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Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

It’s a measure of the brilliance of this book that my first thought having read it was that Steve Jobs was an excellent subject for a biography. He was an exceptionally complex character, who achieved quite phenomenal personal success despite a deeply flawed personality.

His complex personality could have lead to a very confused biography, but it is to Isaacson’s considerable credit that the portrait he paints is entirely clear. And, somehow, Isaacson fashions a somewhat sympathetic character out of a man whose actions were often cruel, and whose personality appears thoroughly unlikeable. Jobs’ gamut of failings run from from minor transgressions of social norms (for example, refusing to wash), via quite astonishing acts of cruelty (for example, refusing to acknowledge that his firstborn daughter was his), to alarming acts of quite alarming idiocy (for example, eating only carrots until he turned orange). Yet somehow, this collection of failings interacted to allow him to lead his businesses to create products of unparalleled perfection.

It’s somewhat disturbing to see people claim to want to emulate Jobs’s “formula for success”. I don’t think it is entirely possible to tease out whether he achieved so much despite his flaws or because of them. Could he still have made his visions reality without declaring people’s work to be “shit” and demanding the impossible of employees under the threat of on-the-spot firing? It’s impossible to know, but we can be certain that emulating such tactics will not result in the same success the majority of the time.

I find it intensely irritating to see people producing lists of “lessons learned” from this biography, which consistently list culturally positive attributes of Jobs’s behaviour (e.g. simplify things), damaging behaviours reframed in a positive light (e.g. build a team of “A players”, without mentioning that Jobs’s interpretation of this includes indiscriminate firing), and omit many of the things to which Jobs himself attributed his success (e.g. frequent use of LSD). It is typical of much of the nonsense in the field of management theory that people, without justification, attribute his success to only those bits of his management style which they find palatable. And it is infuriating.

Away from that brief digression… Whatever conclusions one draws about Jobs from reading this biography, the biography itself is – to use a Jobs phrase – “insanely great”. The 656 pages fly by, and the narrative is as absorbing as any I’ve ever read. It is a character study that combines real detail with forceful narrative drive in a way that few biographies manage, and it comes highly recommended.

Steve Jobs is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

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Tributes to Steve Jobs at the Apple Store in Newcastle upon Tyne

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