By Luke Brinker
Ask your typical person what she’d think of a man who abandoned a daughter he fathered out of wedlock; continued to question whether she was his daughter even after a paternity test established that he was the father; impregnated another woman and then asked friends whether he should marry that woman or another, “prettier” one; bullied employees; made a point of exposing coworkers to his body odor; chose not to engage in any philanthropy despite an estimated $8.3 billion net worth; and displayed all the classic signs of narcissism, and she’d probably tell you that you had just defined “asshole.” But because millions of people consumed his products and developed a cult-like devotion to him, much of the media deified the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs when he died earlier this month. With Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs now available, much ink has been spilled discussing some of the more unsavory sides to Isaacson’s subject. Maureen Dowd and Farhad Manjoo are but two of the latest idol-smashers. So what are we to make of Steve Jobs?
His business acumen is undeniable. Enough has been said about that, so I see no need to rehash it here. Of course, it’s not quite accurate to say that Jobs was a spotless businessman who may have been slightly neurotic in his personal life. As Harold Meyerson notes, Jobs’s Apple was just as complicit as other multi-national corporations in the exploitation of cheap foreign labor. And not only did Jobs refuse to sacrifice any of his personal fortune to charity, he also ended Apple’s corporate philanthropy program when he returned to the helm of the company in the late 1990s.
Then there was Jobs the man. It’s clear that Jobs was an incredibly narcissistic individual. Others existed primarily for his own pleasure, and the wishes of even his closest family and friends seemed to matter very little to Jobs. In her column, Dowd relates an anecdote about a shopping trip Jobs took with then-girlfriend Joan Baez. When she mentioned she couldn’t afford a dress he suggested for her, he left her hanging high and dry while stocking up on clothes for himself. Upon receiving his cancer diagnosis, Jobs ignored the desperate entreaties of his wife and children to receive traditional, rigorous cancer treatments, instead opting for unscientific New Agey remedies. Jobs was also given to eating disorders, uncontrollable sobbing, and other bizarre behavior, like washing his feet in the office toilets.
Perhaps Jobs was such a success in the corporate world because of, not despite, his off-balance personality. In his recent book, A First-Rate Madness, Nassir Ghaemi links great leaders with mental instability. Jobs was certainly a formidable force in American business and a bit of a whacko. Whackos dare. Whackos challenge the conventional wisdom. In short, they “Think Different.”
Isaacson’s overall depiction of Jobs is a favorable one, and despite laying bare many of the businessman’s flaws, the book continues in the long tradition of exalting his visionary mind. Not everyone will see Jobs in that same light, however. In our Manichean society, we have a propensity to assign people labels of “good” and “bad.” In today’s Fox News world (which Jobs, like any semi-educated person, decried), we don’t “do” nuance. There’s nothing wrong with saying, however, that in his short life, Jobs secured his place among the greatest innovators of his age, even if he was not someone with whom we’d want to have lived.
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