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A portrait of the artist as a businessman

Did shrewdness, artistry and obsession make Steve Jobs America's greatest businessman?
G. Tracy Mehan III | 6 November 2012
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Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

Yes! Yes! Yes! He would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore, a living thing, new and soaring and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable. ~ Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

If journalism is the first rough draft of history, Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography, Steve Jobs, occupies a point on the continuum beyond the former category while laying a solid foundation for the latter work to come.

Isaacson, former editor at Time and chairman of CNN, and popular biographer of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, has given his readers the first comprehensive life story of “the greatest business executive of our era” who invented or created truly innovative products which combined “the power of poetry and processors” as well as “artistry and technology “at the “intersection of humanities and science.” This last phrase was coined by Edwin Land of Polaroid, one of Jobs’s heroes.

Steve Jobs enlisted Isaacson to write this biography and gave him a free hand to follow his research wherever it took him. He provided over 40 interviews which Isaacson then triangulated by means of more than 100 additional interviews with friends, relatives, former girlfriends, competitors, adversaries, and colleagues. These, in turn, were supplemented by the journalistic sources, in print and on line, and contemporary biographies available at the time.

Isaacson has created a primary source document which future historians will consult as they plumb the depths of whatever archival materials still remain in the digital age.

“The saga of Steve Jobs is the Silicon Valley creation myth writ large,” writes Isaacson.

Jobs launched a startup in his parents’ garage and built it into the world’s most valuable company. He did not invent many things outright, “but he was a master at putting together ideas, art, and technology in ways that invented the future.”

As a child of the valley, imbued with Zen philosophy and aesthetics, Jobs strove to achieve a minimalism and simplicity of design in all his product lines, attaining a purity of function and form. Picking up an iPod, iPhone or iPad is a sensual or aesthetic experience, not just a technological or intellectual one. Moreover, Jobs’s total commitment to end-to-end closed systems enabled his almost obsessive control over the whole consumer experience of both the products themselves as well as their interactions with one another.

Jobs may not have been the best technologist compared, say, to Stephen Wozniak, his co-founder of Apple, “the star electronic geek at Homestead High.” Wozniak excelled in that realm. Yet, it was Jobs’s genius for design, packaging, and entrepreneurial ability which achieved something which Wozniak could never have managed himself in terms of both consumer products and a company with a life and innovative culture which outlived its founders.

“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough,” Jobs tells Isaacson. “We believe that it’s technology married with the humanities that yields us that result that makes our heart sing.”

Jobs had an entrepreneurial vision so strong that he did not much care what consumers wanted at any given point in time. “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” Jobs told Isaacson. “That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” Supply, you might say, creates the demand.

Jobs, the artist as businessman, is also revealed in his time owning and running Pixar, the incredibly creative animation studio. After he was forced out of Apple (ultimately to return in triumph), he poured $50 million of his own money into the company, more than half of what he received on exiting Apple.

Pixar was a haven in a heartless world for Jobs. Jobs, claims Isaacson, “was also a romantic in his love for what artistry and technology could do together.” His instinct “that combining great art and digital technology would transform animated films” was dead on as the release of Toy Story was to demonstrate in 1995.

“Silicon Valley folks don’t respect Hollywood creative types, and the Hollywood folks think that tech folks are people you hire and never have to meet,” Jobs said. “Pixar was one place where both cultures were respected.”

Isaacson’s portrait of Steve Jobs as an artist and a businessman recalls another aspiring artist. Stephen Dedalus, in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, rejects family, country and church, believing that “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

Jobs is the more interesting case because he struggled with, but did not reject, either family or God (“I’m about fifty-fifty on believing in God.”). Moreover, he saw himself as a kind of savior of the nation, a patriot trying to transform the nation and society through his creative genius which could do as much for education as it did for business. Jobs, like Joyce’s Dedalus, could say, “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Jobs was definitely an odd duck who refused to bathe for long stretches at a time and followed strange dietary regimes up to and including extended fasting which came back to haunt him in his fight with cancer. He would have failed a Dale Carnegie course, especially in his abuse of employees and associates who did not measure up to his demanding standards of perfection. He was Jack Welch without the charm. He took his own sweet time admitting the paternity of his first child, a daughter born out of wedlock, in his younger days.

