Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

–         William Shakespeare

The savvy reader will sense a tad of desperation here. For the first post on this blog I have selected a man (and a book on that man) who is one of the most searched, googled, twittered celebrity on this planet. What can I possibly say about Steve Jobs, that hasn’t already been said? Well, I can say a lot of thing, as I feel that most of the articles and write ups on Jobs were suffering from something called a shoe-string complex.

Imagine a hypothetical town, which is isolated from the rest of the world; is very prosperous and pretty much self sufficient in its economics. A young outsider comes to the town and he notices that in this very prosperous city, they are only four shoe string manufactures in the four corners of the city. He figures out that if he slyly buys all of them, he would have a virtual monopoly. He can slowly increase the prices at which he will sell the strings to the shoe manufactures and keep doing it in perpetuity making more and more money. The clever outsider does the clever thing and in few years his business is booming. In fact for a very long period he keeps making money, because he very brilliantly created a monopoly of shoe strings.

Now the outsider has reached middle age. He is well respected for being the most brilliant business man the city has known. People seek his opinion on each and every thing. Journalists want to know his views on elections. He talks about the state of medical infrastructure, education and what not. But actually all his success is based on one master stroke. Just because he cornered the shoe string marketin a stroke of brilliance market doesn’t mean he is actually brilliant about each and every topic under the sun.

So where do I start about Jobs and his biography. Let me begin by taking a cue from Malcom Gladwell, who mentioned in a brilliant article on Jobs in the New Yorker that Jobs was in equal parts viciousness, delusion and brilliance. Walter Isaacson sure talks a lot about the already well documented (and filmed) tyrannical and difficult nature of Steve Jobs. For me that is a relatively tolerable personality flaw (unless of course I was working directly for him).

Most 25 year olds with millions in bank accounts and no experience of managing people will behave like assholes with their colleagues and juniors. Many young and intelligent men in the age group of 20-25 are brash, cocky and arrogant. Their outer bravado is a mask for inner anxiety, as they are still trying to sort out their mind and the world that exists around it. As they succeed in resolving their own anxieties they become calmer towards the world around them. What is more surprising is that (according to Walter Isaacson) Steve did not become older and wiser as you would expect him to.  The author doesn’t have any explanation for it, as he doesn’t have any explanation for many other things about Steve Jobs.

The much bigger personality flaw of Jobs was his delusion. Jobs does not come across as an intellectual or someone with a scientific or philosophical bent of mind probing for the truth behind how the technology world is working. Rather, he reminded me of the founding father of the Casino business in Las Vegas, a guy called Bugsy.

If you think about it, just like Apple it is not easy to explain Las Vegas with standard marketing frameworks. Bugsy had the vision to dream about Las Vegas. But since Vegas was initially financed by mob money (unlike much more patient investors in the Silicon Valley), Bugsy was gunned down when the mafia thought the payback period for their investment has been unduly extended. Some people say that this kind of madness is needed to fuel entrepreneurship. Perhaps that is often the case, but there are enough examples of entrepreneurs who are not delusional and who think logically with a calm calculus of reason (think Bill gates).

So was Jobs just a lucky dreamer and successful due to randomness more than anything else. Jobs did have an uncanny genius of a particular kind and it will take some explaining. Jobs often talked about being an artist, and encouraged his engineers to think like artists and respected the artsy types more than anyone else. It seems gimmicky and lot of people must have made fun of it (they surely would make fun of such things if someone less successful was doing it). But I think, he did have genuine artistic instincts. He had the ability to detach himself and look at the really big picture. That is why he felt isolated as a youth (not many people care to look at the really big picture). That is why he felt he had to figure out the meaning of life and travel all the way to India on a spiritual quest. His ability to look at the big picture is also reflected in the legendary Stanford speech when he talked about death.  This detachment also gave him a lot of bravado to fight when pushed in tight corners. If you have an artist’s subtle sense of fatalism, you will find it easier to detach yourself from the numbers in the immediately next quarter and what this, that or the other competitor is doing.

Bravo Steve !!

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