Review: 'Becoming Steve Jobs' looks to dispel accepted Jobs myth

Posted:
in General Discussion edited March 2015
With "Becoming Steve Jobs," coauthors Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli seek to dismantle perceptions of Jobs the egomaniacal, callous autocrat, replacing accepted opinion with a retelling of the life of a man who they describe -- for better or worse -- as being "half genius, half asshole."




"Becoming Steve Jobs" is far from being primer on the late Apple cofounder. Background, when it is offered, is scarce and in many cases superficial, produced mainly as expository evidence bolstering the authors' thesis.

That being said, readers who have at least some semblance of Jobs' personal history will greatly appreciate the book's cache of previously unknown details. Indeed, if someone has heard of Jobs, they are also likely to have been exposed to the clich? that he was an impassive, uncaring dictator.

In some ways, this biography can be likened to a college level course in "Jobsology," one that through new information provides adequate insight to flip established doctrine on its head. Exactly what Schlender and Tetzeli intended.

Jobs' life, from the cofounding of Apple to his three funeral ceremonies, is laid out in fairly linear fashion. Weaving in decades of interviews, first-hand accounts and retrospective industry analysis, the book constructs upon a trellis of existing narrative to pierce through the glass ceiling of what we "know" to be true about Jobs.




Unlike Walter Isaacson's "official" biography, a bulk of "Becoming Steve Jobs" was written well after Jobs passed away in 2011, affording publishing freedoms not available when he was alive. While Isaacson had nearly unfettered access to Jobs in his final months, there was a sense that Jobs -- and others who were interviewed -- were guarded in their commentary.

Some of the book's most interesting anecdotes come from interviews with Jobs' inner circle, some as recent as April 2014. Major players include current Apple executives Tim Cook, Jony Ive and Eddy Cue, as well as industry friends and rivals. Microsoft's Bill Gates delivers especially poignant accounts of Jobs the businessman and, perhaps more importantly, the person. Other interviewees include early Apple and NeXT executives, members of the board and industry insiders.

Jobs' widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, presents a picture of his home life, portraying Jobs as a deeply caring family man, a description echoed by friends and colleagues. Other tidbits, sometimes salacious, come from Jobs himself.

Schlender, who covered Silicon Valley for The Wall Street Journal and later Fortune, enjoyed a long relationship with Jobs. Eventually becoming close, he was granted deep access, sometimes visiting Jobs at home or chatting on the phone. When it was clear Jobs was dying, for example, Schlender was one of the people Jobs invited for a walk around his Palo Alto neighborhood.

An asset in many ways, this relationship colors what is otherwise a neutral, insightful look into Jobs' decisions and behavior. While often pointing out character flaws, "Becoming Steve Jobs" is far from critical and in some instances manifests an air of bias.


Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli at a reading of "Becoming Steve Jobs" hosted by the SoHo Apple Store in New York.
Source: Crown Publishing via Twitter


Also unlike Isaacson's take, Schlender and Tetzeli's version brings Jobs' so-called "wilderness years" into sharp relief. Bracketed between his 1985 ousting from Apple after a failed takeover attempt of then-CEO John Sculley and his cautious return in 1996, this interim period is presented as crucial to Jobs' development as a leader.

While brash and mercurial in his early years, Jobs matured through experience while at the helm of NeXT and as owner of what would become animation studio Pixar. The book describes Jobs as an unrelenting taskmaster on a quest for perfection at early Apple and NeXT. Despite his own clear vision of what could be, mismanagement, conflicting priorities and spendthrift operations would result in a string of failures.

Trying times would to some extent blunt Jobs' "sharp elbows," but never quashed the curiosity, lofty goals or utter passion that he channeled into every facet of life. As important was exposure to "side bet" Pixar's corporate culture, where Jobs learned to cede responsibility and lay trust in others. Without the lessons Jobs learned and later applied after returning to the company he founded, the Apple of today would likely not exist.

For Apple fans, Schlender and Tetzeli sprinkle in mentions of previously undisclosed research and development initiatives like "Jumbotron," a massive workbench-size display system designers Greg Christie and Bas Ording used to prototype multitouch interfaces.

One of the book's greatest strengths is its clear analysis of services and products Jobs had a hand in creating and what they meant to the industry. Balancing years of experience covering the tech beat with unparalleled access to Jobs, Schlender and Tetzeli can speak with authority on a variety of deals, decisions and intricacies of design.

"Becoming Steve Jobs" is by no means a magnum opus, nor is it a facile and sugarcoated retelling pandering to stalwart Jobs acolytes. The narrative contains repetitive, rambling and sometimes orotund language, but it all leads to the same destination: Jobs' story is one of growth, a progression of events that when applied to his resilient will ultimately produced one of the greatest business leaders in history.

