Monthly Archives: November 2011

If You See Steve Jobs in the Road, Kill Him

Now that Steve Jobs has passed away and Wal­ter Isaacson’s fair but inevitably approv­ing biog­ra­phy has been read by large num­bers of the self-iden­ti­fied lead­er­ship class, we can expect a peri­od in which many will imi­tate the lead­er­ship style of the deceased as a means to suc­cess. Let us hope it is short lived. For the con­clu­sion I sus­pect that many will draw is that it is OK, even nec­es­sary, to be an ass­hole so long as one imag­ines one­self to be cre­at­ing beau­ty and sav­ing the world along the way. Although Jobs fits the MO of so many suc­cess­ful cre­atives in his­to­ry (I think of Ezra Pound), each of whose genius seems to be not only close­ly bound up with but intrin­si­cal­ly relat­ed to their lack of social grace, few, very few peo­ple actu­al­ly pos­sess the cre­ative where­with­al to jus­ti­fy the social cost of said genius. This is because genius is not mere­ly a mat­ter of genes. Read­ing Isaacson’s biog­ra­phy I am struck by the degree to which Jobs was a prod­uct of a series of con­ver­gent trends in the par­tic­u­lar time and place of Sil­i­con Val­ley in the late 1960s and ear­ly 1970s, a place where even work­ing class neigh­bor­hoods were inhab­it­ed by engi­neers involved with cut­ting edge tech­nolo­gies. Jobs could not have hap­pened with­out his par­tic­i­pa­tion in a com­mu­ni­ty invest­ed in elec­tron­ic cul­ture and his wit­ness­ing and join­ing in the bad man­ners and counter-cul­tur­al ethos of the time. The simul­ta­ne­ous pres­ence of a new cul­tur­al assem­blage — the elec­tron­ic gone main­stream — and a rejec­tion of all author­i­ty and received wis­dom, save that of dis­tant and dis­tort­ed Asia, allowed him to invent an aes­thet­ics of the elec­tron­ic that would be dis­tinc­tive of the Apple brand. (As for Job’s aes­thet­ic itself, it seems to owe large­ly to his father’s influ­ence and, through him, the aes­thet­ics of high car cul­ture in the 1950s and 60s. Job’s com­put­ers in ret­ro­spect appear to be most like cars — inte­grat­ed beau­ti­ful things that even an idiot can use.) The kind of suc­cess that Jobs achieved is not some­thing that oth­ers, even pos­sess­ing the same cog­ni­tive endow­ments, are like­ly to achieve sim­ply by adopt­ing what would become his noto­ri­ous­ly unfeel­ing yet pas­sion­ate lead­er­ship style. The cul­tur­al cross-cur­rents and social com­po­si­tions con­ducive to both Job’s char­ac­ter and his luck are just not avail­able to every­one. So if you find your­self secret­ly con­sid­er­ing this style or, worse, work­ing for some­one who has adopt­ed it, remind your­self or that per­son of this — that it only works if you real­ly can cre­ate some­thing great, and that to cre­ate some­thing great you have to be part of some­thing great, a great world, such as was Sil­i­con Val­ley in the 1960s.  Bet­ter to work for cre­at­ing that world than to assume it exists.