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“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” — Steve Jobs
I recently finished rereading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. This biography is one of my favorite books of all time, and I first read it in 2016. I was, and still am, very inspired by Steve Jobs as a leader, inventor, businessman, and entrepreneur who revolutionized many different industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing.
As I progress into my adult life I picked up this book again to draw inspiration for achieving greatness. The drive and passion that Steve Jobs had for his work is extraordinary, and I find it motivating to once again feed my mind with the story of his life.
What I find central to Steve Job’s life is the ethos of being a maverick, to think different. Those who simply accept life as it is will never be able to challenge the status quo and change the world, molding it to their own imaginations. It is the ability to envision what things could be, and the conviction to make them a reality, that makes someone like Steve Jobs a true visionary, a man who has truly left a dent on the universe.
Steve Jobs was born in 1955 and adopted as a baby because his biological mother did not dare to marry Jobs’ biological father against the strong objections of her father. Jobs’ adopted parents were always open about the adoption to Steve, and when Steve asked why didn’t his parents want him they replied that he was wrong, because they specifically chose him. Jobs’ would forever after consider his adopted parents as his real parents and his biological parents as “a sperm and egg bank”. The fact that his adopted parents told him they specifically picked him made him feel special, and they doted on Steve and provided a stable family life.
Steve Jobs was very much a child of the 60s, a decade of youthful rebellion. He was troublesome while growing up and played many pranks in school. Jobs held a disdain for authority and possessed a rebellious nature that would last throughout his life. This rebellious mentality would infuse itself into Apple’s brand image later on.
It was while attending Homestead High School in Cupertino, California when Steve Jobs met his future business partner, Steve Wozniak. Wozniak had also attended Homestead High earlier but had already graduated, and they were introduced through a mutual friend because both were into doing pranks and working with electronics. In addition to teaming up to play pranks on others, Jobs and Wozniak made money from the electronics they built, including a device to make long-distance calls for free, which they called the Blue Box.
The fact that Steve Jobs grew up in the middle of Silicon Valley probably contributed to his interest in technology. Before he founded Apple he worked at Atari as a technician, acquiring technical expertise.
Jobs attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and was immersed into the hippie culture of the time. He would adopt a vegan diet, attend Hare Krishna temples, become a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, and go live in hippie communes. He even traveled to India for 7 months to find spiritual enlightenment. His vegan diet and spirituality were not a temporary stint, but would accompany him for the rest of his life.
After dropping out of Reed because he found the education meaningless, Jobs continued to attend some of the classes he was interested in, and developed a special interest in calligraphy. It was this interest in calligraphy that later led to the development of multiple text fonts on personal computers.
Jobs moved back in with his parents and started working at Atari. He was back home with friends and family, including Wozniak, and was once again living in the middle of Silicon Valley.
The two Steves started attending the Homebrew Computer Club in 1975, and the next year they decided to start a computer company to sell the computers they were making. They named the company Apple Computer, after Jobs’ diet of apples and his walks in the apple orchard of the hippie commune he used to live in. They made computers at Jobs’ parents’ garage and sold to local electronic dealers.
Apple Computer Company scaled quickly when the businessman Mike Markkula saw the potential the company had and invested $250,000 during Apple’s incorporation. He was soon joined by other investors.
With greater funding, a charismatic spokesman in Steve Jobs, and an engineering genius in Steve Wozniak, Apple developed the Apple 2, which was a giant success.
I won’t get into too much detail of everything Steve Jobs did during his career at Apple in the 1980s, there would be too much to write about, but there are a few insights into Jobs’ personality and management style during this time.
Jobs had a deep passion for the products he created. Instead of having the mindset of making products to generate profit, Jobs thought of profits as a way to fund the development of better products. He saw himself as an artist and the products he developed as works of art. Part of what made Apple so successful is that the engineers designing the products wanted to use them themselves.
But Jobs’ passion for creating great products can sometimes cross the line into bullying his team for anything short of excellence. He would yell and berate people for being “B players”, tell them their work is crap, and gave extremely demanding deadlines.
