“What we are trying to achieve with this book is this: to provide a deeper understanding of Steve Jobs’s ever-evolving arsenal of entrepreneurial skills and capabilities, and the deepening of his almost messianic drive to have an impact on his world. We want to show how it was fueled to an unusual degree by his unique gift for being an autodidact, and by genuine idealism as well as his occasionally scary obsessions, his rigid and austere yet consistently well-thought-out aesthetic standards, his often pompous sense of mission. All along, he held a genuine compassion for the anxieties and needs of ordinary people who want to find new tools to empower and improve themselves in a world that grows more complex, cacophonous, and confounding every day.”
By any measure, the authors of this book accomplished their goals. Much has been written about Steve Jobs over the years but this biography feels the most complete. The authors are business journalists who both knew Jobs well, both personally and professionally. The question that fascinates them the most about Steve is how a brash young entrepreneur who was so arrogant that the company he founded fired him but manage to come back a decade later, having tempered his youthful recklessness with age and experience, and turn Apple around into the most successful companies of all time?
As awestruck as they are by the man, the portrait they paint of him not always flattering. Even so, they knew him well enough to explain why he was the was he was. Steve Jobs has never seemed so human.
Covering Steve had been fascinating and dramatic. He was a truly Shakespearean tale, full of arrogance, intrigue, and pride, of perceived villains and ham-handed fools, of outrageous luck, good intentions, and unimagined consequences. There were so many ups and so many downs in so short a time that it had been impossible to draw the broad trajectory of his success while he was living. Now I wanted to take the long view of the man I’d covered for so many years, the man who had called himself my friend.
The most basic question about Steve’s career is this: How could the man who had been such an inconsistent, inconsiderate, rash, and wrongheaded businessman that he was exiled from the company he founded become the venerated CEO who revived Apple and created a whole new set of culture-defining products that transformed the company into the most valuable and admired enterprise on earth and that changed the everyday lives of billions of people from all different socioeconomic strata and cultures? The answer wasn’t something Steve had ever been all that interested in discussing. While he was an introspective guy, he was not inclined to retrospection: “What’s the point in looking back,” he told me in one email. “I’d rather look forward to all the good things to come.”
The failures, stinging reversals, miscommunications, bad judgment calls, emphases on wrong values—the whole Pandora’s box of immaturity—were necessary prerequisites to the clarity, moderation, reflection, and steadiness he would display in later years.
Steve was able of extraordinary compartmentalization. It’s a talent that allowed him to master and keep track of the various pieces of an entity as complex as Apple upon his return. It allowed him to maintain his focus despite the cacophony of worries that came with knowing he had cancer. It also allowed him to maintain a deep and meaningful life outside the office, while revealing little of that to people who weren’t part of his close inner circle.
Having a grand, bold goal was useless if you didn’t have the ability to tell a compelling story about how you’d get there.
The young man making a hash of his visit to the Garden of Allah that December evening was a mess of contradictions. He was a cofounder of one of the most successful startups ever, but he didn’t want to be seen as a businessman. He craved the advice of mentors, and yet resented those in power. He dropped acid, walked barefoot, wore scraggly jeans, and liked the idea of living in a commune, yet he also loved nothing more than speeding down the highway in a finely crafted German sports car. He had a vague desire to support good causes, but he hated the inefficiency of most charities. He was impatient as hell and knew that the only problems worth solving were ones that would take years to tackle. He was a practicing Buddhist and an unrepentant capitalist. He was an overbearing know-it-all berating people who were wiser and immensely more experienced, and yet he was absolutely right about their fundamental marketing naivete. He could be aggressively rude and then truly contrite. He was intransigent, and yet eager to learn. He walked away, and he walked back in to apologize. At the Garden of Allah he displayed all the brash, ugly behavior that became an entrenched part of the Steve Jobs myth. And he showed a softer side that would go less recognized over the years. To truly understand Steve and the incredible journey he was about to undergo, the full transformation that he would experience over his rich life, you have to recognize, accept, and try to reconcile both sides of the man.
While away from Apple, Steve Jobs had started to earn how to make the most of his strengths, and how to temper somewhat his perilous weaknesses. This reality runs counter to the common myths about Steve. In the popular imagination, he is a tyrant savant with a golden touch for picking products and equally a stubborn son of a bitch with no friends, no patience, and no morals; he lived and died as he was born—half genius and half asshole.
