Who is Steve Jobs?

I checked out the new book Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli because there had been some interesting excerpts published to the web, and apparently those closest to Steve didn’t like the Walter Isaacson book, with Jony Ive saying “My regard [for Isaacson’s book] couldn’t be any lower.”

Along with about a million other people I bought and read the authorized biography, and didn’t think it portrayed Jobs in a way that made me think any less of him, but there must have been some things in there that someone who knew him closely felt were so off that as a group they decided to coordinate and speak with a new author to set the record straight, as Eddy Cue said of the new Becoming book, “Well done and first to get it right.” I will never know who Steve Jobs really was, but it is interesting to triangulate and learn from different takes, especially Isaacson’s biography that Jobs himself endorsed but might not have read and this new one promoted by his closest friends, colleagues, and family.

As an independent third party who doesn’t know any of the characters involved personally, I must say that I felt like I got a much worse impression of Steve Jobs from Becoming than from the authorized biography. It was great to hear the direct voices and anecdotes of so many people close to him that haven’t spoken much publicly like his wife Laurene — he was a very private man and his friends respect that. But the parts where Schlender/Tetzeli try to balance things out by acknowledging some of the rougher parts of Steve’s public life, especially the recent ones around options backdating, anti-poaching agreements, book pricing, (all overblown in my opinion) or even when trying to show his negotiating acumen with suppliers, Disney, or music labels, they make Jobs look like an insensitive jerk, which seems to be the opposite of what everyone involved was intending.

The direct quotes in the book could not be kinder, and it’s clear from both books that Jobs was incredibly warm, caring, and thoughtful to those closest to him, but Becoming tries so hard to emphasize that it makes the contrast of some of his public and private actions seem especially callous. The personal anecdotes from the author are the best part: one of the most interesting parts of the book is actually when Jobs calls Schlender to invite him for a walk, as one of the people he reached out to and wanted to speak to before he passed, and Schlender — not knowing the context — actually chastises him for cutting off his journalistic access and other trivia, and then blows off the meeting, to his lifelong regret.

It’s tragic, and it’s very human, and that’s what makes for great stories. No one suggests that Steve Jobs was a saint, nor did he need to be. His legacy is already well-protected both in the incredible results while he was alive, and even more so in what the team he built has accomplished since his passing, both periods which actually amaze and inspire me. Becoming Steve Jobs tries harder and accomplishes less to honor the man. It is worth reading if, like me, you gobble up every book around the technology leaders of the past 40 years and want a different take on a familiar tune, but if you were only to read one book about Jobs, and get the most positive impression of the man and his genius, I’d recommend Isaacson’s Steve Jobs.

17 thoughts on “Who is Steve Jobs?

  1. I haven’t read these books, but my impression is that for all the credit Jobs receives, it is ironic that he gets almost no credit for his very large role in the birth of digital print production which eventually lead to everything else.
    While all of Apple’s success with desktop publishing occurred after Jobs left Apple, it never would have happened without Jobs’ leadership behind Apple’s investment in 20% of Adobe and the commitment to produce the Apple Laser Writer in 1985.

  2. Excellent synopsis of your impressions, Matt. I read Isaacson’s book, but I haven’t yet picked up Becoming Steve Jobs. Like you, I didn’t find anything particularly negative in the authorized biography.
    Like many, he started out young, brilliant and driven, and over time, he evolved, adapting to his environment. We all have aspects of our characters that may rub some people the wrong way, and in my opinion, a well written biography will bare those, allowing the reader to form a more complete image of the subject. I felt Isaacson accomplished that quite well.
    There’s a good chance that given the impact you have had, someone will someday write a Matt Mullenweg biography, and someone will undoubtedly feel it falls short. But at the end of the last chapter, I think the real test is whether the reader comes away with a better understanding of the person… not just the image that someone wants to present of that person.
    You’ve made me curious enough that now I’ll have to pick up the Schendler/Tetzeli biography, too. Thanks for that.

    1. That is basically his outward personality, something people want to be described as, respected for and he definitely git what he wanted. Younger people like myself read about him as “fierce” when we should also know the other kinder, and more humane parts of him.

  3. “…especially the recent ones around options backdating, anti-poaching agreements, book pricing, (all overblown in my opinion)” — I’m curious as to why you think these are overblown? Do you think Steve Jobs shouldn’t be held to account for his negative (and possibly illegal) actions because of the good he did?

  4. You are at that LEVEL now, Matt. You are like Steve Jobs. (Legacy). So, to people who had to use computers starting in 1984? Steve Jobs was loved because technology was so HARD. The Apple Computer had the EASE that WP has. Now all of you are TECH people maybe? The whole beginning of TECH had Gates/Jobs. JOBS was LOVED by ARTISTS. In the same way YOU ARE BELOVED as INVENTOR of something like WordPress. The Apple Computer was totally friendly! Meaning it was so easy to use!
    Jobs falls under category of Visionary. “Friendly Visionary”
    Using the first computers was a nightmare, in many ways. By 1984, they were in use in various industries as this “electronic spine” was being created. I think Jobs would be very sad to see what has happened, with all the plastic waste and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planned_obsolescence that is the NOW, as your article showed the other day. From The Atlantic. Let me show you a picture of the fist computer I ever saw in 1979 or so. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/99/DEC_VT100_terminal.jpg — these began to invade every single industry starting then. So fast forward to 1984 at work! (Not that we had these) But as a graphic designer at the time? http://www.computerhistory.org/atchm//wp-content/uploads/2012/08/1984macintosh.jpg
    Omg! It said HELLO! It was about ART and fonts! And happiness!
    You are that!
    How WordPress “feels” is just like how APPLE felt!
    I see you? As a continuation of his legacy.

  5. ps: check this out! http://www.computerhistory.org/revolution/minicomputers/11/366/1944 working on the computers the systems people were buying during the 80’s and 90’s (rise of the cubicle) was so hard, it is impossible to tell you. Let me just say that what you have built? If only we had had something like this back then. The EASE! Superb! You have built a PRESS! A FREE PRESS, in a time that the world really, really needs that. You already have your own legacy! Just like Jobs did. And that is FAB! He would have loved to have seen what you have made. And will make.

  6. You made an interesting comparison here. I’ll add this to my reading list!

    I imagine that no single book can thoroughly describe a person in a way with which everyone who knew them would completely agree. Everyone sees everyone else in a different way, depending on their backgrounds and experience with that person at specific times. That’s the frustrating yet wonderful thing about interacting with people, I think: we can spend years and years with them and still learn something new!