Many who worked with Jobs described him as having a “reality distortion field”. As Bud Tribble, a member of the Macintosh team, explained, “In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything. It wears off when he’s not around, but it makes it hard to have realistic schedules”. Jobs’ charisma and indomitable will bent “any fact to fit the purpose at hand”. He would make seemingly unrealistic demands on his team, but his team sometimes manages to perform the unrealistic because Jobs convinced them they could. As one Macintosh team member described, “It was a self-fulfilling distortion…You did the impossible, because you didn’t realize it was impossible”.
But Jobs didn’t always put people down. He would sometimes call people “insanely great” or a “total genius”. To Jobs, someone was either a genius or terrible, there was no middle ground.
Even though Jobs was the co-founder of Apple, he was not the CEO during Apple’s first decade as a company because he, and his investors, felt that he was too young and inexperienced for the job. Thus, even though Jobs was the chairman of the board and the spokesman for the company, he maintained his rebellious nature, often challenging the CEO, and envisioning his own Macintosh team as a team of underdogs that can outdo the rest of the company and change the world.
But Jobs’ rebelliousness can sometimes be toxic. He would throw fits in board meetings, cry in public when things don’t go his way, and badmouth the CEO behind others. Even his everyday habits were rebellious, “such as not putting a license plate on his car and parking it in handicapped spaces”.
But it was this rebellious spirit that Jobs infused into Apple’s brand image that made it so successful. The 1984 Macintosh commercial that portrayed IBM as Big Brother from the dystopian 1984 novel by George Orwell, and Apple as the liberating force that breaks Big Brother’s mind-numbing control of the masses, reflects the way Steve Jobs wanted to brand Apple as a company. The 1984 commercial is considered one of the most successful commercials of all time, and the Macintosh sold extremely well.
However, Jobs’ management style put him at odds with many people at Apple, including CEO John Sculley who would end up forcing Jobs out of the company he founded. After initially forming a strong friendship, Jobs would later repeatedly challenge Sculley’s ideas and decisions and talked badly about him behind his back. Furthermore, Jobs “was frequently obnoxious, rude, selfish, and nasty to other people”. In addition to frequently berating his staff, one common occurrence that multiple employees reported is that someone would go up to Jobs with an idea, have Jobs tell them that idea was crap, and in a few days Jobs would present the idea to the whole team as if it was his own idea.
Eventually the rest of the board forced Sculley to act and remove Jobs as the head of the Macintosh division and place him as the head of a new AppleLabs R&D group, because even though Jobs was a toxic manager he had an incredible passion and talent for developing new products. Jobs refused the reorganization plan and tried to force Sculley out of Apple. There was a showdown at a board meeting where the board was forced to choose between Sculley and Jobs, and they sided with Sculley. Sculley remained conciliatory until he continued to hear reports of Jobs trying to enlist a rebellion to oust him, and so Sculley even removed the option of becoming the head of AppleLabs from the table. In 1985, less than a decade after Apple was founded, Jobs was forced out of his own company, one that became so successful in such a short period of time.
After he left Apple, Steve Jobs took a few top employees and founded NeXT Inc., a computer company focused on selling to the higher education and business markets. He received funding from the billionaire Ross Perot, and it became a mildly successful business.
Jobs found greater success, though, when he funded and took over the animation company, Pixar, in 1986. Pixar would later produce blockbusters like Toy Story (1995), A Bug’s Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), and Cars (2006). Jobs had a special respect for artists and creative people, and did not interfere too much with his creative chief John Lasseter. Disney would acquire Pixar in 2006 through an all-stock transaction, making Steve Jobs Disney’s largest shareholder.
Meanwhile, Apple declined after Jobs’ departure, doing very poorly in the 1990s. To Steve Jobs’ good fortune, Apple was failing to create a new operating system in 1996 and decided to acquire Jobs’ NeXT company to use its operating system, bringing Jobs back into Apple. The CEO of Apple at the time, Gil Amelio, wanted Jobs to be the new head of operating system development, but Jobs’ hesitancy (he had his own responsibilities at Pixar) led them to put Jobs in a position as an advisor. Jobs made sure his people from NeXT transitioned well and were put in good positions, and contributed some much needed advice to the company he founded.