I can’t think of a businessman who grew and changed and matured more than Steve. Personal change is, of course, incremental. As all “grown-ups” come to understand, we wrestle with and learn how to manage our gifts and flaws over a lifetime. It’s an endless growth process. And yet it’s not as if we become wholly different people. Steve is a great object lesson in someone who masterfully improved his ability to make better use of his strengths and to effectively mitigate those aspects of his personality that got in the way of those strengths. His negative qualities didn’t go away, nor were they replaced by new good traits. But he learned how to manage himself, his own personal miasma of talents and rough edges. Most of them, anyway.
Paul Jobs held many jobs over his lifetime, including repo man, machinist, and car mechanic. He was at heart an inveterate tinkerer and craftsman who made furniture or rebuilt cars most weekends and taught his son the paramount value of taking one’s time, paying attention to details, and—since Paul was anything but rich—putting in the legwork to hunt for spare parts that were a good value.
In Silicon Valley, electronics wasn’t just a hobby. It was a fast-growing new industry and just as exciting as rock and roll.
For precocious kids like Steve, the implicit promise in all this was that anything could be figured out—and since anything could be figured out, anything could be built.”It gave one the sense that one could build the things that one saw around oneself in the universe,” he once told me. “These things were not mysteries anymore. You looked at a television set and you would think that, ‘I haven’t built one of those but I could. There’s one of those in the Heathkit catalog and I’ve build two other Heathkits, so I could build that.’ Things became much more clear that they were the results of human creation, not these magical things that just appeared in one’s environment and that one had no knowledge of their interiors.”
In many ways, Steve was a prototypical adolescent geek. But he also was a curious student of the humanities, beguiled by the words of Shakespeare, Melville, and Bob Dylan. Glib and persuasive with his parents, he applied the same skills when dealing with friends, teachers, mentors, and eventually the rich and powerful; Steve innately understood from an early age that the right words and stories could help him win the attention he needed to get what he wanted.
The son of a Lockheed engineer, “Woz” was an engineering genius. Steve, it turned out, was a great enabler of genius. This would turn out to be the first great collaboration of his career.
Steve didn’t have Woz’s innate talent, but he did have a native hunger to put really cool stuff into the hands of as many people as possible. This unique trait fundamentally separated him from other hobbyists messing around with computers. From the start, he had the natural inclination to be an impresario, to convince people to pursue a goal that often only he could see, and then to coordinate and push them toward the creation of that goal.
Steve’s time in India was splintered, as unfocused as the searches of many young people seeking a broader vision than the one they were handed as children.
In Buddhist philosophy, life is often compared to an ever-changing river. There’s a sense that everything, and every individual, is ceaselessly in the process of becoming. In this view of the world, achieving perfection is also a continuous process, and a goal that can never be fully attained. That’s a vision that would come to suit Steve’s exacting nature. Looking ahead to the unmade product, to whatever was around the next corner, and the two or three after that one, came naturally to him. He would never see a limit to the possibilities, a perfect endpoint at which his work would be done. And while Steve would eschew almost all self-analysis, the same was true of his own life: despite the fact that he could be almost unfathomably stubborn and opinionated at times, the man himself was constantly adapting, following his nose, learning, trying out new directions. He was constantly in the act of becoming.
While nobody who knew him well during his later years would have called Steve a “devout” Buddhist, the spiritual discipline informed his life in both subtle and profound ways.
Indeed, adopting the name Apple foreshadows the expansiveness and originality Steve would bring to the creation of these new machines. It’s suggestive of so much: the Garden of Eden, and the humanity—both good and bad—resulting from Eve’s bite of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge; Johnny Appleseed, the great sower of plenitude from American myth; the Beatles and their own record label, a connection that would lead to litigation years later; Isaac Newton, the plummeting apple, and the spark of an idea; American as apple pie; the legend of William Tell, who saved his own life and that of his son by using his crossbow to pierce an apple perched on the son’s head; wholesomeness, fecundity, and, of course, the natural world. Apple is not a word for geeks, unlike Asus, Compaq, Control Data, Data General, DEC, IBM, Sperry Rand, Texas Instruments, or Wipro, to mention some less felicitously named computer companies. It hints at a company that would bring, as it eventually did, humanism and creativity to the science and engineering of computers.
His temper was short and he never hesitated to belittle their work when something went wrong. As a child, Steve had rarely been given any reason to hold back his honest feelings. Now he began to learn one of his first management lessons, namely that his temper, properly targeted, could actually be a very effective motivational tool. It was a lesson that would prove hard to undo.
