Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

How Steve Jobs Got Away With Being An Asshole

Posted by Tom Foremski - December 6, 2011

By Michelle Atagana

He was adopted and resented the rejection by his birth parents, but abandoned a daughter of his own born out of wedlock. Steve Jobs was a complicated man.

The minute I picked up Steve Jobs' biography by Walter Isaacson, I knew I was about to enter the mind of one of the world's most admired icons.

In his lifetime, Jobs gained a cult-like following. He fancied himself as the "Jesus" of the tech world and Apple fans followed. He even went to Apple's first Halloween party dressed as Jesus Christ. And the iPhone was nicknamed "the Jesus phone".

Isaacson was commissioned by Jobs to write his biography in 2003 because he wanted his children to know him. The author had previously written about Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin so perhaps his selection was another attempt by Jobs to be remembered as one of the world's most innovative minds.

Understanding the true nature of Jobs is jarring even for a non fangirl (or boy).

He was a filthy narcissist, who didn't believe in showers, deodorant and apparently liked to dip his feet in the toilet. He was prone to childlike tantrums and apparently took credit for other people's ideas.

He was arrogant and a brutal boss who could reduce his employees to tears with phrases like: "fucking dickless assholes" and "That design looks like shit".

In the early days of Apple Mike Scott was hired to manage Jobs. His first encounter with the petulant man came when he assigned company badge #1 to Wozniak and #2 to Jobs.

"Not surprisingly, Jobs demanded to be #1," writes Isaacson. "I wouldn't let him have it, because that would stoke his ego even more," Scott recalls to Isaacson.

"Jobs threw a tantrum, even cried. Finally, he proposed a solution. He would have badge #0. Scott relented, at least for the purpose of the badge, but the Bank of America required a positive integer for its payroll system and Jobs's remained #2."

Isaacson's account paints Jobs as a sadistic master and everyone around him his willing subjects.

Jonathan Ive, vice president of industrial design at Apple remembers his infantile tantrums and need to hurt people:

"I once asked him why he gets so mad about stuff. He said, 'But I don't stay mad.' He has this very childish ability to get really worked up about something, and it doesn't stay with him at all. But, there are other times, I think honestly, when he's very frustrated, and his way to achieve catharsis is to hurt somebody. And I think he feels he has a liberty and license to do that. The normal rules of social engagement, he feels, don't apply to him. Because of how very sensitive he is, he knows exactly how to efficiently and effectively hurt someone. And he does do that."

In his own words, Jobs was determined to "make a dent in the universe". He would be heard no matter the cost.

His first job was at the game company Atari, where he sat in the lobby and insisted he be hired. He was ballsy to say the least.

"I could see," Jobs said, "what the future of computing was destined to be".

Jobs was inept at human relations and seemed to only speak as a decent human being when a large, sympathetic audience was present.

He also comes across as a complete hypocrite.

"He refused such trappings as having a 'Reserved for CEO' spot, but he assumed for himself the right to park in the handicapped spaces. He wanted to be seen (both by himself and by others) as someone willing to work for $1 a year, but he also wanted to have huge stock grants bestowed upon him."

The man behind Apple was born in 1955, a baby boomer, he came of age in the early 1970s, when his mind was impregnated with Bob Dylan, and the drug LSD. He dropped out of college, sought the counsel of Indian gurus and adopted fruitarianism.

He later emerged as the soul of corporate culture, commissioning Japanese fashion designer, Issey Miyake, to design a uniform for Apple employees and his famed turtlenecks.

He lived in a big house that had little to no furniture because he theoretically didn't believe in furniture or possessions.

"We spoke about furniture in theory for eight years," Laurene Powell, Jobs' wife tells Isaacson. "We spent a lot of time asking ourselves, 'What is the purpose of a sofa?'"

In spite of all his eccentricities, Jobs had a talent for knowing what consumers wanted before they did. He took other people's ideas and turned them into something sexy, a design marvel of the age.

He was unapologetic.

In the early days of Apple Jobs' "instinct to control" saw him turning down designs for circuit boards because the wires -- though invisible to the consumer -- were not straight enough. He demanded perfection no matter the cost.

"Don't be afraid," he would say, staring down his underlings. "Yes, you can do it. Get your mind around it. You can do it." And the results speak for themselves in the shape of the world's most valuable company.

Michelle Atagana is managing editor at Memeburn.


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