The story of a person’s life is more about that person’s place in the grand narrative of history than a simple timeline of the events in their life. Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography, is the portrait of an entrepreneur from beginning to end, examining the nuances and contradictions that made up his character, and an atlas of the counter-cultural West Coast. A period and intersection of the figures that would lead a revolution in technology and human interaction.
The biography doesn’t generally feature any startling revelations that haven’t already been revealed on general news sources, but it does provide an intimate portrait of a larger-than-life figure through the his eyes and those around him.
Isaacson’s style is conversational and almost anecdotal. It is a pastiche of the various viewpoints and commentary of the characters Jobs had surrounded himself with throughout his lifetime. The story perfectly balances the points and counterpoints of Steve Jobs, his friends and his family without taking sides. The author himself almost disappears within the narratives, giving precedence to the multiple figures in Jobs’ life.
One of the more interesting themes that pervades the book is the importance of spirituality. From dropping acid and listening to jam band music to Zen Buddhism and Yoga, the importance of intuition and centered-thinking is what differentiates the people who started Apple, Inc. from other entrepreneurs and businesspeople. The anti-analytical, humanistic approach to business seems to have been a goal of Jobs and Apple from its beginning years to present day.
The first half of the book drives home the point that the inception of many tech companies came about at a unique point in history: the moment when the radicalism and optimism of the early sixties blended with free enterprise and technology. This system and the individuals within it were what allowed technological progress of society while encouraging creativity and radical individualism in product development.
By allowing perspectives from all ends of the story, Isaacson crafts an experience that almost forces the reader to evaluate the morality and character of certain people and decisions. No one, Jobs especially, is portrayed as either an angel or a demon.
The stories provide several instances where Jobs’ actions seem idiosyncratic and almost incomprehensible. Jobs’ childhood is filled with these moments, such as his near-overbearing sense of self-entitlement. There isn’t a single moment in the book where Jobs doesn’t take or do what he wants.
There’s a brief scene when he enlists the help of the genial Steve Wozniak and then proceeds to pocket the resulting bonus without telling him. It’s a moment that Jobs will deny decades later, yet seems to have occurred based on eyewitness accounts. Wozniak’s predicament in this is made particularly upsetting since he was more than willing to work for Jobs for free and just wanted openness and honesty between them.
One of the book’s most noteworthy lessons is the importance of failure and experimentation. Given the image Apple has today, most people would expect that its success was fated in the stars; yet the early years of Apple were plagued with conflict and clash.
Without the luxury of hindsight, Jobs and his co-workers seem as though they were wandering aimlessly and pursuing passions they could only hope to see connected into a coherent vision.
Then there’s the forced exit of Jobs by John Scully and the Apple board of directors, a prime case of learning from defeat when Jobs moves on to start Next Computer and Pixar.
Creativity and innovation are revealed to be less enlightened moments and more driven stochastic processes. Jobs’ primary method of discovering new ideas is to survey or research new fields saturated with mediocrity, such as the early music player industry. In doing so, the end result is not so much about originality as it is superiority.
This biography is at its best when it moves beyond the business realm and into the psychological one. It provides the highly subjective stories and tales that lie behind the birth of one of the world’s most famous organizations.
The book ensures its lead character isn’t spared from his long list of shortcomings and provides a raw and honest look at an unorthodox life lived fully and passionately.