“Big experienced companies and investors, analysts—those kinds of people, that are trained in business and much smarter than we were—they didn’t think that this was going to be a real big market,” Woz remembered. “They thought it was going to be a little hobby thing, like home robots or ham radios, that a few techie people would get into.”
Steve certainly knew, intellectually, that he needed the orderly and well-oiled basic operations of a corporation to achieve his vision. But he was enamored with instability. His vision was based on destabilizing the existing computer industry. Stability was a quality that IBM had, and Apple, in Steve’s mind, was the anti-IBM.
[Andy Grove’s] combination of pragmatism and expansiveness was something Steve admired, something he aspired to himself.
Silicon Valley has long depended on marketers nearly as much as it depended on engineers. Every technological advance must be framed in a beguiling narrative if it;s to get off the workbench and into businesses and homes. These advances often are foreign concepts, after all, with potential that seems opaque if not daunting, so the job of a great marketer is to wrestle the concept back to earth and make it approachable for mere technophobic mortals.
McKenna quickly saw that Steve was unusually articulate and driven. “He had what I’d call Silicon Valley street smarts.,” says McKenna. “You know how certain kids who grow up in the inner city know where to go to get what, and how the power structure of the neighborhood works? Here, you’re likely to live next door to an electrical engineer or a software programmer, and a smart and curious kid can learn a lot just by wandering and paying attention. From junior high on, Steve was out there figuring things out.”
Suddenly Apple enjoyed an unprecedented, meteoric rise. It manufactured computers that cost more than $1,300 a pop, so when unit sales quickly ramped up into the tens of thousands per month, Apple became the electronic equivalent of a gusher. Sales rose from $7.8 million in 1978 to $47 million in 1979 and all the way up to $117.9 million in 1980, the year of its initial public offering (IPO, in Wall Street parlance). No other company had ever grown that fast.
The personal computer industry was in its infancy, and everyone was flying blind, including Steve. One important thing he didn’t yet understand was that most breakthrough products result from a long cycle of hit-and-miss prototypes, the steady accumulation of features, and a timely synthesis of existing technologies. He and Woz, on the contrary had stuck their heads down, worked hard, and on their very first try created something brilliant that the industry had never before seen. That was Steve’s idea of product development. But he was about to discover that that wasn’t the way it worked inside a corporation.
Steve’s impatience with the nuts and bolts of corporate life was understandable. Steve was a visionary. It’s a word that is loosely tossed around these days, especially in Silicon Valley, but it legitimately applied to Steve even from very early in his life. He had the ability to see around corners, to envision how the seeds of existing ideas could be combined to create something unimaginable to others. The challenge he faced was to become an effective visionary—that’s what turns a dreamer into someone who changes the world.
One could argue that Gates’s greatest contribution to the world was not Microsoft, or the MS-DOS or Windows operating systems, or the Office productivity applications that hundreds of millions of people use. It was his role as the first champion of the concept that software itself had value.
Personality traits that failed him elsewhere worked here. As always, he could be more temperamental than his subordinates, but with this group of artiste engineers he was afforded considerable leeway. “If you could take Steve, he made you up your game,” says Lee Clow. “People who were too thin-skinned to deal with his abusive approach to demanding what he wanted walked away. But I want to prove to guys like that that I can do it. I’m the kind of person who steps up.”
“You read the books and you wonder, ‘As difficult as he is, why would anyone ever work for him?'” says Susan Barnes, the general manager on the Mac project. A no-nonsense financial whiz with a soothing way of managing both above and below her level, Barnes has a quiet, measured intensity that acted like a gyroscope for Steve. She may have been physically small and unassuming, but she commanded respect. “If you’ve worked enough, you know the difference between a boss who just gets it and someone you have to drag into understanding what you’re trying to do. And when you find that boss that just gets it, you’re just like, ‘Oh my God, it’s wonderful. You’re making my life so easy now.’ Steve was that kind of person. He was intellectually right up there with you. You didn’t really have to go into too many explanations. He cared passionately. And he never dialed it in.”
After creating an industry, and then capturing the world’s imagination with another revolutionary computer, he couldn’t be bothered with the heavy lifting required to make the Mac succeed as an ongoing business.
Self-reflection didn’t come easy for the thirty-year-old. In Europe he was still hailed as a revolutionary business figure, and his visits to heads of state, university presidents, artists, and others reinforced his vision of himself as an extraordinary person who had been done in by a conventional bureaucrat. That kind of ego inflation was accompanied by the real pain and insecurity resulting from getting rejected by the company he had founded.
