The Steve Jobs Bio Will Not Save the World
Our national obsession with Steve Jobs officially jumped the shark when that noted captain of industry, Kanye West, unleashed another Twitter barrage this month. Character limits be damned, West used about 1,500 words to hype his plans for 2012, touching on everything from his talent for women’s shoe design to how “we need scientist[s] and top world designers to directly affect governments.” He also couldn’t resist giving a shout-out to the deceased Apple CEO: “We can collectively effect the world [through] design. We need to pick up where Steve Jobs left off.” That’s when it really sunk in: Walter Isaacson’s Jobs biography could become the guidebook for a generation of egomaniacs and assholes.
West is a hugely talented artist, of course. He’s also got a touch of crazy about him, which I don’t mind in my hip-hop icons. I can’t imagine working for the guy, but when you’re that gifted, you can get away with a lot of behavior that the rest of us never could. It’s those eccentricities that help make West and other envelope-pushers so compelling and vital. The same could be said for Nick Denton, the man who has built Gawker Media into an Internet empire. He’s a polarizing figure—when your own company names you one of New York’s worst bosses, even if it’s in a winking meta way, you know there’s some truth to his rep as a “digital sweatshop operator” and an “unapologetic liar.” In a leaked state-of-the-union memo to his staff, Denton begins with a lengthy Jobs quote about how talent attracts talent. He also admits that Jobs inspired him to evaluate Gawker in greater detail, if that’s even possible.
We’re in a moment when it seems that if you have any ambition whatsoever, you need to read Isaacson’s biography of Jobs and quote it frequently. Taking a few cues from a visionary and world-changing leader can’t be a bad thing, right? For West and Denton, Jobs serves as inspiration to push either themselves or their employees to think bigger. I’m not sure that Kanye’s plan to reinvent public education has legs, but ideas and enthusiasm can’t hurt; as for Denton’s memo, he actually sounds more like an earnest cheerleader than a tyrant.
But there’s a subtle danger in what New York Times media columnist David Carr calls “Jobs-mania.” Both West and Denton are operating at the top of their games on a big-league level, not unlike Jobs himself. They’re all also notoriously difficult to work with. Most of us have had at least one bad boss, the type who quotes The Art of War and views the label “Machiavellian” as a compliment. Part of what made Jobs so successful, as Isaacson points out repeatedly, is his single-minded pursuit of his vision. As a human being, though—a manager, a friend, a brother, a lover, a husband—he was deeply flawed. He lived in service of his ambitions, consequences and emotional collateral damage be damned. Without that icy determination, West likely wouldn’t have an iPod full of his music, and Denton’s staff, their fleet of Mac computers.
That approach to life might work when you are among the elite in a field that is literally changing life as we know it. For the rest of society, Jobs’s story could serve as an excuse for treating folks like dirt and indulging in one’s worst behavior. Some of the most successful people I’ve met are also the kindest. To them, creativity and high standards aren’t contradictory to benevolence, generosity, and treating co-workers with respect. Then there are those who transform when their careers take off, using their newfound power as a reason to amplify their basest instincts. In my experience, that’s not a natural devolution—it’s a learned behavior.
Even if you haven’t read the Jobs biography, chances are you’ve heard the horror stories about his tendency to be cruel and obnoxious to everyone around him, from colleagues to waitresses. I hope that’s seen as a cautionary tale rather than a blueprint. In an odd way, West and Denton seem more human after expressing their Jobs worship. They seem energized by his accomplishments, not his antisocial personality. So to all the middle managers, small business owners, struggling artists, McDonald’s day-shift workers, celebrity chefs, youth sports coaches, CEOs, college students, aspiring tech moguls, guys trying to pick up women at Parc, and everyone else who’s read Isaacson’s book: May Jobs inspire you to find greatness. Just don’t be a douchebag along the way.