Being a manipulative asshole was one of the Apple visionary’s keys to business success, but it was also something he tried to recover from outside of the professional sphere.
I read and loved every single word of the new Steve Jobs biography—I admit it. But not because it reinforced the view that Jobs is our generation’s Einstein. Not because it detailed his legendary technological vision. I loved it because the book got underneath all that to the complexity of being an artist, a genius, a perfectionist, a child abandoned by his birth parents, a father, a husband, and most of all, a raging asshole.
Just after reading about the 1984 launch of the Macintosh and Jobs traveling to Europe to meet Apple salespeople and piss off the majority of the continent with his arrogance, I arrived at my favorite passage in the whole 571-page book:
It was on this trip that Jobs first got to know Jean-Louis Gassée, Apple’s manager in France. Gassée was among the few to stand up successfully to Jobs on the trip. “He has his own way with the truth,” Gassée later remarked. “The only way to deal with him was to out-bully him.” When Jobs made his usual threat about cutting down on France’s allocation if Gassée didn’t jack up sales projections, Gassée got angry. “I remember grabbing his lapel and telling him to stop, and then he backed down. I used to be an angry man myself. I am a recovering assaholic. So I could recognize that in Steve.” (Page 185)
I’ve been around addiction pretty much my whole adult life. I’ve known a ton of folks who are alcoholics, drug addicts, anorexics, gambling addicts, sex addicts, obsessive-compulsives, and crazed over the pursuit of wealth at any cost—and I’ve been one myself. But a person defined by his assholeness? Well, that’s something I know all too well but never really thought about as it’s own addiction. That is, until I read about Steve Jobs’ many tirades.
The whole of Isaacson’s book really is an explanation of how Jobs’ very assaholic nature made him the success that he was, for better or worse. This nature certainly got him into a heap of trouble on more than one occasion—but it was the driving force behind everything he did right, too. To his great credit, he must have known when he recruited Isaacson to write the book, told him to talk to his enemies, and declined to see a draft, that most of the book would end up being an exploration of how much of an asshole he really was.
All too often our icons get turned into some sugarcoated fantasy of greatness that has nothing to do with the flesh, blood, and sweat of what made those men and women great (and, in many cases, impossible to deal with). Genius comes in many forms, but it usually involves a certain amount of torture, both inside and out.
My great-aunt was Pearl S. Buck, the Nobel Laureate for literature. Pearl was a heroine of epic proportions—not only in her writing but also in her work for women’s rights and in opening the gates of adoption in America. She was friendly with Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy. Yet, from inside the family, I can say with some confidence that my great-aunt, the genius of art and humanity, was also an assaholic, both with family and those who stood in her way professionally.
That gene must have somehow found its way into my body, because my nature is one that I can certainly see in the description both of Jobs and Buck. I didn’t start Apple or win any Nobel Prizes, but I have had my share of non-epic successes in life. And I have always tried mightily to figure out how to deal with my own propensity to be an asshole—not just for sport, but out of a burning desire to get something right.
I get a big kick out of the way Jobs started out as a kind of Buddhist monk, working the night shift because he thought his fruitarian diet meant he had no need to bathe or wear deodorant. The bastard stunk so bad that no one would work anywhere near him at Atari. He took acid and spent most of his time on an apple farm-turned-commune. How that guy became the most important businessman of our generation is, at one level, completely incomprehensible and, at another, completely logical.
I too grew up in a communal living setting, albeit on the opposite coast in Amherst. I learned, like Jobs, that Western logic isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be—that Eastern intuition and a focus on changing perspective completely to see a different truth is often much more powerful than pounding away at linear thinking.
Like Jobs, I learned, during what can only be described as a “non-traditional” upbringing (read: truly wacky), that in using intuition you can see something deep inside a problem that others miss or are afraid to confront directly.
Early on, Jobs developed his intensity at the cross section of LSD and technology, manipulating people with his stare and warped reality as he built the first Apple computer. I learned how to be an asshole in sports.
For a rower in college, winter training involves hours of torture. On Saturday mornings, we would have races up a road that snaked through a cemetery near campus. Snow and ice didn’t stop us. The road started with a steep incline, then leveled off in a false peak only to come around a turn for an even steeper incline to the top. It was that second part of the hill that caused legs to crumble.
I was the captain of the team and a fast runner; my best friend Jon was a decent oarsman but an exceptional runner. On one particular Saturday, our coach sat on the back of his yellow Datsun pickup at the top of the hill, clipboard in hand and tobacco in his bearded cheek as he kept score on the ten-hill workout.
We had all been out late the night before—it was college, after all. But I was still gutting out each repetition, moving through muscle failure to get my body to the top of the hill at the front of the pack. I noticed Jon taking off every other hill, beating me on one and coming in last on the next one.
Something deep inside me snapped. It was as if I could see the order of the world and for this guy, even my best friend, taking a powder was not part of it. Always before I had kept my rage in check, but this day, probably because Jon was my friend, I let it out. When he dogged the next time, I was already on my way back down when I passed him still making his way up. I pushed him into a snow bank. Hard. And I screamed, “What the fuck do you think you are doing?”
Jon came up swinging and landed a few good shots to my jaw before the coach broke us up.
But my point had been made.
I’ve often thought of the fight on the cemetery hill as a turning point in my life. I was an asshole that day for sure—but an asshole in the service of a greater cause.
“Rage” doesn’t adequately describe my state of mind. It was more like “intensity.” Rage was the end result of seeing something wrong that I was prepared to demand be made right, even if that required me to look to others like an asshole. Over the last 25 years, across conference room tables from New York to Los Angeles, I have flexed that same muscle more times than I can count. My opponents’ reaction is always the same as Jon’s. They come up swinging.
But assaholism has been the secret to any success I have had.
Isaacson says again and again how Jobs, with his unblinking stare and bipolar behavior, was manipulative. But I don’t believe that being an assaholic is an act. I think it’s more like an otherworldly intensity that expresses itself only through constantly questioning who else sees the deeper truth of the situation and who is just standing around and getting in the way.
The most interesting thing about Steve Jobs is how he used his, frankly, quite unpleasant personality to achieve something great—and how in his later years he tried to figure out how to remold his uglier parts in the service of being a better father, husband, and man.
The fact that Jobs commissioned a book that details every nook and cranny of his difficult personality—a book he apparently wanted written so his kids would have a fuller picture of who he really was and what he did—shows great humility, sure, but it also shows how he never let go of his assaholism.