He was a quick study, a savant who could envision revolutionary products and inspire the close group of folks who designed and made them, and he was an instinctive marketer.
At the very moment when Steve had convinced himself that he had won a richly deserved freedom from an oppressive, dull overseer, he was in fact slave to so much else: to his celebrity, to his unbalanced and obsessive desire for perfection in the most innocuous of details, to his managerial flightiness and imperiousness, to his shortcomings as an analyst of his own industry, to his burning need for revenge, and to his own blindness to these faults. He was immature and adolescent in so many ways—egocentric, unrealistically idealistic, and unable to manage the ups and downs of real relationships.
Steve was too self-centered to see how much of Apple’s success had depended upon a combination of perfect timing and the work of others. Nor did he recognize how much he had contributed to its many problems. He didn’t realize how little he had truly absorbed from his crash course in business. Steve had been the titular CEO of Apple for only a few brief months at its inception, before Mike Scott was hired, and actually knew quite little of the true demands of corporate leadership. He was smart enough to realize that a successful CEO must prioritize among his employees’ many projects and ideas, but it would take years for him to learn how to do so efficiently or without the ego that came with thinking that his own ideas were always best. Nor did he have any real knowledge of how to launch a company into a field crawling with competitors. And he was unaware of each and every one of these weaknesses.
Later in his life, Steve would become more adept at managing the press than any other businessman alive. But as he entered his thirties, his idea of good PR was to get attention of any kind.
“That impression of eternal youth,” Nocera wrote, “is reinforced by some guileless, almost childlike traits: By the way, for instance, he can’t resist showing off his brutal, withering intelligence whenever he’s around someone he doesn’t think measures up. Or by his almost willful lack of tact. Or by his inability to hide his boredom when he is forced to endure something that doesn’t interest him, like a sixth grader who can’t wait for class to end.” Looking back, it’s clear that Nocera had landed on something few people, including Jobs, wanted to see—the fact that the Steve Jobs of 1986 was too raw, too self-centered, and too immature to successfully pull off the balancing act required of a big-time CEO.
As Steve started NeXT, it was true that he did know certain key things about running a computer business. He was a strong, if somewhat confounding motivator, and a restless innovator. He had shown himself to be a good negotiator with parts suppliers, often getting Apple better prices in its early days than its volume had really justified. He could synthesize big ideas, and he could see how different technologies could be combined into something that added up to a whole lot more. “He knew about inventory terms, he understood the mechanics of capital investment, he knew cash flow,” says Barnes. “He did understand this, and starting Apple had taught him things you can try to teach an MBA. But he actually knew them. [They were] survival skills.
Steve’s overbearing need to weigh in on everything—to get those “twenty thousand decisions” exactly right—slowed everyone down. This micromanagement was the primary example of the fact that Steve did not know how to prioritize in any kind of holistic way at this stage of his career. Remember how he wanted the group at the first Pebble Beach offsite to decide on NeXT’s top priority: a great machine, on-time delivery, or a price tag under $3,000? It was the wrong question. NeXT absolutely needed to do all three things. But Steve couldn’t keep his company focused on what mattered when he couldn’t focus himself efficiently.
Most great Silicon Valley startups start out lean and simple. The advantage they have over established companies is the focus they can bring to a single product or idea. Unencumbered by bureaucracy or a heritage of products to protect, a small group of talented folks is free to attack a concept with speed and smarts. Eagerly working hundred-hour weeks, the employees want little more from the “company” than that it pay the bills and get out of their way. They know that if they execute their idea so successfully that their enterprise grows big, at some point they’ll have to deal with the rigors and strains of a corporation. But generally that’s a worry that’s tackled later. At the beginning, corporate trappings can just get in the way, and distract from the all-consuming job of creating an object of desire.
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with a state-of-the-art factory, a beautiful office for your employees, or a fancy logo. It’s just that in decision after decision, Steve failed to account for the trade-offs that accompanied his fanciful choices. Steve couldn’t distinguish between the extraneous and the critical. As CEO of a fledgling company, that was his key responsibility. At NeXT, he utterly failed to do this.
Again and again, Steve made choices that seemed justifiable in isolation but that damaged the company’s critical mission. Steve did a poor job of evaluating these ideas against one another. He couldn’t accept that it was impossible for him to have everything exactly the way he wanted it.