In 1997, because Apple was in such a poor state at the time, the board of directors wanted to fire Amelio and make Jobs the CEO. Jobs was hesitant, but the board fired Amelio anyway and made Fred Anderson interim CEO, with instructions to take his cues from Jobs. Jobs became more involved in his “advisor” role but was effectively the de facto CEO. Shortly after, Jobs formally took over as interim CEO, calling himself the iCEO. In 2000, he dropped the “interim” title and became the official CEO of Apple.
It was Jobs’ second tenure at Apple that most people today remember him for. The iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, and much more, all came from this time. The iMac completely revamped the personal computer industry. The iPod revolutionized the music industry, while the iPhone did the same for the phone industry, and the iPad did so for the tablet computing industry. Today’s smartphone obsessed culture all began when Steve Jobs first introduced the iPhone in 2007, combining the purposes of an iPod, a computer, and a conventional phone all into one device.
One of the first things Steve Jobs did to turn Apple around was to cut down all the unnecessary products and focus on just a few. There were simply too many versions of similar products that made Apple an unfocused mess. He drew a chart with two columns and two rows. One column was titled “Consumer”, the other “Pro”. One row was titled “Desktop”, the other “Portable”. There would be four computer products to fit each of the four categories, and that was it.
Steve Jobs also rebranded Apple to get back to its roots, launching the immensely successful “Think Different” campaign, selling Apple as the computer company for people who want to challenge the status quo.
Moreover, Jobs was a brilliant marketer who used simple slogans to speak to people’s desires. The slogan for the iPod campaign, for example, was simply “1000 songs in your pocket”, and was incredibly successful.
The way Jobs was able to unveil products to a lot of media hype also demonstrates his marketing genius. A tactic Jobs used, even in his early days in the 1980s, was to offer multiple magazines and news agencies exclusive rights to a story about a product unveiling, so that when he unveils a product the story would be on or near the front page of newspapers and magazines across the world, and on television reports as well. Jobs’ charismatic presentation style only added to the hype.
For all his success as a businessman and inventor, Jobs had a complicated personal life. Abandoned by his birth parents as a baby, he would do the same to his out-of-wedlock daughter, Lisa, born in 1978 to his high school girlfriend Chrisann Brennan. At first he denied paternity and had to take a paternity test, and even after that he was pretty distant to Lisa. Jobs would later try to form a better relationship with his daughter, moving her into his house when she was in high school, but their relationship remained rocky up until Jobs’ fight with cancer and his looming death.
Jobs had several serious relationships and in 1991 married Laurene Powell, who he met while giving a lecture at Stanford where she was a business student. By all accounts they had a happy marriage and had three children.
Steve Jobs died in 2011, aged 56, after a long fight with pancreatic cancer. Part of the problem was that he refused initial surgery because of his belief in natural remedies through his vegan diet. When his cancer got worse, he had to relax his vegan restrictions to get more protein.
Steve Jobs lived a remarkable life and left a powerful legacy behind. The personal computer industry, which is now so ingrained in the modern lifestyle, was built through his desire to create computers for the masses, rather than focus on selling only to business people and professionals like most computer companies were doing up until the 1980s. Jobs transformed the animated movie industry, and many of the animated films we cherish today were created during his tenure at Pixar. His development of the iPod completely changed how music was consumed. The iPhone was even more revolutionary, introducing the new smartphone age where people today use these devices for so many different purposes, from making phone calls, texting, sending emails, using the Internet, ordering food, ordering an Uber or other car-sharing service, checking the weather, navigation, taking pictures, filming videos, watching movies or TV shows, reading a book, and the list is almost endless. Lastly, the iPad Jobs introduced became sort of a middle device between a smartphone and a computer. It is more portable and convenient to hold and place than a computer, but had a wider display than a smartphone.
There are few men who have had as much of an impact on the world as Steve Jobs, and his life is both an inspiration and a fascinating story on how many of the technologies we take for granted today came to be.
If you would like to read Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson yourself, here’s a link to order it on Amazon.
Steve Jobs: https://amzn.to/373ZbN2