The Unintended Consequences of the Steve Jobs Biography

When we look at the grand scope of the influence of novels on American life throughout its history, I’m guessing that most English professors would lament that well-written novels have not managed to change the discourse in America as much as they wish it would have. Certainly, there have been some books with particularly strong consequences—Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a possibly contributing factor to the American Civil War, and Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” sharply affected the American dialogue on life for factory workers—but most literary works fail to achieve their mark on mainstream discourse.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Bio as Bible: Managers Imitate Steve Jobs” points to the unintended consequences of Walter Isaacson’s biography on the Apple co-founder. Managers across the country are reportedly missing the point of what made Steve Jobs a success, namely: his natural feel for aesthetics, ability to manage people effectively, ability to implement designs, the gumption to raise input costs to achieve perfection, and a general inclination to take risks in the pursuit of lofty visions. But unfortunately, as the Wall Street Journal article points out, managers are focusing on the eccentricities and gimmicks of his persona rather than his natural talents—such as his regular use of handicap parking, his tendency to drive in triple digits on the highway, a complete lack of consideration for others (i.e. impromptu firings), a reality distortion field that completely obfuscates what is really going on, and a general inclination to lie and manipulate others for sport. Essentially, these managers are focusing on the “black turtleneck” aspect of Steve Jobs rather than the stay-up-for-fifty-hours-straight-to-perfect-the-Macintosh aspect of Steve Jobs, and this is a lazy way to interpret the biography.

It’s important to remember that Steve Jobs managed to succeed in spite of these things, not because of them. A similar phenomenon occurred when the Warren Buffett biographies started rolling out—instead of focusing on the fact that Buffett spend countless hours locked away reading annual reports, they often focused on his early disregard for authority. “Look, I disobey my teachers too, I’m kind of like that Buffett fellow!”

Earlier, Professor Smith made the joke that this black turtleneck syndrome with Steve Jobs is the equivalent of a military general attributing his on-field success to putting his hand in his coatpocket—see, just like Napoleon! By focusing on the side effects of Jobs’ success, these middle managers are missing the point. Jobs didn’t get a cult of personality because he parked in handicap parking spaces, he achieved success by creating an aesthetically pleasing personal computer that could slowly take away market share from the global behemoth Microsoft. This goes to show just how many unintended consequences have affected the interpretation of this book, and it seems to me that the focus on the wild aspects of the Steve Jobs persona overlook the true ingredients of his success: a relentless drive, brilliant marketing instincts, and good old fashioned hard work.

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