Some writers have tried to cast Steve’s obsessiveness, and his hunger for the spotlight and success, as a Freudian attempt to bring down the birth parents who “rejected” him by letting him be adopted. It always struck me, however, that at his childish worst Steve was really nothing more than a spoiled brat. Brilliant, precocious, and meticulous, he had always gotten his way with his parents, and had brayed like an injured donkey when things didn’t turn out as he planned. As a grown-up he could behave exactly the same way, sometimes exploding in a temper tantrum. At NeXT there was no one to keep that side of him in check. While more grounded and cooler-headed folks like Lewin and Barnes would disagree with him and weigh in with advice, he ignored them with impunity and, often, scorn. Talking about the days after the historic introduction of the Mac, Steve had told Joe Nocera, “I think I know what it must be like to watch the birth of your child.” Unfortunately for the team at NeXT, in many ways Steve himself was still a child, rather than the more mature and supportive parent.
Steve understood their sensibility. Engineers, at heart, are problem solvers. They thrive on digging their way out of sinkholes, especially the gnarly kind with no clear path forward. Steve challenged them in ways they had never imagined. No one else in the computer business had such radical goals and expectations; no one else seemed to care so much about their work. The idea of creating a computer that could transform the very process of education was cool; but to his incredibly talented programmers and gearheads, the idea of creating this particular computer for this particular boss was irresistible.
Sometimes Steve’s good intentions could lead to a deep intellectual self-deception, in which trivial issues loomed larger than life and fundamental realities were swept under the rug.
Steve had founded NeXT because he was furious at John Sculley and Apple, because he desperately needed a second act, and because he thought it was his responsibility—and birthright—to keep astounding the world. There had been a market to be attacked when Steve founded NeXT; McNealy’s success proved it. But Steve was still young and immature, and didn’t think there was anyone else in the computer business who really mattered. He was looking in the mirror while McNealy had been looking out the window to learn what the world really needed.
As he would show again and again through his life, Steve was a ballsy negotiator. His willingness to walk away paid off.
As it turned out, Steve was right about the importance of Pixar’s pioneering technology. Over the next decade the ability to manipulate 3-D images would transform everything from flight planning and oil exploration to medical practice, meteorology, and financial analysis. Unfortunately for Steve, the people doing that work would employ sophisticated workstations manufactured by Sun Microsystems and Silicon Graphics, not by Pixar or NeXT.
And yet Pixar eventually became a revolutionary success. This unlikely side bet turned into the place where Steve would learn more about the consumer technology business than he had at Apple or would at NeXT. At Pixar he would lay the foundation of two of his great strengths: his ability to fight back in times of distress, and his ability to make the most of an innovation that put him ahead of anyone else in that field. In other words, it taught him how to keep his head and fight back when cornered, and how to run like the wind in the open field. And it became the place where he really learned, albeit slowly and reluctantly and against his natural instincts, that sometimes the best management technique is to forego micromanagement and give good, talented people the room they need to succeed.
What Steve didn’t know in 1986 was that Pixar would give him something much more valuable than a technology to squeeze into NeXT. Although it would take almost a decade, Steve’s Pixar adventure would help him rediscover his self-respect, make him a billionaire, and align him with people who would teach him more about management than anyone he’d ever worked with. Without the lessons he learned at Pixar, there would have been no great second act at Apple.
Throughout the 1990s, Microsoft would become the unchallenged steward of corporate computing. And corporations would welcome its standardization. In a headlong rush to improve productivity through technology, they spent trillions of dollars. In 1991, the $124 billion of corporate spending on information technology accounted for just 2 percent of the gross domestic product. By 2000, that percentage had more than doubled to 4.6 percent/ The leading beneficiary of all that was Microsoft; over that same period, its revenues rose from $1.8 billion to $23 billion, its profits rose from $463 million to $9.4 billion, and its stock price appreciated 3,000 percent.
All this standardization left an opening, of course. An opening for someone who preferred creating machines that delighted real people, rather than primarily serve the needs of business. An opening for someone just like Steve Jobs. At the time of our interview, Steve was still a confused fellow. His lingering resentment of the way he had been treated by Sculley and the Apple board, his frustration about the misfortunes and secondary importance of NeXT, and his egotistical need to matter in an industry whose direction was being dictated by someone else made it impossible for him then to see a way out of his dilemma. For the next few years, he would press ahead with his goal of making winners of NeXT and Pixar. But eventually he would sense his way to the opening that Gates had left behind—the opening for a company that could once again make insanely great computing machines for you and me. And when he found that opening, and made the most of it, he was rewarded with a kind of adulation that Gates would never come close to receiving.
