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The life and times of Steven Paul Jobs, Part Two

Empire-building inspirational visionary, or megalomaniacal swine?

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A personal perspective

Permit me now to drop into the first person, and speak directly as a Jobsian fanboi – a thoroughly thought-through label I wear with pride.

I've been following Apple closely since the Homebrew Computer Club days, the past 22 years as a journalist. Throughout those years I have been continually mystified by the intensity of the adoration and abhorrence inspired by Steven Paul Jobs.

Certainly, he earned both. He could, indeed, be an asshole. One of my favorite stories in this vein was told by David Bunnell, describing how Jobs flipped the finger at a photographer when shooting the cover for the inaugural issue of Macworld magazine.

What a dick. Not even a prick. Just a dick.

There are many more such stories in the Jobsian canon – Jobs berating underlings, lying through his teeth, stroking his own sizable ego. Even long-time friend Walt Mossberg wrote in The Wall Street Journal after Jobs' death: "He certainly had a nasty, mercurial side to him."

Steve Jobs

But to focus only on Bad Steve leads to such fervid overstatements as those made by one Forbes contributor, who distilled Jobs into a "a spooky, weird control freak who cultivated not so much fans as thought-slaves", adding that "Apple's real motto is, of course, 'Do Be Evil,' which means Jobs is essentially Mr Burns in a turtleneck".

My, my, what a subtle, nuanced balance of both Bad Steve and Good Steve.

For every story about Bad Steve, there's an equal and opposite story of him inspiring a co-worker, waxing philosophical in late-night conversations with friends, and being a devoted dad and loving husband.

But to swing too far in the other direction is to be equally reductionist. It's difficult, for example, to be any more over-the-top hagiographic than the headline of another reminiscence in Forbes: "Steve Jobs Reinvented What It Means to be Human".

Uh, no, he didn't.

Jobs invented little. But what he did do was in many ways more important than whose name ends up in the "inventor" field on a US Patent and Trademark Office document: Jobs looked far over the horizon and saw a world that he thought to be a good one, and he made multiple decisive decisions about how to get his team to create that world.

In some cases, his vision was not one that I believe to be a good one – the "walled garden", for one. But other decisions and directions, I would argue, were brilliant: stripping away complexity to reveal elegance, and making that elegance available to the greatest number of people, for example.

But frankly, what one writer and editor thinks about Jobs and his visions matters little. And equally frankly, it's too soon to conclusively judge his contributions, both positive and negative, in the digital world. But it's not too soon to say that he had a larger role than either you or I ever could imagine having.

To do so, we'd need the imagination of Steven Paul Jobs. And whether you come down on the side of Bad Steve or Good Steve, you have to admit that his imagination was formidable.

Could he be brilliant? Yes. Could he be an asshole? Yes. Could he be inspiring? Yes. Could he be ruthless? Yes. Could he be magnanimous? Yes. Could he be childish? Yes. Could he be childlike? Yes.

Just like you and me, only with the dial turned up to eleven.

The other day, I ran into a 2010 video in which Jobs talks about his management philosophy. Give the dead guy two minutes and twenty-six seconds of your time:

It's a fascinating performance, one that shows Jobs' utter self-confidence – or arrogance, if you're from the Bad Steve school of thought – along with his belief that an idea is more important than the status of the person who proposes it.

That is, if you believe that he's telling the truth. If not, then it's just Jobs the bullshitter, painting himself in a favorable light.

For some observers, it's easy to tell. They'll brand him as a devil or angel. Me? I can't tell – but I do believe that to brand him as inhabiting merely one extreme or another is a closed-minded absurdity.

That said, perhaps the key to understanding Jobs can be found in another thing that Mossberg said about him in his WSJ reminiscence: "He could sell. Man, he could sell."

Even to himself, perhaps.


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