Yet, Jobs, an adopted child, did reconcile with his biological mother and his first daughter. He found true happiness with an intelligent, beautiful and forbearing wife, Laurene Powell, and three kids who often showed more maturity than he ever could. He was fortunate in this match and was honest enough to admit it to Isaacson.

Jobs was always grateful to his adoptive parents who were very proud of their son’s accomplishments. Paul Reinhold Jobs was a Wisconsin-born Coast Guard veteran who helped transport troops to General Patton in Italy. James Bennet of The Atlantic called Paul Jobs as the “quiet hero” of Isaacson’s biography of Jobs. He was “an unfailing source of love and support for his ruthless son, and credits him with, among other accomplishments, awakening Steve Jobs’s passion for lapidary worksmanship.” For instance, the father insisted that the hidden backs of fences and cabinets be joined precisely and was reflected in the son’s perfectionism in product development, even for circuit boards that the customers would never see.

Bennet, however, goes on to make a conventionally liberal critique of Steve Jobs for his part in the supposed destruction of the middle class due to the explosion of computing power, outsourcing, utilizing low-cost Chinese labor and the like.

Like some other left-of-center commentators, most of whom love Jobs’s hip artistry and technology, they simply cannot reconcile themselves to the business side of the man. James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute recently posted a blog entry in which he offered this thought experiment: “Imagine if Steve Jobs a) were alive and b) somehow nabbed the 2012 Republican nomination.” In fact, Jobs seems to have been a lukewarm Obama supporter, although he thought a number of his policies were likely to make him a one-termer.

The imaginary Jobs-as-Republican-nominee would be criticized for being worth $7 billion, richer than Mitt Romney; anti-US worker, even if making all those iPads with domestic workers would double the cost; utilizing offshore tax havens; and for being a ruthless capitalist. Regarding the latter charge, Isaacson does show Jobs righteously indignant and red in tooth and claw as he contemplates destroying Google’s Android, going to “thermonuclear war” if necessary. And Jobs’s rivalry with Bill Gates and Microsoft is a leitmotif throughout Isaacson’s book, although, again, there appears to have been a genuine reconciliation on a personal level at least.

But Steve Jobs was both an artist and a businessman. He could not have achieved the success he did without both sides of his identity which were inextricably linked to each other. His intensity, his focus, his relentless search for perfection, even to the point of sometimes generating his infamous “reality distortion field,” were all directed toward his artistic output or products as wells as the business organization and culture which has made the Apple organization what it is today. Indeed, it is his underlying entrepreneurial vision which allowed Jobs and Apple to succeed in so many things. McIntosh, iPod and iTunes, iPhone, iPad, iMovies, and the Apple Stores themselves would not exist apart from the commercial enterprise which Jobs created and managed.

Along the way, Jobs encountered professional and personal failures. But his was a dynamic, resilient personality -- as is the company he founded. In the end, he was a seeker of truth and The Truth. Thus, he matured considerably over the course of his life.

Amidst his battle with cancer, Jobs, a college drop-out, delivered the June 2005 commencement at Stanford University. He spoke of dropping out of Reed College so he could only take courses, like calligraphy, which he found interesting. He also told the story of getting fired from Apple (“The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything.”).

Finally, he discussed his first diagnosis with cancer:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost  everything-all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure-these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Memento mori. Isaacson observes that “the artful minimalism of the speech gave it simplicity, purity and charm.” There may have been other, more important commencement addresses, “but none has had more grace.”

G. Tracy Mehan, III, is a consultant in Arlington, VA, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law. He served as Assistant Administrator for Water at the US EPA in the administration of President George W. Bush.

This article is published by G. Tracy Mehan III and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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