Schlender and Tetzeli proffer a measured and deliberate chronicling of Jobs' peaks and valleys painted in the words of those who knew him best. It is a record of an incredible life that has until now only been accessible through the prism of the media and what Jobs himself would allow. It forces us to think different.

"Becoming Steve Jobs" is available for $11.99 on Kindle or $19.83 on hardback through Amazon.com and $12.99 on the iBookstore.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 24

    Overall, I quite enjoyed it. The only thing about it that I was a little, well, uncomfortable with, are the pictures. Man, does Jobs have a way of staring into your soul...

  • Reply 2 of 24
    solipsismysolipsismy Posts: 5,099member
    Overall, I quite enjoyed it. The only thing about it that I was a little, well, uncomfortable with, are the pictures. Man, does Jobs have a way of staring into your soul...

    I didn't know there were pictures. I'm glad I didn't get the audiobook.
  • Reply 3 of 24
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by SolipsismY View Post





    I didn't know there were pictures. I'm glad I didn't get the audiobook.



    About 15 or so. Originals too.

  • Reply 4 of 24
    It's a good book, and this is a good review of it. I agree that a very strong point is the material on the wilderness years, especially about Pixar. Every appearance by Bill Gates is fascinating, and two other people come off particularly well: Eddy Cue and Bob Iger. All in all, the book restores the humanity that Isaacson's volume took away. It also makes you miss Steve again.
  • Reply 5 of 24
    Thank you for your orotundity-free review, Mikey.

    I look forward to reading this.
  • Reply 6 of 24
    I'm sincerely not seeing such a huge difference from Isaacson, based on this review. More interviews with people close to Jobs, which is great, but "dispelling myths" - how? If I had to encapsulate Isaacson's depiction of Jobs it would be exactly as described in this review, "half genius, half asshole", and with a definite sense of evolution, maturity and growing respect for the team around him as he got older.

    Can anyone who has now read both describe in a nutshell how this is so different in its depiction of Jobs' personality?

    I've purchased the audiobook and am really excited to start it.
  • Reply 7 of 24
    freediverxfreediverx Posts: 1,422member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by joseph_went_south View Post



    I'm sincerely not seeing such a huge difference from Isaacson, based on this review. More interviews with people close to Jobs, which is great, but "dispelling myths" - how? If I had to encapsulate Isaacson's depiction of Jobs it would be exactly as described in this review, "half genius, half asshole", and with a definite sense of evolution, maturity and growing respect for the team around him as he got older.



    Can anyone who has now read both describe in a nutshell how this is so different in its depiction of Jobs' personality?



    I've purchased the audiobook and am really excited to start it.

     

    The difference between the two books boils down to two things: balance and technological accuracy.

     

    Isaacson's book seems to relish in highlighting Jobs's asshole moments, as if it's primary aim was to dispel the notion that Jobs was a saint and replace it with a portrait of a talented but not very likable person. Schlender and Tetzeli don't shy away from the negative aspects of Jobs's life and personality but they balance it with accounts of sensitivity and maturation as he grew older as well as observations from some that his outbursts reflected a profound lack of people skills rather than intentional mean-spiritedness.

     

    ?The other big difference is that Isaacson appears completely clueless about the technology and design topics around which this story unfolded. His book demonstrates a complete misunderstanding about what makes Apple products so compelling and successful, and a baffling ignorance about the difference between design and aesthetics. Isaacson book perpetuates the simpleton's view that Apple products are popular because they're pretty.

     

    The book is full of glaring inaccuracies, such as when Bill Gates is quoted as saying, "Amelio paid a lot for NeXT, and let’s be frank, the NeXT OS was never really used." Isaacson leaves this comment uncontested, as if it were a statement of fact, when in reality NeXT's technology laid the foundation for OS X and iOS.

  • Reply 8 of 24

    Wordy much Mikey?

  • Reply 9 of 24
    krreagankrreagan Posts: 218member
    Most visionary geniuses that change the world are part asshole. A genius that is not an asshole, at least to some extent will not get things done that can only be done by being an asshole. A genius that is too much of an asshole will alienate too many people and will not get done what needs to be done. It is a delicate balance that Jobs was able to get right at several key points in his career. At others...not so much.
  • Reply 10 of 24
    @freediverx - appreciate that very much. Thank you.
  • Reply 11 of 24
    freediverxfreediverx Posts: 1,422member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by joseph_went_south View Post



    @freediverx - appreciate that very much. Thank you.



    No problem. BTW, Isaacson's book does contain some interesting material that's not covered elsewhere, so it's still a worthwhile read despite its inaccuracies and editorial slant.

