Steve Jobs comes as close as anyone I know to being an Ayn Rand hero in real life. As depicted by Walter Isaacson in Steve Jobs, a semi-authorized biography, Jobs was utterly selfish and had no consideration of anyone or anything except his personal vision and obsessions. At the same time he was a genius who created a great company and transformed the personal computer, digital animation, the telephone, photography and much else.
Many Occupy Wall Street protestors, who hated most of the “1 percent”, nevertheless mourned the death of Steve Jobs because, unlike crooked Wall Street financiers, he actually accomplished something. Walter Isaacson wrote he was the most important American industrialist since Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
I find it easy to mock those who, as Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas, once put it, were born on third base and thought they’d hit a triple. A great many of our so-called meritocracy contribute little or nothing or mainly harmful things to society. But it is more difficult to decide what I think a total egotist who accomplished great things.
This is nothing in Isaacson’s book to indicate that Steve Jobs ever read the works of Ayn Rand or gave a thought about her philosophy. His intellectual interests, such as they were, were in Zen Buddhism, New Age teaching and rock and roll.
Buddhism contributed to his keen aesthetic sense, based on simplicity and elegance. But he evidently did not take to heart the Buddhist teaching that the ego is an illusion and you should not make yourself unhappy if you don’t get your way. Quite the contrary.
Steve Jobs’ great talent was in industrial design. He brought art and technology together. As has often been pointed out, all the basic features of the Macintosh computer – the mouse, clickable icons and so on – were developed at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Laboratory, and hijacked by Jobs. But it was Jobs, not Xerox management, who understood what to do with these concepts. The Macintosh was historic. Xerox’s own Star computer is forgotten.
As an artist, he was a perfectionist. He made big changes at the last minute rather than allow a flawed (in his eyes) product go on the market. I can easily imagine him, like Ayn Rand’s fictional architect Howard Roark, destroying something he created rather than let someone else spoil it.
He was not easy to work with. He had no patience with the merely adequate. He was quick to classify people as geniuses or bozos, based on hasty impressions. But at the same time he respected people who stood up to him—provided they proved to be right. He was a charismatic personality, famous for his “reality distortion field,” who was able to impose his ideas on other people almost in spite of themselves. His insistence on getting his own way drove his people to achieve more than they ever thought they could.
I use Apple products and I enjoy Pixar animation (which he did not create but fostered). At the same time I am glad that I never met Steve Jobs, and I do not recommend him as a role model. He treated those closest to him badly, including his loving and self-sacrificial foster parents, the mother of his first child and his loyal friend Steve Wozniak. He cared little for anyone he did not regard as a fellow genius. He did not practice nor believe in economic democracy. When a visitor asked about working conditions in Apple factories, his reaction was anger and contempt.
I’m glad Steve Jobs lived. I respect his achievement, and the passion that fueled his achievement. I would not subtract anything from his wealth or honors. At the same time I would not want to live in a society dominated by people like Steve Jobs or, worse still, people with Steve Jobs’ attitude toward life but not his talent. The world benefits from obsessive hard-driving geniuses, but that does not mean that ordinary people, who do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, count for nothing.
For more, click on Steve Jobs: An Inspiration or a Cautionary Tale by Ben Austen for Wired.