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What Steve Jobs Taught Us About Willpower and Its Limits

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It isn't nice to want to punch someone who's dead in the face.

But, on Wednesday night, I did. On Wednesday night, when I saw a man called Steve say that he had cried when he'd read in a book that another man called Steve had paid him much less than he'd paid himself, for a job that was meant to be split 50/50, I really wanted to punch the Steve who had died, who was meant to be his friend, in the face.

The Steve who cried was called Steve Wozniak. The Steve who had died was called Steve Jobs. Together, they founded a company called Apple. "We were pulled into business," said Steve Jobs, in a program about his life and work. "We didn't set out to start a company." Which wasn't quite how the other Steve remembered it. "He always said," said the other Steve, "that the way you make money and get importance in the world is through companies. He always said that he wanted to be one of those important people."

What soon became clear, in this program presented by Evan Davis (who didn't look as though he wanted to punch anyone in the face, who looked, in fact, so sympathetic that you thought maybe he should forget about the Today program and become a psychotherapist), was that Steve Jobs was very, very ambitious. So ambitious that he thought being successful was more important than keeping promises to friends.

What also became clear was that Steve Jobs, who the program called a "billion dollar hippy," was a bit mad. He certainly seemed, like a lot of people who wrote songs and books in the Sixties and Seventies, and, like some psychiatrists who believed the mad were sane (which didn't really help the mad people, or the sane people who had to look after them), to like the idea of being mad. He seemed to think that being a bit crazy was cool, and sexy, and fun. He said that his Apple Macintosh was "insanely great." He said that it was "the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world" who do change the world. He said that he wanted to be one of the ones who did.

Steve Jobs wasn't crazy in the way people are when they can't, for example, work out the sums in a 50/50 deal. Or in the way people are when they can't, for example, find someone else's invention, like, say, a mouse, and know that they're "sitting on a goldmine." Or when they don't know which employee to call with an idea at 2 a.m., or which one to fire in a lift. When he shouted at colleagues in a way that was "pretty frightening for most people," that wasn't because he'd missed his morning dose of anti-psychotics. It was because he had, and liked, and wanted to keep, power.

But he was crazy in the way people are when they think their will is not just stronger than anyone else's, but stronger than the evidence in front of them, and stronger than the laws of physics. He "wasn't really fazed," said a former colleague, "in the face of depressing sales numbers" because he was so good at "imposing his own version of reality." He had, said the colleague, "a reality distortion field." He "wanted the impossible, and he was somehow able to convince everyone that the impossible was possible."

When the "impossible" is to do with changing people's minds, which you can do through marketing, and strategy, and all kinds of other things that people who are "crazy" aren't always all that good at, you can see how it might be possible to get it. But when the "impossible" is, say, beating pancreatic cancer through willpower and vegetables, and not having surgery, or at least not for a while, because you think your will is stronger than the cancer cells that are trying to kill you, it's a little bit more tricky. As Steve Jobs, too late, found out.

What Steve Jobs lived was the myth of many powerful men. It was the myth peddled by the hippies, and then by the New Agers, and also by quite a lot of the Baby Boomers, that you can bend the universe to your demands. Many powerful men cling to it because their will has won them their power. Power brings money. Money buys more power. It buys people who will put up with being shouted at, and people who never say no.

When people never say no, it's easy to think that there's no battle you can fight that you can't win. And that no harm can come your way. If, for example, you're the head of an international funding body, it's easy to think that sudden sexual encounters with chambermaids won't have any effect whatsoever on your plans to run as president of France. And if, for example, you're a mayor of Paris, who also plans to run as president of France, it's easy to think that you can siphon off public funds, for jobs that don't exist, and that no one will find out.

Most people in the world know that harm can come their way. That it can, and does, and will. And now even people in the West, who grew up thinking they could control their lives, are finding out that, because of the "reality distortion field" of a bunch of bankers, they can't.

This week, another powerful man died from cancer. But this one knew about cause and effect. "It's the fags," said Christopher Hitchens, "that will get me in the end." And, very sadly, but entirely logically, they did.