Just as significant for the trajectory of his life is what he learned by watching Lasseter, Catmull, and their incredibly talented employees cobble together their magic. At Pixar, especially when the company started down the path of actually making movies, Steve started absorbing an approach to management that helped make him much more effective when he returned to Apple in 1997. These are the years where his negotiating style gained new subtlety—without losing its ballsy brashness. This is when he first started understanding the meaning of teamwork as something that’s far more complicated than simply rallying small groups—without losing his capacity to lead and inspire. And this is where he started to develop patience—without losing any of his memorable, and motivating, edge.
Steve was certainly lucky that thins went this way for him at Pixar, a sideline outfit that he bought on something of a whim, that succeeded in a business he didn’t intend for it to pursue, and that made him far wealthier than the company that was his life’s true work. Ed Catmull has thought a lot about the role luck plays at a great company, and how businesspeople manage that luck. It’s all in the preparedness, he says, and in creating a culture that can adapt to the unexpected. “These things are always going to happen. What separates you is your response,” he says. Steve responded well, and that’s in part because of his greatest piece of luck: getting to work with Lasseter and Catmull. In many ways, his response to the principles he gleaned from them would be a catalyst for his later success at Apple.
Susan Barnes has observed that Steve entered every negotiation knowing exactly what he had to get, and what his position was versus the other side. In negotiating with Lucas, he had been able to exploit Lucas’s need for cash. This time Steve went in knowing that Katzenberg had the power, and that Pixar needed a deal to survive.
“Watching our collaboration, seeing us make ourselves better by working together, I think that fueled Steve,” says Lasseter. “I think that was one of the key changes when he went back to Apple. He was more open to the talent of others, to be inspired by and challenged by that talent, but also to the idea of inspiring them to do amazing things he knew he couldn’t do himself.”
“For a lot of people, their egos are tied up in an idea and it gets in the way of learning. You have to separate yourself from the idea. Steve was like that.”
Catmull says he saw enormous changes over the years, but allows that this, too, was something Steve would never acknowledge. “I look at Steve as someone who was actually always trying to change, but he didn’t express it in the same ways as others, and he didn’t communicate with people about that. He really was trying to change the world. It didn’t come across as him being personally introspective.”
Unlike Bill Gates, Steve couldn’t throw himself completely into the creation of a product that suited a particular market but that didn’t thrill him personally.
Over the previous decade, Steve had learned to act less impulsively. In the past, he had overreached time and again. Now he was willing to walk slowly down a path, and if following his nose led him somewhere better than where he thought he was headed, that’s where he’d go.
On the surface, his entreaty seemed arrogant, quixotic, and ungrateful. It had barely been a year since the debut of Toy Story, a film that had been made possible only by the endorsement and support of the world’s most successful animation company. But as was true so often when Steve negotiated, the audacity of his demand was matched by his cool and accurate appraisal of the landscape.
Steve didn’t know it at the time, but his indecisiveness was actually kind of a breakthrough. Steve was developing a more nuanced, measured approach to decision making. Steve had grown more comfortable with waiting—not always patiently—to see what developed, rather than jumping impulsively into some new venture where he thought he could once again astound the world. When he needed to—as when the opportunity arose to sell NeXT to Apple—he could strike quickly. But from now on he would act with a piquant combination of quick, committed actions and careful deliberation.
And given Steve’s history, empty promises and airy visions wouldn’t be enough. Thanks to all the hot air that had wafted out of NeXT over the years, Steve had lost much of his credibility. This time he needed to show the capacity to make smart, sensible, surgical moves quickly; if not, the market, the press, the developers, and Apple’s customers might collectively respond with a sneering sense of deja vu.
“And then when Steve comes in, he looks at the deal and says, “Here are the two things I want, and here’s what you clearly want from us.’ And we had that deal down very quickly.”
“I watched Bob Dylan as I was growing up, and I watched him never stand still,” Steve would tell me about a year later, in a circuitous attempt to explain why he finally dived back into Apple. “If you look at true artists, if they get really good at something, it occurs to them that they can do this for the rest of their lives, and they can be really successful at it to the outside world, but not really successful to themselves. That’s the moment that an artist really decides who he or she is. If they keep on risking failure they’re still artists. Dylan and Picasso were always risking failure.”
