Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader

By Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli


The unofficial biography of Steve Jobs, written by a reporter who met Jobs after his exile from Apple and covered him for 25 years. Jobs’ life was a classic Hero’s Journey of rise, fall, and redemption. This book does a great job of separating the myth of Steve Jobs–“half-genius, half-asshole”–from the very real man who lived the story. Ed Catmull of Pixar, among others, calls this the definitive Jobs biography. I found a lot of great insight about overcoming failure through continuous learning and self-improvement.

As I pored over my old documents, I kept coming back to the time that many have described as his “wilderness” years, the dozen years between his first tenure at Apple and his return. That era, from 1985 to 1997, is easy to overlook.

He believed deeply in the value of what he chose to do with his life, and he hoped those close to him believed in the value of their work just as deeply.

As all “grown-ups” come to understand, we wrestle with and learn how to manage our gifts and flaws over a lifetime. It’s an endless growth process. And yet it’s not as if we become wholly different people.

Steve, it turned out, was a great enabler of genius.

Steve was innately comfortable trusting his gut; it’s a characteristic of the best entrepreneurs, a necessity for anyone who wants to make a living developing things no one has ever quite imagined before.

Woz didn’t fully appreciate it, but he had created the first truly personal computer.

Since you can’t control the luck itself, which is bound to come your way for better and for worse, what matters is your state of preparedness to deal with it.

It soon became clear that it was smart business for a company to start work on the product that would render obsolete its latest and greatest offering well before the first one even made it to market.

He didn’t yet have the skills to build a great company, but he admired those who had pulled it off, and he would go to great lengths to meet them and learn from them.

The cliché that Steve Jobs was half genius, half asshole is based largely on his actions during the nine years that constituted his first tenure at Apple.

He had little sense at this point of how important it can be to have true allies in a corporate setting.

One important thing he didn’t yet understand was that most breakthrough products result from a long cycle of hit-and-miss prototypes, the steady accumulation of features, and a timely synthesis of existing technologies.

Steve was a visionary. It’s a word that is loosely tossed around these days, especially in Silicon Valley, but it legitimately applied to Steve even from very early in his life. The challenge he faced was to become an effective visionary—that’s what turns a dreamer into someone who changes the world.

One could argue that Gates’s greatest contribution to the world was not Microsoft, or the MS-DOS or Windows operating systems, or the Office productivity applications that hundreds of millions of people use. It was his role as the first champion of the concept that software itself had value.

At the very moment when Steve had convinced himself that he had won a richly deserved freedom from an oppressive, dull overseer, he was in fact slave to so much else: to his celebrity, to his unbalanced and obsessive desire for perfection in the most innocuous of details, to his managerial flightiness and imperiousness, to his shortcomings as an analyst of his own industry, to his burning need for revenge, and to his own blindness to these faults.

At the beginning, corporate trappings can just get in the way, and distract from the all-consuming job of creating an object of desire.

Steve couldn’t distinguish between the extraneous and the critical. As CEO of a fledgling company, that was his key responsibility.

He couldn’t accept that it was impossible for him to have everything exactly the way he wanted it.

Sometimes Steve’s good intentions could lead to a deep intellectual self-deception, in which trivial issues loomed larger than life and fundamental realities were swept under the rug.

Pixar taught him how to keep his head and fight back when cornered, and how to run like the wind in the open field. And it became the place where he really learned, albeit slowly and reluctantly and against his natural instincts, that sometimes the best management technique is to forgo micromanagement and give good, talented people the room they need to succeed.

Looking back, 1989 stands out as the year when the confusion of Steve’s mad, youthful rush started to clear, even though his business problems wouldn’t evaporate anytime soon.

A consumer market can be an enormously profitable one—put simply, there are so many more people than businesses that if you sell them the right product you can mint money.

“He’d walk into the room and say, ‘Which one of you has the authority to buy our computers?’ If they said no one, he would just dismiss them. ‘I only want to negotiate with someone who can make the deal,’ he’d say, and leave.”

“When we screwed up,” says Catmull, “it wasn’t, ‘Oh, you guys screwed up!’ It was always, ‘What are we going to do to move forward?’ When you’re out there on the edge, some things go right and some things go wrong. If nothing’s going wrong, you’re fooling yourself. Steve believed that.”

“He was more open to the talent of others, to be inspired by and challenged by that talent, but also to the idea of inspiring them to do amazing things he knew he couldn’t do himself.”

For a lot of people, their egos are tied up in an idea and it gets in the way of learning. You have to separate yourself from the idea.

Opportunism, intuition, and manipulation would all come to play a role in his return to the company he loved most. But by also employing a newfound patience and maturity, Steve would return a better businessman.

“If you weren’t good at your job, he owed it to the rest of the team to get rid of you. But if you were good, he owed you his loyalty.”

