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Steve Jobs holds up the new MacBook Air after giving the keynote address at the Apple MacWorld Conference in San Francisco on Jan. 15, 2008. (Jeff Chiu/AP)
Steve Jobs holds up the new MacBook Air after giving the keynote address at the Apple MacWorld Conference in San Francisco on Jan. 15, 2008. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Review: Biography

A control freak for our times Add to ...

On his hospital bed after a 2009 liver transplant, Steve Jobs, heavily medicated and passing into and out of consciousness, tried to persuade nurses to bring him a selection of oxygen masks from which to choose the design that he liked best. His wife, Laurene Powell, finally had to distract the ailing Jobs long enough so that the hospital staff could get a mask on him.

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If Walter Isaacson’s new biography of the recently deceased Jobs only told this story and stopped, you would have 97 per cent of what you needed to know about Apple’s founder and chief executive officer. First, being deathly ill troubled him less than did offending his finely developed aesthetic instincts. Second, as a control freak’s control freak, few things could set Jobs off more than the loss of control inherent in anesthesia and surgery (an abhorrence that may have helped cost him his life).

Isaacson’s biography doesn’t stop there, of course. Informed by hundreds of interviews, including 40 with an ailing Jobs himself, Isaacson traces Jobs’s ascent from adopted child to the most successful and famous entrepreneur of our time. He does a thoughtful and speedy job of getting us to the Apple part of the story, bringing us from adoption, to dropping acid (and the obligatory sojourn in India), to dropping out from college, to having, and abandoning, a daughter with an early girlfriend. There is blessedly little psychoanalysis, although Isaacson strangely over-emphasizes a position Jobs once held at an Oregon fruit orchard, while showing how Jobs’s post-adoption anxieties affected him throughout his life.

All this is prelude, with the Apple story the biography’s main arc. It started as a clichéd one – two guys in a garage, Jobs and man-child engineer Steve Wozniak. From that start, Apple produced some of the most important innovations of the early personal-computer industry, from mice to menus. And then it all turned bad, with Jobs fired by his own board in 1985. When he finally returned to the company in 1996, Apple was largely irrelevant, its innovations copied by Microsoft, its sales foundering.

From there, however, Jobs drove the most successful business turnaround in history. He took Apple from failing to fantastic, driving its stock up a hundredfold by 2011, passing Microsoft, his former nemesis, in market valuation along the way.

Isaacson rightly reminds us that Jobs thrived in any business. He turned a 1986 purchase of Pixar (the eventual maker of Toy Story, Finding Nemo etc.) for $10-million into a $7.4-billion sale to Disney in 2006. At his death, more of Jobs’s multibillion-dollar fortune came from Disney than from Apple.

Isaacson tells this story – much of which has been told before, but never in such rich, personal detail – very well. Writing at Jobs’s urging, and with his full co-operation, he has crafted a persuasive, authoritative and unadorned book. He seems even to have had a mostly amicable relationship with the often childishly intemperate Jobs, which is, at least in part, testament to how badly the ailing titan wanted this book written by this author, himself a man of no mean accomplishment: Besides having written biographies of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger, Isaacson is CEO of the Aspen Institute, and former chairman of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine.

The resulting book is not, however, a company piece. While Isaacson is respectful of the man’s accomplishments, there is no sign here of the “OMG IT’S STEVE JOBS” fan-boyishness that plagues much writing about the charismatic Jobs. Instead, what we have is a nuanced portrait of a complex and difficult man, someone who could inspire subordinates to world-changing products like the iPod, iPhone and iPad; but also someone who forgot family birthdays, denied paternity of his out-of-wedlock daughter for years, and could publicly praise employees as “geniuses” and then berate them with vulgarities, often in the same conversation.

Among the book’s telling revelations is Jobs’s decision, after an October, 2003, diagnosis of a rare but treatable pancreatic cancer, to do nothing for nine months. Where he should have gone in for immediate surgery, Jobs engaged in magical thinking, ignoring the problem and self-medicating with bowel cleansings, juice and other mainstays of woo-woo medicine. When he finally went in for surgery in July, 2004, Jobs’s cancer had metastasized to his liver, forcing him to begin chemotherapy. He eventually had a liver transplant in 2009, but that growing cancer finally killed him this Oct. 5, at the age of 56.

Laurene Powell tells Isaacson that her husband simply didn’t want his body violated. He was unable to give up control, even to save his life.

We read biographies for the story, but also to learn why people are the way they are. What we learn about Jobs is that he was sui generis, one of a kind. We could roll the Apple tape backward and forward with any other CEO at the helm, and the company would almost certainly have failed. It was Jobs’s aesthetic, arrogance, charisma and capacity for work that made Apple what it was.

This is not the first Steve Jobs biography. It is, however, the first full biography of this flawed and complex man, the first to truly show him in the round. And it shows he was not so much smart as a genius, someone who could make instinctive and almost magical leaps, jumps that produced products that seemingly fell through wormholes from the future. For all his flaws, as Isaacson says, sometimes it is nice to be in the hands of a control freak like this – even if it’s only to buy his products.

Paul Kedrosky is a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation and editor of Infectious Greed, a popular financial blog.

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