Steve Jobs’s life did not have a promising beginning. He was born out of wedlock to a single mother, and adopted at birth. He dropped out of college after one semester. For a time, he seldom bathed. (He thought his vegan diet meant he didn’t have to.) At 19, when he started working at Atari, they put him on the night shift because he stank so much.
But rules are made for ordinary men. Mr. Jobs preferred to make his own. People who worked with him frequently remarked on his uncanny ability to bend any fact to suit his purpose, and to persuade himself and others to believe almost anything. “We need to have this job done by next month,” he would insist, even though everyone knew it was totally impossible. This was known as Steve’s “reality distortion field.”
He had no use for customer research or focus groups. Why would he? He was dreaming things up that nobody had ever heard of.
He was a horrible manager and a bully. When one of his oldest friends broke down crying because he had barely missed out on Apple’s early stock options, Mr. Jobs ignored him. He tore strips off employees who’d worked their hearts out. “I really want to be with people who demand perfection,” he would say. He told one loyal engineer that the cake he’d baked was fine, but the icing on the cake was dog feces. “Don’t try to be too nice as the CEO,” he advised a young Silicon Valley entrepreneur. “You only want a team of A players.”
He was also callous in his private life. When his girlfriend became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Lisa, he denied paternity and forced her to sue him for support. He reconciled with his daughter only after he’d married and had three more children. When he went in search of his birth parents, he deliberately decided to have nothing to do with his father. “I learned a little bit about him, and I didn’t like what I learned,” he told his biographer, Walter Isaacson. In fact, the two had met without knowing it. His father, a Syrian named Abdulfattah Jandali, had once run a restaurant in Silicon Valley where Mr. Jobs ate once or twice. He used to brag that Mr. Jobs had been one of his customers.
The ability to be ruthless, to bend reality to your will, and get other people to buy in is a hallmark of highly successful people. Great entrepreneurs and great politicians have it. It requires an enormous ego, as well as significant amounts of magical thinking and self-delusion.
But Mr. Jobs’s reality-distortion field failed him in the end. When his pancreatic cancer was discovered in 2003, he initially refused to have surgery, even though it would probably have been effective. Instead, he tried acupuncture, fruit juices, herbal remedies and other quack treatments he found on the Internet. He put off surgery for nine months, by which time the cancer had spread. After that, he embraced high-tech medicine with a passion, and told everyone he was cured. The world knew he was dying long before he could bring himself to publicly (or even privately) admit it. He and Jack Layton had that in common.
Toward the end, he told his biographer he wasn’t sure if he believed in God. “Sometimes I think life is just an on and off switch, and when it’s off, that’s it,” he said. That’s the reason why he didn’t like to put an off switch on his products.