Saturday 25 November 2017

The self-belief that drove -- and eventually killed -- Steve Jobs

A new biography of the late Apple co-founder claims his comfortable upbringing helped turn him into the iTyrant, writes Aidan Coughlan

When a small, improvised explosive device was set off underneath the chair of Mrs Thurman, a third-grade teacher in Monta Loma Elementary in California, it became apparent that the school had a real problem child on its hands.

Until that point, the pranks of Steven Jobs had consisted of old-fashioned tomfoolery, such as placing authentic-looking posters around the building advertising 'Bring Your Pet To School Day' -- chaos duly ensued -- or switching the locks on his classmates' bikes so that nobody could get home. But this was different.

Paul Jobs, father of the problem child, was called to deal with the escalating issue. To an outsider, it might have seemed like a bleak prospect for young Steve; this crew-cut ex-military man, adorned in tattoos, seemed exactly the sort of father no child of the early 1960s would want to face after being sent home for bad behaviour.

And so, it must have been with considerable surprise that the school's staff had the issue thrown back in their face.

"Look, it's not his fault," said Jobs Snr. "If you can't keep him interested, it's your fault."

The incident is one of many, revealed in Walter Isaacson's new book, Steve Jobs, about the Apple co-founder, that contributed to what would become the single most defining aspect of Steve Jobs: his unshakeable self-belief.

This was the quality that drove him on, and allowed him to carve out a world like nobody else had imagined. But it also led to his death, and made him a difficult, uncompromising individual along the way.

Paul Jobs and his wife Clara had, shortly before this exchange with the school, come to realise that their son was somewhat special -- and a canny young Steve not only took this on board, but discovered how to use it to his advantage.

And if anyone was going to push back, it certainly was not Jobs Snr, who had suffered at the hands of an abusive father while growing up and was determined not to land the same fate on his own boy.

Despite the middle-class status and financial comfort of the family -- a background to which Steve would later attribute his focus on creativity and innovation rather than simply making money -- the sacrifices towards their special child were both monumental and constant.

When Jobs didn't like his high school, he pressurised his parents to move house so that he could attend a better one. They bowed. And when he wanted to go to Reed, an expensive private college, his parents once again found a way to make this happen.

It's a case study in indulgent parenting, the style where a parent is responsive to a child's needs but does not place demands on them in return. This, unsurprisingly, can often give rise to spoiled brats -- and Jobs, as demonstrated in the book, was most certainly one of these.

But it also gave rise to an extraordinary vision, and the confidence -- or arrogance -- required to make it into a reality.

When Jobs was working with Atari, he recruited his friend and later Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak to help with a game that was to succeed Pong (the famous early computer game involving two lines and a bouncing dot).

The task was a number of months' work by any reasonable assessment, but Jobs -- with personal commitments to attend to in a few days' time -- told Wozniak that they had only been given four days to wrap things up. This twisted take on reality, combined with a few all-nighters and a lot of fast food for Wozniak, allowed the pair to achieve the astounding turnaround.

Jobs's authority was occasionally challenged, though, and he was able to accept readily when he was wrong.

In the early days of the Macintosh, he commissioned a small company to develop the computer's floppy disk system -- despite several warnings that it seemed wholly unready to begin production on such a complex device.

Engineers working on the Mac realised that, in this instance, Jobs's perception had strayed a bit too far from reality, and he was not going to force through a result merely by willing it to be. In an act of defiance, they hired a well-known company to do the job instead -- whom they had to occasionally hide in a cupboard on the production floor so that the boss wouldn't see.

When Jobs's plan fell apart, they came clean. "You son of a bitch!" he yelled at them -- albeit with a smile on his face. They were thanked for their disobedience, on the basis that Jobs would have done the exact same thing had he been in their situation.

On other occasions there was simply no keeping a handle on the boss.

For several years, he believed his vegan diet meant he didn't need to take a bath or use a deodorant. It wasn't a good idea -- as his colleagues soon found out. He was eventually moved to the night-shift in Atari to minimise his contact with others.

Years later, Apple employees might have wished they had a similar option. Although he now smelled better, he could still be a foul presence -- and while he could accept defeat in battle, compromise was beyond his reach.

An annual prize was given to the employee who best stood up to Jobs, and it was quite telling that the inaugural award was given to Joanna Hoffman, an engineer who declared she would "take a knife and stab it into his heart". She refrained, but Jobs backed down on the contentious issue.

His bad behaviour wasn't confined to the office -- in fact, it flourished outside of it.

During a visit to Japan, he frequently left behind the small gifts that are customarily given to visitors -- a hugely offensive gesture in a country that places such value on its customs. And in Italy, he became so angry after being served sour cream sauce that Hoffman threatened to pour hot coffee on his lap if he didn't calm down.

Jobs had been given up for adoption shortly after birth, and feelings of 'abandonment' were never far from his mind. Instead of taking this as a blow to his confidence, however, he used it to spur himself on; in his own eyes, he was an underdog who would triumph against the odds.

A semi-committed creature of the counterculture, Jobs harnessed all of this to develop his vision for a computer-dominated future. The liberating potential of computers, which had until then been seen as tools of bureaucracy, was slowly being realised around this time -- and Jobs saw a huge opportunity in this change.

As Bono notes in the book: "The people who invented the 21st Century were pot-smoking, sandal-wearing hippies from the West Coast like Steve, because they saw differently.

"The '60s produced an anarchic mindset that is great for imagining a world not yet in existence."

Although Apple began as the dominant force in personal computing, IBM quickly surged into the lead and, by 1983, they were outselling Apple by three to one. To Jobs, whose hopes all hinged on the release of the Macintosh, this wasn't such a bad thing; it offered him the chance to be the underdog once more.

The launch, which kicked off with Ridley Scott's famous '1984' ad, was an attack on IBM, portrayed throughout as dour and Orwellian. The future, Apple suggested, was destined to follow this dystopian route. . . unless someone came along to save the day.

And so, with the stage set for a white knight, Jobs came riding in with this remarkable, game-changing invention: his computer for the people. It was not just the product of a group of engineers, but of a watertight self-belief and a desire to be the underdog.

When asked what sort of market research he had carried out for the Macintosh, Jobs gave a characteristic reply: "Did Alexander Graham Bell do any market research before he invented the telephone?"

Nothing could have summed up the man better. Nothing, that is, other than his own death.

See Television, page 17

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