Having just finished reading Walter Isaacson's engaging biography of Steve Jobs, I am struck yet again by our country's twisted values.
We cherish education. Parents spend thousands for a polished college application essay. But we lionize college dropouts -- at least those like Jobs who make lots of money.
We admire integrity, crave it in our leaders and are disappointed when they steal or cheat. But why does wealth make unethical behavior acceptable? The precursor to the first Apple computer was a device Jobs and partner Steve Wozniak cooked up that ripped off the telephone company. Sticking it to the man, right? And for Jobs to deny Wozniak a fair share of the profits; well, that just shows how adroit young Steve was at grasping what Wozniak couldn't. Technology wasn't merely about empowering the masses, it was about enriching oneself.
Education and integrity I'll leave to others. What I'm more concerned about is tyranny. We seek to overthrow tyrants based thousands of miles from our shores, but tolerate tyrants such as Jobs when they deploy excessive emotion -- tears, anger, profanity -- to harness others to manufacture products that enrich our lives? And let's not even talk about the Apple sweatshops in China.
My entire business career has been spent in Northern California, often dipping my toes into Silicon Valley. Though I never worked with Steve Jobs directly, I know many who did - consultants, employees, journalists, a love interest. Little from Isaacson's book contradicts the perception I've held of Jobs for more than 25 years: A man of abundant vision, passion and insight. But also one massively rude person. Then again, certainly not the first or last to wield power so inappropriately.
Does the ends justify the means? Must we indulge leaders in the kind of behavior we would never accept in children or peers?
Having written a biography and dozens of profiles, I know a skilled biographer must see the world through the subject's eyes. The ghostwritten autobiography is the most overt example, but even a thoughtful third-person biography such as Isaacson's is very much an intellectual form of the Stockholm Syndrome (wherein the hostage begins to empathize with the captor).
Ironic, paradoxical, tragic -- use any term you like to describe how it was that Jobs built products for the masses but so often treated individuals with contempt. To create these electronic office supplies, an upgraded Walkman and handy telephones, was it necessary for Jobs to slander a woman he denied impregnating, spend years ignoring their child, park in handicapped parking spots, drive without a license plate, repeatedly use harsh, foul language to describe work and people he wasn't pleased with, burst into tears when he couldn't have his way?
How do all those actions fit into Jobs' beloved statement that the journey is the reward? Is this how we seek to raise children and treat one another? Jobs' trip to India might have helped him design my beloved Macintosh, but as with the Chinese employment part of his life, something about the way Jobs selectively navigated his way through Asia irks me no end.
And when it comes to Isaacson's thorough recount of Jobs' tyranny, let me tell you what I've learned as a practicing journalist: Rude acts that are cited usually constitute a very small percentage of the extant folklore that the journalist has heard but unable to conclusively verify.
No desire to bury, too skilled to merely praise, unless the biographer lights out for speculative territory - and dare risk alienating both subject and hungry audience -- he is heavily at the mercy of his subject. This was particularly true for Isaacson, who was granted 40 interviews with Jobs; at once a delightful amount of access but also a Faustian bargain. Not so easy to apply that Apple tagline -- "Think Different" -- when Jobs is steering the ship.
I digress. This isn't intended as a piece about the craft of biography or a revisionist look at Jobs; after all, Isaacson extensively details his rudeness. The bigger topic is our willingness to turn a blind eye to the Golden Rule in the face of power, charisma and the leverage held by those who sign our paychecks. Steve Jobs is yet another case of a man enabled by so many -- parents, friends, lovers, colleagues. To be sure, no one did this at gunpoint. And is it necessarily Jobs' fault that he saw what he wanted and took advantage of it? Dare I dispute the man who spearheaded the creating of the iMac I'm writing this on, the iPhone I just texted my friend on, the iPod I'll wear today on the treadmill?
Even on Jobs' deathbed, it was one thing for him to seek another oxygen mask. But did he have to be so mean in making his request?
Here is what Edward R. Murrow said at the conclusion of his landmark broadcast about another bully, Senator Joseph McCarthy: The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves. Steve Jobs, a testimonial to the meaning of democracy -- where the rules apply to everyone except the individual.
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