The Steve Jobs Myth – D. Jason Fleming
Steve Jobs is often held up as something of a modern hero. The man was undeniably a genius. And he did a lot of good in his quest to “change the world”.
However, he also had two problems, and one of them might do nearly as much damage to the world as he did good.
The first problem was that his genius caused people to excuse his a-hole tendencies, and he exploited that to the fullest. (He also had a massive charismatic effect on people which he used ruthlessly, the so-called “Jobs Reality Distortion Field”.)
The second problem follows from the first: People everywhere are always looking for The Easy Answer. Jobs presents two paths to worldwide fame and riches: Be a genius, or be an a-hole.
Guess which one is easier. Take as many guesses as you need. I’ll wait.
Why, yes, you’re right.
Witness, as merely the most recent and most egregious example, Miss Elizabeth Holmes.
This Vanity Fair article (archived version)lays out, in fascinating detail, how Holmes followed the Jobs “Be a jerk to everybody, all the time, and as opaque as possible” playbook virtually line by line, except that her company, Theranos, wasn’t founded on genius. It was founded on the illusion of genius. An illusion made easier to maintain by the precedent that Steve Jobs set.
She started the company as a 19-year-old college dropout, and rode her constructed legend to making it a $9 billion empire, before the curtain was pulled back and it all collapsed around her.
Holmes wore black turtlenecks every day, “a homogeneity that she had borrowed from her idol, the late Steve Jobs.”
Holmes had learned a lot from Jobs. Like Apple, Theranos was secretive, even internally. Just as Jobs had famously insisted at 1 Infinite Loop, 10 minutes away, that departments were generally siloed, Holmes largely forbade her employees from communicating with one another about what they were working on — a culture that resulted in a rare form of executive omniscience. At Theranos, Holmes was founder, C.E.O., and chairwoman. There wasn’t a decision — from the number of American flags framed in the company’s hallway (they are ubiquitous) to the compensation of each new hire — that didn’t cross her desk.
And like Jobs, crucially, Holmes also paid indefatigable attention to her company’s story, its “narrative.” Theranos was not simply endeavoring to make a product that sold off the shelves and lined investors’ pockets; rather, it was attempting something far more poignant. In interviews, Holmes reiterated that Theranos’s proprietary technology could take a pinprick’s worth of blood, extracted from the tip of a finger, instead of intravenously, and test for hundreds of diseases — a remarkable innovation that was going to save millions of lives and, in a phrase she often repeated, “change the world.”
That “change the world” riff is directly from Jobs, and if you’ve read Walter Isaacson’s bio, you know that he used it to seduce a lot of people into doing his bidding.
And the rest of it shows that she studied Jobs very carefully. And learned how to manipulate people, individually and en masse, by selling them a vision. Like any good sociopath, she learned the form in great detail, and eschewed the substance. (No, I’m not saying she is a sociopath. Only that she apparently operated like one. The whole thing was a confidence game, one way or another.)
And I’m afraid that Jobs’s malicious influence is much larger than just Miss Holmes and Theranos.
Have you noticed how programs and apps and websites have taken to “improving” by taking away functions you liked and used every day?
Now, everybody thinks they know what you want better than you do. With the extra added side benefit of “molding” your actions to conform to what they think is preferable.
Again, Jobs was very, very good at actually determining what people really wanted, versus what they held onto simply because it was familiar. He killed the floppy disk drive. He veered away from power-on buttons. He got lots of changes through that seemed huge at the time, but in hindsight are natural.
And because of his precedent, in addition to (at least) fifty-plus years of marketing “wisdom” that treats customers as mindless sheep, everybody now treats you, the user, as a “moist robot” who does not think, but merely needs the proper stimulus to behave the way they want you to.
Steve Jobs was the outlyingest outlier there is: He was a jerk, but he actually was a genius, and he actually did want to change the world, and he actually was very good at figuring out what people would want before they even knew they wanted it.
The foundation on which the Cult of Jobs was built was, wonder of wonders, actually pretty solid.
I would bet that not one single emulator of his has the same solid basis on which to stand. They all learned how to imitate him, to give the impression of integrity as it is currently misunderstood, thanks in part to Jobs’s antics. But I would be surprised if any copied his substance. Because genius cannot be faked. Only the appearance of it can.