Did we learn the right things from Steve Jobs?

Our quest for meaning ultimately distorts our understanding of what creates success.

I’m going to take a break from writing about mainframes to do something a bit different: a book review! I’ve been spending the better part of a month working through Adam Fisher’s Valley of Genius. Usually, I plow through a book in a week or two, but this one is over 500 pages (ಠ_ಠ) … so it took a minute.

Valley of Genius is written in an oral history style, meaning rather than Fisher retelling stories like the rise and fall of Atari, the founding of the Homebrew Computer club or Larry and Sergey’s Excellent Graduate School Adventure, Fisher strings together direct quotes from the people who were there. Five hundred and twelve pages worth of quotes one after the other, often without any attribution clarifying at what point in the years of interviewing necessary for this book the statements were made.

I’m not a fan of this technique. There are various points where quotes are strung together to give the impression of one person responding directly to a remark made by someone else. For example, Mark Zuckerberg repeats the word “Domination” over and over again as various people affiliated with Facebook rattle off descriptions of early ethical dilemmas. It encourages the reader to imagine Zuckerberg at his most callous and smug while reading. That’s pretty manipulative. The interviewee’s own words used to editorialize against him.

On the other hand, allowing the people on the ground to speak for themselves reveals how significant the things removed can be when the past is being shaped into a narrative. There’s not much in this book that is completely new. You can read the same stories in any number of books or profiles specific to the individual companies or personalities. But Valley of Genius attempts to connect these separate cast of characters to examine the broader context of Silicon Valley’s evolution. Most of these people knew each other, they influenced each other, they stole from each other.

Because much of my career involves technology applied to complex social issues (before USDS I worked at the UN and overseas for various governments and NGOs) I’m often struck by how often people learn the wrong things from experience. How often the narrative constructed to explain a success or failure is edited to eliminate important details. Then you have new people coming in believing they understand the history of past projects and making the same mistakes, or failing to find success by applying a supposedly tried and true method.

Surfacing those details — the stuff often omitted but critical to understanding what happened — is something Valley of Genius did really well.

The curious case of Steve Jobs

Before I read this book I knew Steve Jobs was an asshole. I knew that Apple stole the Mac from Xerox PARC from stories my father used to tell me growing up. I learned later on that the image I had in my head of Jobs and Wozniak in a garage building computers probably wasn’t true because Steve Jobs wasn’t an engineer (although Valley of Genius claims he was excellent at soldering). I knew he was abusive and manipulative with his staff. I knew he was an asshole.

I just didn’t realize how much of an asshole.

One of the first stories in Fisher’s book that really caught my attention was an anecdote about Jobs’s time at Atari:

A version of this story appears in other Steve Jobs biographies but framed very differently. Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different tells the story this way:

Implying that the bonus was a surprise, not something stated upfront certainly puts Jobs in a slightly better light. Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs acknowledges the bonus was on the table from the beginning but avoids specifying what it was. The reader can easily assume that it was a couple extra hundred dollars, rather than Steve Jobs fleeced his best friend for thousands of dollars.

Jobs is an interesting case because his life story seems to be filled with these sort of situations, places where depending on how you arrange the facts things can look bad or very very bad. For example, I knew that Jobs needed a liver transplant towards the end of his life. I remember the ethics debate it kicked off at the time when Jobs’s name appeared at the top of the list in record time. What I didn’t know until this book was that nine months earlier he decided to forego surgery that would have cured his pancreatic cancer in favor of acupuncture and other holistic treatments. Suddenly the idea that that someone else died on that transplant list so that Steve Jobs could live two more years felt very different to me.

And yet one cannot deny the significance of Steve Jobs’s contribution to society either. The man is a challenge to curate. So much about him is selfish, abusive, and cruel. But is the lesson we should learn from his life to be selfish, abusive and cruel?

While Fisher’s tries his best to maintain the rhetoric of Jobs as a genius — describing him at one point as the native son who best epitomized the Valley’s nature — quotes from Jobs’s contemporaries are constantly driving home the point that his success was all smoke and mirrors. Steve Jobs wasn’t a genius. He wasn’t even very smart.

The Apple I and II? Mostly the work of Wozniak built at Atari with Atari parts. The Macintosh? An existing project founded by other Apple engineers that Jobs took over when an internal coup kicked him off the Lisa project. And although the 1984 marketing campaign was groundbreaking, the actual product wasn’t successful until after Steve Jobs was forced out of the company. The iPod? The work of Tony Fadell. The iPhone? Based heavily on the work of General Magic. Valley of Genius quotes luminary after luminary on this point: everything that Steve Jobs tried to build himself was a failure.

Still… the man died worth billions of dollars, having founded and led a company now worth a trillion dollars. Is that not success? Should people not use his life as an example?

The Archipelago of Innovation

When people like Steve Jobs rise to prominence, we’re encouraged to overlook distasteful elements of their personalities. We construct narratives around how they accomplished what they accomplished that filter out all that troubling stuff so that we can learn from the genius without burden of ethical dilemmas. Steve Jobs wasn’t an abusive boss who often sabotaged and derailed projects, he was a man with a vision and the guts to stick with it when no one else could see it. He didn’t steal all the products people associate with him from other companies, taking something to market is the same as inventing it.

What I found most interesting about Fisher’s Steve Jobs is the one characteristic that I’ve never heard anyone attribute to him: his cognitive flexibility.

Look, Steve Jobs stole. He straight up stole. He didn’t just build on the innovations of others, he often passed them off as his own work, even when it was clear that couldn’t possibly be true. And while most people like to either gloss over that or romanticize it, I think it’s worth asking how did he know what to steal?

One of the companies Fisher traces the life cycle of in Valley of Genius is Pixar. Toward the end of that chapter Steve Jobs, who had invested $10 million when the company spun off from Lucasfilm, is unpleasantly surprised to find that what he thought would become a technology company is in fact an animation studio. But he finds this out because of the buzz around Pixar’s first feature length film: Toy Story. He subsequently takes over leadership of the company and begins pushing the narrative that he was one of the original founders who had always been in charge.

I don’t think Steve Jobs’s defining characteristic was vision or determination or arrogance or even empathy for users. I think it was cognitive flexibility, the ability to abandon his own assumptions about computers, technology and business — even the assumptions that made him billions of dollars — and adopt new models as he encountered them. Computers needed GUIs and mice. Pixar wasn’t a computer company. An open platform for iPhone development. The remarkable thing is that Steve Jobs encountered the same ideas that dozens of his peers were also exposed to and he internalize them and embraced them as his own. In Fisher’s history of Silicon Valley we see these shifts play out over time. We see the common sense form after the winners and losers are declared then we see Steve Jobs realize how things are about to change and defy that common sense before anyone else does.

The problem with calling that vision is that it actually encourages people to do the exact opposite of what they should. The Great Man Theory of Steve Jobs assumes that Steve Jobs could predict the future of technology all on his own. That he found the technology to steal because he knew what he was looking for. Instead what I think we should learn from Steve Jobs is to be resourceful and opportunistic. Don’t rely purely on your own knowledge and ability because your knowledge and ability is not enough.

It’s mentioned a few times in Fisher’s book: Steve Jobs didn’t really know anything about computers. He didn’t understand most of the engineering behind the things he stole. Far from a great mind asserting his will on the universe, his potential to innovate grew as he drew from a larger and larger pool of others.

Written by

Author of Kill It with Fire Manage Aging Computer Systems (and Future Proof Modern Ones)

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store