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  • Writer's pictureJeff Matthews

His Magical Thinking: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

The NotMakingThisUp Book Review

So how did a guy who was described by one of his closest friends as “reflexively cruel and harmful to some people” and by the mother of his first child as “an enlightened being who was cruel”;

Who honed a “trick of using stares and silences to master other people”;

Who took a bonus meant to be split with his best friend and future co-founder of Apple, Steve Wozniak—which “Woz” had earned for the duo by designing a video game with fewer chips than a preset maximum—and still denied it after he had become a multi-billionaire (Wozniak got paid all of $350 for his efforts);

Who was described as sometimes “abusive” by an early business partner, as “the opposite of loyal…he has to abandon the people he is close to” by a longtime friend and as “frighteningly cold” by another;

Who denied he was the father of his first child and according to the child’s mother “didn’t want to have anything to do with her or with me”;

Who threw a “tantrum” when Apple’s first president gave him employee badge #2 while Wozniak got badge #1, then demanded, and got, badge #0;

Who shouted down strangers at business meetings by yelling “Let’s stop this bullshit!” and wooed engineering prospects by telling them “Everything you’ve ever done in your life is shit, so why don’t you come work for me?”;

Who parked his car in the handicapped spot at the front of his building so frequently that an Apple employee “painted over the handicapped wheelchair symbol with a Mercedes logo”;

Who was described by his first supervisor as “a goddamn hippie with b.o.” and was considered by his first boss at that same company to be “not a great engineer”.…

How, exactly, did Steven P. Jobs become the unstoppable force who, by intelligence, intuition and sheer willpower lead the creation of not one, but two dominant companies of their times, and directly affect the lives of more human beings than any other individual of his generation?

For the answer to that question, read this book.

What it mainly comes down to—and we’re not giving anything away here, because you’ll want to read it all—is that Jobs simply used what Apple veterans called his “reality distortion field” to talk people into doing things they didn’t think they could do.

One of the best—among many—stories along this line occurs when an Apple engineer tries to explain why an early beta of the Mac operating system is taking so long to boot up, too long for Jobs:

…Jobs cut him off. “If it could save a person’s life, would you find a way to shave ten seconds off the boot time?” he asked. Kenyon allowed that he probably could. Jobs went to a whiteboard and showed that if there were five million people using the Mac, and it took ten seconds extra to turn it on every day, that added up to three hundred million or so hours per year that people would save, which was the equivalent of at least one hundred lifetimes saved per year. “Larry was suitably impressed, and a few weeks later he came back and it booted up twenty-eight seconds faster,” Atkinson recalled. “Steve had a way of motivating by looking at the bigger picture.”

And Isaacson tells the story of that bigger picture very, very well—mainly by letting other voices do the talking.

They are the voices of those who were there early in Jobs’ career, when the defining impetus of his life—being given up for adoption—was shaping the personality that would alternately fascinate, disgust, energize and terrorize those who encountered that “reality distortion field.”

They are the voices of those who influenced Jobs along the way (Atari founder Nolan Bushnell’s voice is especially delightful, and the simplicity of his instructions for Atari’s first Star Trek game—…uncomplicated enough that a stoned freshman could figure them out… “1. Insert quarter. 2. Avoid Klingons”—became a guiding principle behind Jobs’ own creations).

They are the voices of those who were there when the Apple II, the Mac, the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad were born; when Jobs was creating—and failing with—NeXT; when Jobs returned to Apple somewhat older and somewhat wiser, and still a perfectionist; and when Pixar was saved and nourished into an animation powerhouse by Jobs.

Also they are the voices of those with him when he was dying.

The book flows quickly and it flows without a hitch, because even though the author spent a great deal of time with Jobs in the waning days of his life, he does not interject himself, except when absolutely necessary to tell the story.

Also, it’s not written as a straight chronology: it jumps ahead at times—for example, to explain Jobs’ bond with Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design guru, before going back to the ‘aha’ moments that led to the iPod, the design of which Ive and Jobs shaped together—and always to good effect.

And, as you’ve already figured out, Isaacson sugarcoats very little.

Most important of all, along the way in this great story you’ll learn where Jobs got his love of craftsmanship; how the first product Wozniak and Jobs came up with was in fact illegal; why Apple was named “Apple”; how employees manipulated Jobs to (sometimes) reach the conclusion they thought he should reach; why the first iPod was all-white (even the ear-buds); how Jobs’ work at NeXT and Pixar informed his return to Apple; how Jobs’ exile in Italy after his first Apple career influenced the floors you walk on today in every Apple store; why Jobs wore turtlenecks; what he told Larry Page about how to manage Google, and, more interestingly, what he told the CEO of Corning while successfully persuading him to resurrect a failed Corning glass R&D project into what became the rugged but clear glass screen on your iPhone; and, over and over, how the perfectionist Jobs could obsess over any detail when it came to the design of a product, a hotel room, a business card—even an oxygen mask in the hospital as he lay near death.

Indeed, the word “obsess” appears nine times in this book, the word “tantrum” eight times, and the phrase “Jobs insisted” appears—we are not making this up—28 times in the book.

Jobs’ favorite derogatory term for bad work—“shit”—appears early and often, in various forms (“this is shit” appears four times, “it’s shit” once); while “sucks,” another favored Jobs adjective for bad people or bad things, appears five times, including once when Jobs simply combines the two adjectives into “he’s a shithead who sucks.”

Still, the word that sticks in the mind after reading all of Steve Jobs is neither. In fact, it is in no way negative.

The word is “magical,” and it appears 19 times in the book, including three times when it’s used by Jobs describing a technology or a product.

But the most poignant, and powerful use of the word comes from Jobs’ wife who, in explaining how he at first avoided coming to terms with his initial cancer diagnosis—in a similar fashion to the way he routinely avoided coming to terms with the limitations of fellow human beings, thereby pushing them into making products that literally changed the world—summed up the mindset that nursed Pixar from a struggling graphics design shop into the savior of Disney and, at the same time, pushed Apple onto a path that would make it the most valuable company in the world before he died.

It was, she called it, “his magical thinking.”

So read this book.

If you’re a teenager who “thinks different” and wants to understand how Jobs took that same quality and turned it from a liability to a world-changing asset; if you’re a geek who wants to understand how Jobs identified break-through technologies and made them commercial; if you’re an investor who wants to understand how a company learns less from great success than from failure; if you’re a board member who wants to understand how destructive a creative genius can be, and how to harness that genius without destroying a company; if you’re a CEO who wants to discover what makes a product a flop like Microsoft’s Zune instead of a hit like the iPod; if you’re a design student who doesn’t care about business but wants to understand why the iPad feels so comfortable to pick up (hint: rounded, not square, edges); if you’re an advertiser who wants to understand how two frames can be the difference between a “great” TV commercial and a “shit” commercial; if you don’t care about any of that but just want to understand how all these products came to be…read this book.

It’s great.

Maybe even insanely great.

Jeff Matthews

Author “Secrets in Plain Sight: Business and Investing Secrets of Warren Buffett”

(eBooks on Investing, 2011) Available now at

© 2011 NotMakingThisUp, LLC

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