Thinking about Steve Jobs

I always gotta have some book to read, and couple of weeks ago I picked up Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I’d read Isaacson’s bio of Benjamin Franklin and knew he was a hardworking researcher and a deft storyteller. I’d also been enticed by the many articles, that followed Jobs’ death, in which the book was quoted.

I haven’t finished Steve Jobs, and I may not because I think the writer’s profile of him comes through early in the book. Jobs was a brilliant California kid who was raised in what was becoming Silicon Valley.  He turned into an extremely ambitious, successful, energetic and sometimes abusive man who could fairly be described as an arrogant jerk. He was a perfectionist, and he had an amazing knack for knowing what your average computer user needed and wanted to buy.

Some people go so far as to say he invented the personal computer, with a little help from Steve Wozniak. And don’t forget the iPhone!

Isaacson, himself, seems to think we have Jobs to thank for the connected lifestyles we now lead. In the intro he writes, “Jobs’ ferocious drive revolutionized six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing and digital publishing.”

The Jobs biography seems to fall into a common pattern of heroic narratives. Great men (and they usually are…) are inspired geniuses whose drive and brilliance have brought us not just the personal computer (Jobs) but also the airplane (Wright Brothers), the theory of evolution (Darwin) and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (Ludwig van).

Well, OK! I guess we never would have gotten Beethoven’s 9th without an actual Beethoven. But there would have been – and there were – other great classical composers. There also would have been personal computers without Jobs and there would have been airplanes without the Wright Brothers.

I used to wonder if Albert Einstein would have been a great physicist if he’d been born in a poor African village. Well… no. In fact, the question I once took seriously now seems absurd. Great achievers are products of their time and place. Without those two things, Einstein would have been just another really smart guy that nobody had heard of.

I began to seriously question the hero myth when I was helping my son do a school report about Charles Darwin. He checked out a kids’ history of Darwin, which I also read. Kids’ history books, by the way, are great. They are short, easy to read, and tell you pretty much all you need to know. I realized I didn’t have to read 500 pages about Charles Darwin.

The thing about Darwin’s story that fascinated me is that his theory of evolution existed far beyond the confines of his own mind. In Victorian England there were lots of naturalists exploring the same ideas. In fact, the thing that finally got Darwin off his butt to publish The Origin of Species was a letter he got from another naturalist, asking him to review a paper the man had written.

Darwin read the paper and realized hat this guy was coming to the same conclusions that he was. If Darwin didn’t publish his book soon, he’d be scooped.

We need to give credit where it’s due. Charles Darwin’s volume of research gave the theory of evolution a lot more heft than it would have had if a lesser man had popularized it. Steve Jobs pushed the personal computer industry further and faster because he was who he was. But he didn’t invent Silicon Valley, which was a big organic field of academics and engineers bunched all together. The fact that Jobs became the Steve Jobs came from the fact he was born and raised in that heady environment.

The next book I want to read is by another guy I’ve read before. Malcolm Gladwell has a book called Outliers, and it examines the societal and temporal factors that create great achievers; aka Outliers, aka people like Darwin and Jobs. I expect he’ll say that that individuals aren’t the great inventors, cultures are. Just read a kids’ history book, and you’ll know that.

One more thing about Steve Jobs

Anyone who is interested in nature v. nurture is fascinated by identical twins and by adopted children. Steve Jobs was adopted.

And one endearing thing about Jobs (there weren’t many) was his love for his adoptive parents. Paul and Clara Jobs were kind, working-class people whose intellects were clearly not on par with that of their adopted son.

Many people have theorized that Steve Jobs was angry for being abandoned by his natural parents, who were – by the way – a Wisconsin girl of German Catholic background and the son of wealthy, Muslim family from Syria. They met at the University of Wisconsin.

Steve Jobs tells Isaacson that Paul and Clara were “1,000 percent” his parents. As far as he was concerned, his natural parents were just sperm and egg donors. That may be unfair to say of the woman who bore him, and for whom giving him up was surely a great trial.

I’ve known many people who were adopted, and they have had very diverse views of what that means or whether they want to meet their birth parents. The thing they seem to share is a passion for what they believe on the subject.

Genetics are a big part of what makes us who we are. But while that may be true, families are not bound by truth. Families are bound by love, and where there is love, I don’t think genes matter very much.

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