  • Reply 12 of 24
    rfrmacrfrmac Posts: 88member

    I am not here to compare.  I agree with what most others have said.  I just wanted to join with those that thought "Becoming Steve Jobs" was a very good book.  It is the best overall book I have read or listened to on the subject.  To those that don't like audio books, to each their own.  I very much enjoyed the audio book.  For me, it added to the book.  I very much appreciated Schlender and Tetzeli for not shying away from the rough spots in Steve's life.  All of his experiences made Steve what he was and enabled him to accomplish what he did.  Authors, thank you for your hard and fair work and thanks to Steven P. Jobs for help making my life what it is today.  Much of what I have today started because I purchased an Apple II.

  • Reply 13 of 24
    asdasdasdasd Posts: 5,686member
    This book is much better on the technology. Isaacson barely mentioned OS X. It credits Bas Ording and Greg Christie. But, it is weak on the iPhone development. There it seems to credit Tony Fadell but it was Scott Forstalls team which did it.

    If you want real info on the iPhone and it's software challenges listen to the Debug podcasts with Melton and Ginatra.
  • Reply 14 of 24

    I just started reading it and it seems fascinating, but this book could have seriously used a better editor. The authors keep saying the same things over and over, and I wind up skimming. Hopefully things will improve further in.

  • Reply 15 of 24
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 10,172member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by krreagan View Post



    Most visionary geniuses that change the world are part asshole. A genius that is not an asshole, at least to some extent will not get things done that can only be done by being an asshole. A genius that is too much of an asshole will alienate too many people and will not get done what needs to be done. It is a delicate balance that Jobs was able to get right at several key points in his career. At others...not so much.



    Albert Einstein was part asshole. He tried to get his wife to sign a contract specifying her duties, when she could talk to him, whether or not she could expect intimacy from him. In the end he offered her the money from the Nobel Prize he arrogantly expected to win for her agreement to divorce. She took the deal. 

  • Reply 16 of 24
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 10,172member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post



    With “Becoming Steve Jobs,” coauthors Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli seek to dismantle perceptions of Jobs the egomaniacal, callous autocrat, replacing accepted opinion...

     

    And this book is being criticized by the usual suspects for being an attempt at whitewashing the “accepted opinion” that Jobs was an evil person...period. “What a fool believes, the wise man has the power to reason away. What seems to be is always better than nothing.” -The Doobie Brothers. 

  • Reply 17 of 24
    swiftswift Posts: 436member
    It's not "dispelling" anything. Lots of Isaacson's book is okay. But these writers had something he didn't: a firsthand knowledge of Jobs at NeXT on, a real understanding of the industry as a whole, and of course, cooperation and interviews from the people who actually knew him best. It's not Isaacson v. Schlender, it's "in addition to." My reaction so far is that the failure of Jobs in 1986 was his narcissism and jerkishness. He was mostly a different man by 1997. He had learned to be a leader, and how to impress any board of directors he might have.
  • Reply 18 of 24
    paxmanpaxman Posts: 4,712member
    I love the photo of Steve at his desk in his home office. I have seen other photos of his home office but this one really shows his chaotic desk and the cable spaghetti junction underneath. I completely relate to this setup and it is heartening to see the ceo of the worlds biggest company sharing this trait. It is not something I, and I am sure most other people who's desks look like this are proud of so it makes me feel a little better about it :-)
  • Reply 19 of 24
    radarthekatradarthekat Posts: 3,542moderator
    I just finished the new book. To my mind, it provides a fair appraisal of the complexion of a person whose every though, every quote, and every decision has been scrutinized for several decades. I had the fortune to spend 26 years, beginning in 1985, working in software start-ups, constantly under the invent or die paridigm in which someone like a Steve Jobs comes to stardom. I worked for the same CEO in three consequetive companies throughout that 26 year period; probably one of the longest running continuous partnerships in the history of the fast-paced and ever changing technology industry. He's a UC Berkley grad, and a Harvard MBA (was there at the same time as Bill Gates), and is a brilliant and driven entrepreneur and CEO. I recall shouting matches in meetings, cold dismissals of people who were lazy in their thinking, and a relentless drive to pull us all forward into a future he often single-handedly invented. Very much a portrait that would match Steve Jobs. And yet, one of the most caring and human people I've ever known; a Buddist, a deep thinker, and someone who would go out of his way to serve his employees, beyond the workplace. To anyone on the receiving end of his intense and intellectual scrutiny, I can see them walking away dismissing him as nothing more than an egotistical asshole. But that was the farthest from the truth understood by those of us knew him for decades. I imagine the reputation of Jobs was formed in the same manner, and wholly undeserved of the actual man.
  • Reply 20 of 24

    Alors, it seems not bad.

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