'm generally skeptical of "authorized" biographies, because they tend to be puff pieces. I've been proven wrong on two occasions: Open, by Andre Agassi, and now Steve Jobs. In a complete contradiction to the rest of his secretive existence, Jobs gave Isaacson unprecedented access to all aspects of his life, along with complete control. "It's your book," Jobs told him. "I won't even read it." The result is a terrific look into the goods, bads and uglies of Steve Jobs.
If you've ever wondered about the true essence of the public persona of Steve Jobs, we've all come to instantly recognize over the course of the last decade or so, this is 570 pages you won't want to miss. Are there gaps in the book, stones left unturned, questions left unanswered by Isaacson? Absolutely. But another 500 pages wouldn't answer them, because no one, other than the man himself, will ever truly understand Steve Jobs. He was an enigma, a contradiction and a creative genius.
I was hooked five pages in, when Isaacson writes: "This is also, I hope, a book about innovation. At a time when the United States is seeking ways to sustain its innovative edge, and when societies around the world are trying to build creative digital-age economies, Jobs stands as the ultimate icon of inventiveness, imagination and sustained innovation. He knew that the best way to create value in the 21st century was to connect creativity with technology, so he built a company where leaps of the imagination were combined with remarkable feats of engineering."
This "whole brain" approach to changing the world is what kept me turning pages as fast as I could. The blend of Eastern and Western philosophies, the linking of art and engineering, combined with intensely personal conversations and admissions by Jobs, kept me spellbound. It's a modern day iteration of Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey, complete with humble beginning, huge obstacles, initial failure, final victory, homecoming and self-discovery.
I don't think a book review can do this book justice. I also believe the real power is not in what's on the written page, but rather what you read between the lines—your own personal interpretation. Everyone will take something different away from this biography. Personally, I gravitated to a recurring theme around "what real artists do." Steve Jobs fancied himself more of a Zen artist than anything. He told John Scully just before Scully became Apple CEO that he could easily see himself "as a poet in Paris."
Here's what I got from the book…think of it as the 10 S's of "the Steve Jobs code."
1. Real artists simplify. Steve Jobs had a central defining design precept, taken from an artist—Leonardo Da Vinci—who said: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." It was included in the very first Mac brochure.
2. Real artists steal. Most people know Apple took the graphic user interface from Xerox, an act "sometimes described as one of the biggest heists in the chronicles of industry." Jobs was proud of it, and said: "Picasso had a saying—'good artists copy, great artists steal—and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas." Yet when Bill Gates decided to develop the Windows graphical interface, Jobs went ballistic on him: "You're ripping us off! I trusted you, and how you're stealing from us!" To which Gates replies: "Well, Steve, I think it's more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it."
3. Real artists seduce. Jobs took selling to the level of art, for better and for worse. For better: on stage introducing a new product. For worse: with people. "Jobs could seduce and charm people at will, and he liked to do so," writes Isaacson. "People…allowed themselves to believe that because Jobs was charming to them, it meant that he liked and respected them." John Scully told Isaacson that "[Jobs] had an uncanny ability to always get what he wanted, to size up a person and know exactly what to say to reach a person…I couldn't say no."
4. Real artists stand for something. Early in the history of the Mac team, Jobs would take them offsite on 2-day retreats twice a year. At the one in September 1982, "Fifty or so members of the Mac division sat in the lodge facing a fireplace. Jobs sat on top of a table in front of them. He spoke quietly for a while, then walked to an easel and began posting his thoughts. The first was 'Don't compromise.' He displayed another maxim: 'It's not done until it ships.'"
5. Real artists ship. This was the actual maxim Jobs delivered at a Mac team retreat in January 1983, following on "It's not done until it ships." Jobs didn't see the three maxims as contradictory, but rather a way to build creative tension and drive the pursuit of perfection.
6. Real artists are spiritual. "In the mornings and evenings he would meditate and study Zen…" writes Isaacson, and that "Jobs's interest in Eastern spirituality, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism and the search for enlightenment was not merely the passing phase of a 19-year-old." Jobs told him that "Zen has been a deep influence in my life."
7. Real artists say no. When Fortune magazine in March 2008 named Apple “America’s Most Admired Company” as well as “Most Admired for Innovation,” honors owing largely to the success of the iPhone, Jobs revealed that saying no figured centrally into Apple’s approach: “We tend to focus much more. People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done.”
8. Real artists stumble. There's no question that failure, both little missteps and gigantic blunders, and recovery from them, played a central role in the path of Steve Jobs. The story of the August 1997 MacWorld is one I really liked. Jobs had returned to Apple after a dozen years away. At the conference, he stunned the audience by announcing a partnership with Microsoft, making Internet Explorer the Mac's default browser and that Microsoft would be investing $150 million in Apple. He then had Gates appear live via satellite on the huge screen over his head. "That was my worst and stupidest staging event ever. It was bad because it made me look small, and Apple look small, and as if everything was in Bill's hands." It wasn't all bad, though: Apple's stock rose 33 percent that day, a one-day jump of $830 million in market cap.
9. Real artists seek. Steve Jobs learned from everyone, yet followed no one. He was a lifelong learner, believing that "the journey is the reward." Part of that came from the Zen influence, with its focus on intuition. "I began to realize that an intuitive understanding and consciousness was more significant than abstract thinking and intellectual logical analysis," he told Isaacson. "I learned the truth of the Zen saying that if you are willing t travel around the world to meet a teacher, one will appear next door."
10. Real artists stay with us forever. The legacy of Steve Jobs will endure, and we won't soon forget how he was able to accomplish his mission to "put a dent in the universe."
I made sure to buy the the hard cover version, as an e-version would only shortchange the experience of such a beautiful and Apple-like cover. I have it facing out on my shelf overlooking my workspace. It sounds silly, but I like to think the spirit of Steve Jobs is somehow hovering over me, scrutinizing my work, making sure I'm linking my creativity with his technology. I can only hope that I'm doing justice to this most elegant and powerful device I'm using that he gave me to change the world in my own small way.