Now he was willing to walk slowly down a path, and if following his nose led him somewhere better than where he thought he was headed, that’s where he would go.

But as was true so often when Steve negotiated, the audacity of his demand was matched by his cool and accurate appraisal of the landscape.

According to his wife, Laurene, he was still torn about whether to go back. The two of them debated the matter endlessly. She felt that he was the only person who could save the company, and she knew he still loved Apple. She knew, too, that her husband was most fulfilled when he was tackling something gripping and important.

Steve had grown more comfortable with waiting—not always patiently—to see what developed, rather than jumping impulsively into some new venture where he thought he could once again astound the world.

One of the themes Steve came back to at several points in the program was how important it can be to try to look at things from another perspective, just to test your assumptions. In other words, he was urging people to “Think Different.”

“If you look at true artists, if they get really good at something, it occurs to them that they can do this for the rest of their lives, and they can be really successful at it to the outside world, but not really successful to themselves. That’s the moment that an artist really decides who he or she is. If they keep on risking failure they’re still artists. Dylan and Picasso were always risking failure.”

Some technologies provided consumers with a tangible benefit, but if they didn’t fit into Steve’s quadrant structure, they had to go—the institution, he decided, could only focus on so much.

What the quadrant strategy wasn’t is equally important. It was not an effort to solve all problems with one insanely great machine.

“The reason you sugarcoat things is that you don’t want anyone to think you’re an asshole. So, that’s vanity.” -Jony Ive

Steve had assembled a group that was strong enough to deal with who he was, and autonomous enough to compensate for his weaknesses.

According to Rams, Good Design is:   1.  innovative   2.  what makes a product useful   3.  aesthetic   4.  what makes a product understandable   5.  unobtrusive   6.  honest   7.  long-lasting   8.  thorough down to the last detail   9.  environmentally friendly 10.  as little design as possible.

The sheer simplicity of the quadrant strategy had laid the foundation for an organization that would say no again and again—until it said yes, at which point it would attack the new project with fierce determination.

This group was starting to function at such a high level that they welcomed the challenge of making a new kind of device. And none of them thought a portable music player alone would be transformative, so it seemed like a low-risk gamble.

Steve still presented his team with outrageous goals that seemed impossibly out of reach. But there were two things that had changed, things that improved the odds that his team could live up to his stretch targets. Steve himself was more willing to reshape his goals as the development process revealed either limitations or new opportunities. And the group he had assembled was the most talented collection of people he had ever worked with, a naturally ambitious crew that knew that Steve encouraged their spirit of constant inquisitiveness and willingness to push boundaries.

“We followed where our own desires led us,” Steve explained, recalling how much his team had hated the existing music players on the market, “and we ended up ahead.”

He told me, ‘I want to be good friends, because once you know how I think we only have to talk once or twice a week. Then when you want to do something you can do it and not feel that you have to ask permission.’

“It’s not about how fast you do something, it’s about doing your level best.”

When Apple took on a major project, he wasn’t just concerned with the design and marketing. He wanted to know everything about the project, and he expected his employees to attack every conceivable problem—from design and engineering to seemingly mundane tasks such as packaging and billing—with creativity.

One little thing led to another. One success, one particular challenge, could spur thoughts about another product, or a different iteration of an existing product, or a whole new channel of revenue.

This was one of his great talents, the ability to synthesize separate developments and technologies into something previously unimaginable.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

When Steve was twenty-two, you could consider him a genius with a thousand helpers. But he grew way beyond that. He’s not a success story, but a growth story.

Steve embraced the marketing adage that every single moment a consumer encounters a brand—whether as a buyer, a user, a store visitor, a passerby seeing a billboard, or someone simply watching an ad on TV—is an experience that adds either credits or debits to the brand’s “account” in his imagination.

Given the choice, people do discern and value quality more than we give them credit for.

“That iPhone sitting in your pocket is the exact equivalent of a Cray XMP supercomputer from twenty years ago that used to cost ten million dollars.”

“So many of the people who want to be like Steve have the asshole side down. What they’re missing is the genius part.”

Those former employees share another common thread, too: the idea that they did the very best work of their lives for Steve.

He wasn’t beholden to anything except a set of core values.

“Steve and I will always get more credit than we deserve, because otherwise the story’s too complicated,” Gates says.

It is hard enough to see what is already there, to remove the many impediments to a clear view of reality, but Steve’s gift was even greater: he saw clearly what was not there, what could be there, what had to be there. His mind was never a captive of reality. Quite the contrary. He imagined what reality lacked, and he set out to remedy it. His ideas were not arguments but intuitions, born of a true inner freedom. For this reason, he possessed an uncannily large sense of possibility—an epic sense of possibility.

“Steve loved ideas and loved making stuff, and he treated the process of creativity with a rare and wonderful reverence. He, better than anyone, understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished. His was a victory for beauty, for purity, and, as he would say, for giving a damn.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s