There was no evidence to suggest that someone with Steve’s record had the chops to turn around a mess as daunting as Apple. He had shown himself to be erratic, undisciplined, and petulant.”He was really good at surrounding himself with really good people and motivating them both philosophically and financially. You have to have the right mix. You have to provide just enough financial motivation in there so that people don’t just say, ‘Fuck you, I’m not taking this anymore.'”Steve also understood that the personal satisfaction of accomplishing something insanely great was the best motivation of all for a group as talented as his.
He wanted smart answers, and he didn’t want to waste time on niceties when it was simpler to be clear, no matter how critical his response. “The reason you sugarcoat things is that you don’t want anyone to think you’re an asshole. So, that’s vanity,” explains Jony Ive, a crisply articulate Brit with the muscled frame of a boxer and a tendency to hunch forward over a table as he leans in to speak to you. As design chief, Ive was on the receiving end of Steve’s blunt criticisms as much as anyone. Whenever he felt abused, he would tell himself that someone who sugarcoats his true opinions “might not really even be all that concerned about the other person’s feelings. He just doesn’t want to appear to be a jerk. But if he really cared about the work he would be less vain, and would talk directly about the work. That’s the way Steve was. That’s why he’d say ‘That’s shit!’ But then the next day or the day after, he would also just as likely come back saying, ‘Jony, I’ve been thinking a lot about what you showed me, and I think it’s very interesting after all. Let’s talk about it some more.'”
His inner circle understood that Steve’s acerbic criticism wasn’t personal.
Morale was high, and a sense of mission had been restored. Most important, Steve had visibly changed for the better as a leader and as a manager. Over the three and a half years since his return, he had come to recognize that taking this more incremental approach to computer development can result in the kind of equilibrium that allows you to build a business designed to thrive over the long haul.
In 2000, Microsoft really was the computer industry. Some 90 percent of the world’s personal computers ran its Windows operating system. Its software managed not only desktop and laptop PCs but also the servers that stored and organized the data of the world’s biggest corporations, and that undergirded the information technology of most governmental bureaucracies. Inside ATMs and cash registers, at airline check-in counters, and on the decks of aircraft carriers, Microsoft software made the world’s most sophisticated technologies hum.
The general myth of Steve as a brilliant and driven egotist, who would sacrifice or shove aside anything or anyone for his career, carried the unfortunate corollary that he must have been a bad father and friend, and a man incapable of caring and love. It was a stereotype that never came close to gibing with my own experience of him.
In this way, Steve had not changed at all: he still presented his team with outrageous goals that seemed impossibly out of reach. But there were two things that had changed, things that improved the odds that his team could live up to his stretch targets. Steve himself was more willing to reshape his goals as the development process revealed either limitations or new opportunities. And the group he had assembled was the most talented collection of people he had ever worked with, a naturally ambitious crew that knew that Steve encouraged their spirit of constant inquisitiveness and willingness to push boundaries. “What I loved about working for Steve,” says Cue, “is that you learned that you could accomplish the impossible. Again and again.”
In another interview, Steve said, “Who cares where the good ideas come from? If you’re paying attention you’ll notice them.” When his focus had been directed entirely on fixing Apple’s own problems, Steve had almost missed the digital music revolution. Now that Apple was on more solid footing, he was focused outward again, and paying attention very carefully. “When I came back, Apple was like a person who was ill and couldn’t go out and do or learn anything,” Steve explained. “But we made it healthy again, and have increased its strength. Now, figuring out new things to do is what keeps us going.”
“You know,” Steve told him, “you reminded me of something I learned at Pixar. On almost every film they make, something turns out to be not quite right. And they have an amazing willingness to turn around and do it again, till they do get it right. They have always had a willingness to not be governed by the release date. It’s not about how fast you do something, it’s about doing your level best.”
“Steve was the best delegator I ever met,” Johnson said at Stanford. “He was so clear about what he wanted that it gave you great freedom.”
Churchill, like Jobs, suffered humiliating setbacks early in his career, and persevered through a long, arduous climb back to an even greater prominence.
This was one of his great talents, the ability to synthesize separate developments and technologies into something previously unimaginable.
“The narrative that was created around Steve 1.0 has dominated,” says Collins. “That’s partly because the story of a man who matured slowly into a seasoned leader is less interesting. Learning how to have disposable cash flow, and how to pick the right people, and growing, and rounding off the sharp edges, and not merely acting strange—that’s not as interesting! But all that personality stuff is just the packaging, the window dressing. What’s the truth of your ambition? Do you have the humility to continually grow, to learn from your failures and get back up? Are you utterly relentless in your cause, ferocious for your cause? Can you channel your ideas outward into something that is bigger and more impactful than you are? That’s what great leadership is about.”
These are the years when he got almost everything right. They are also the years that show most completely how he had changed, and that manifest the prolifically creative person and the genuine business genius he had become. “I am who I am,” Steve liked to say. This was most true during the last seven years of his life.
Steve embraced the marketing adage that every single moment a consumer encounters a brand—whether as a buyer, a user, a store visitor, a passerby seeing a billboard, or someone simply watching an ad on TV—is an experience that adds either credits or debits to the brand’s “account” in his imagination.
Just as significantly, Steve’s skill at figuring out an industry’s soft spot, and maneuvering Apple into a position to solve that problem, finally matched his confidence that he could do so. Steve had always been able to suss out the weak spots in other adjacent industries (just as he had always been able to quickly pinpoint the personal foibles of other people).
By 2004, worldwide unit sales of cellphone handsets already had topped 500 million units a year, dwarfing unit sales of PCs and iPods and PDAs combined. And they were growing.
Steve was deeply focused during these years. He had paired his life down so that he could be as expansive as possible in very specific aspects of his work. The dividing lines were clear. Family mattered. A small group of friends mattered. Work mattered, and the people who mattered most at work were the ones who could abet, rather than stifle, his single-minded pursuit of what he defined as the company’s mission. Nothing else mattered.
“He could do that,” Ive continues. “He could refine and describe ideas so much better than anyone else could.”
But Ive doesn’t think cancer is what motivated Steve during the incredibly productive end of his life. “I think it’s hard to maintain a singular focus in reaction to an illness that last many, many years,” he continues. “There were other things besides his illness that motivated him to focus more intensely on his work. Things like selling product in very high volume for the first time in the company’s history. I’m talking about selling tens or hundreds of millions of units of a single product. That was a huge change for Apple.”
If personal evolution is the long process of making more of out strengths and learning to moderate our weaknesses, Steve can be said to have succeeded brilliantly at the first, but not always so well at the latter. He had blind spots, grating behavioral habits, and a tendency to give in to emotional impulse that persisted his entire life. These characteristics are often used to make the case that Steve was an “asshole” or a “jerk,” or perhaps simply “binary”—that odd adjective often used to convey the sense that he was half asshole-half genius from birth to death. These aren’t useful, interesting, or enlightening descriptions. What’s more illuminating is to take a look at the specific ways in which Steve failed to do an effective job of tempering some of his weaknesses and antisocial traits, and to consider how, when, and why some of them continued to flair up even during the years of his greatest effectiveness as a leader.
It is possible that a variety of assorted corporate safeguards—better legal counsel, better compliance efforts, and so on—could have kept Apple on the right side of the law in both the ebooks case and the labor collusion. But Steve had molded Apple into a tool for turning what unfolded in his imagination into real products, not an organization that conservatively guarded against the downside of his impulses. So the safeguards that did exist weren’t powerful enough to prevent the troubles that arose.
“So many of the people who want to be like Steve have the asshole side down. What they’re missing is the genius part.” One downside the the Steve Jobs way of running a company, he opined, is that, “This is not an organization with checks and controls.”
“I thought the Isaacson book did him a tremendous disservice. It was just a rehash of a bunch of stuff that had already been written, and focused on small parts of his personality. You get the feeling that Steve’s a greedy, selfish egomaniac. It didn’t capture the person. The person I read about there is somebody I would never have wanted to work with over all this time. Life is too short.” In saying this, Cook echoed the feeling of many of Steve’s close friends—in interview after interview, they complained that very little of what had been published offers any sense of why they have worked so long and so hard for Steve. Those former employees share another common threat, too: the idea that they did the very best work of their lives for Steve.
He had the courage to admit when he was wrong, and to change, a quality which many people at that level, who have accomplished that much, lack. You don’t see many people at that level who will change directions even though they should. He wasn’t beholden to anything except a set of core values. Anything else he could walk away from. He could do it faster than anyone I’d ever seen before. It was an absolute gift. He always changed. Steve had this ability to go through a learning curve quickly. more quickly than anyone I’ve known, about such a wide variety of things.
“Life should be about renewal and growth,” says Jim Collins., “Most great leaders don’t start out that way, they grow into it. And that’s what Steve did. I don’t see it as a success story, but a growth story. I wish I could have seen Steve Jobs 3.0. Seeing him from age fifty-five to seventy-five would have been fascinating. If you’re in good health at that age, 3.0 should be the best. But we don’t get to see that.