[Profiles] Steve Jobs: History’s Best CEO

Steve Jobs with the only furniture he found fit to purchase.

Steve Jobs with the only furniture he found fit for purchase.

When I was growing up, it was popular to say that a kid destined for success would be “the next Bill Gates”. But they aren’t going to say that anymore.  The best of the rising generation will be prophesied as “the next Steve Jobs”.

From a discalced and fruititarian kid-CEO to the father and savior of the world’s most valuable company, it’s hard to say whether he will be remembered more as an uncannily intuitive businessman whose every other opinion turned into millions of dollars or as an artisan who, more than anyone, infused soul into the cold and boxy tech world.

The purpose of this blog is to spur, inspire, and assist you to do amazing things. Steve Jobs did some amazing things. I’m floored by him, and I want to convey some of this to you. If you have dreams of business greatness or using art and design to change your part of the world, this piece is especially for you. It is a collection of the strange and wonderful stories and impressions of him that have stuck with me.

* * *

Steve Jobs was never normal, per se. Even as a teen, he was a featherweight from constant fasting– or any number of his diets where he’d eat nothing but a single vegetable for weeks on end. That in concert with his lack of deoderant caused him to reek, and though he was told often that he smelled, he never seemed to believe it. In his young mind, the truth was what he believed, and while he convinced no one that he was redolent, the young Jobs would go on to be known for his inspirational and bold form of persuasion.

Besides his freakishly austere health habits, his social manners were off the charts in other ways. He cultivated a conversational method of staring at people without blinking for the entire conversation, and punctuated long periods of silence with fast and excited talking. In school, he went from skipping grades to dropping out of college, leaving broken rules and strong impressions in his wake.

Apple was not the first company he worked for. “There’s this hippie kid in the lobby and he says he won’t go away until we give him a job”, the receptionist told the CEO of Atari the day Steve Jobs arrived. He got the job, but he was quickly relegated to the night shift, as none of his coworkers liked how he’d put his bare feet on their desks or call them “dumb shits” to their face.

A devout student of Zen, he had desired to go to India for a long time, and he extended what was ostensibly a business trip into a year-long stayover. While there, he developed a respect for what would go on to be one of his most remarkable qualities: his intuition in complex problems.

* * *

Jobs and Woz

He started Apple with Steve Wozniak, his whiz-kid circuiteer friend. Woz would build ’em, Jobs would sell ’em.

In his new business, Steve paid so little attention to the rules that to say he ignored them would seem like an overstatement. He faked emergency calls to get through to his first vendors, he often broke down in tears to convince people to join (or stay on) the team, and he called his employees opinions and work “complete shit” on a daily basis. Still, he somehow managed to convince them that they were capable of better and more incredible work than they knew themselves to be. And they were. That was what the early days of Apple were like.

His continually confrontational attitude was, however, eventually responsible for his getting kicked out of the company he founded. From there, he spent a few years at an educational computer company called NeXT and an animation company called Pixar. You probably know Pixar– the one that has produced an absolutely unmatched chain of wonderful movies starting with Toy Story? Yeah, Steve Jobs oversaw Toy Story.

Eventually, through a business deal with Pixar, Jobs became the an advisor to Apple, then a board member, and then the CEO once again. The company had degenerated into an expensive mess in his decade-long absence, and his return was a boon to Apple stock price and the state of technology and media in America.

“OK, tell me what’s wrong with this place”, he said to an audience of top Apple execs shortly after his return.

“The products”, someone ventured.

“So what’s wrong with the products?” Cutting off a few responses, he yelled “The products suck! There’s no sex in them!”

At a later staff meeting, he dealt with the surfeit of product lines in a striking way. Walking up to a whiteboard, he drew a 2×2 square, labelling the columns Consumer and Pro and the rows Portable and Desktop. Their job, he said, was to make one great product for each quadrant. In the wake of the stunned silence, he made every team at Apple justify their existence, cut a huge swath of them, and then developed, true to his chart, the iBook, the iMac, the PowerBook and the Power Macintosh, respectively.

* * *

"jewels infused with computers"

"jewels infused with computers"

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”, Antoine de Saint-Exupery said. And this is the kind of perfection Steve believed in.  A jewel has nothing that it doesn’t need.  Steve sold jewels infused with computers.

The man was an artist in all the best ways. It will be cliche soon enough, but it needs to be said: just as his father would make dressers with backs and insides just as finished as the front veneer, Steve would never ship a product that wasn’t beautiful inside and out. “You ought to see the layout of these circuit boards!” he would say.

His right-hand VP of Industrial Design, Jony Ive, played the same tune. Designing a computer is just making one beautiful layer after another. The facade just happens to be the outer-most one.

Jony and Steve had lunch most days, and afterwards, they would meander into a secret room on the campus– one that contained, laid out on just a few tables, all of Apple’s current products and many of the prototypes for future ones.

The multi-billion dollar company’s entire present and future offerings were here in one room, and Steve would wander around playing them them, suggesting changes, and seeing how they fit together. Did such a dense display of Apple’s opus provide a high-level and long-term clarity? Undoubtedly. Combined with Jobs’ natural obsession for details, he became an unstoppable force of industry, revolutionizing one field after another.

And all the while, he was not in it for the gold. He was in it to sleep at night. Some rappers rap about money and some rappers rap about not rapping about money, and Jobs was of the second school. To learn that he spent his dying days designing a yacht and sketching a new campus for his company he boasted could surround St. Peter’s Square in Rome almost comes as a surprise.

* * *

Jobs despised many things. Rules. Bad ideas. Naivety. Ugliness. Uncreativess. Mincing of words. A great many people, often his own employees. Rules.

And he also respected many things. Art. Beauty. Success. Winning, to the degree that it did not violate aforementioned values. Transcendence.

He couldn’t stand the so-called entrepreneurs who started businesses to sell (out) to Google and Microsoft. They were not in it for the long haul; but Steve wanted his baby to outlive him. And yet his desire for a stable and vital company was never quite achieved in his lifetime. AAPL was unsurpassed in volatility, and his own two-part tenure there is pretty much the up-down-up phoenix tale of the century.

That was not his only contradiction. His constant yelling, babyish crying, and habit of parking his unlicensed Mercedes in handicap spots contributed litle to the case that his Zen devotion was life-changing. At once antimaterialist and yet running the most profitable store in NYC, throwing himself completely into every passion yet still an awful (or at best, intermittent) father, Jobs was filled with contradiction.

And maybe that’s what makes him interesting. There are many people with a great intuitive sense for business and just as many who are hilariously opinionated and picky. There are a handful of dangerously charismatic and persuasive. And there are even a few who care absolutely nothing for what anyone in the world thinks of them.

But there is only one person I know who is all of those. RIP Steve Jobs.

By the way, don't read Isaacson's biography of Jobs. It's a hackjob tome whose main goal was to appear on shelves before Steve faded from our country's 30-second attention span. It reads like an overlong New York Times article-- excuse me, an even more overlong NYT article. When Aaron Sorkinson or whoever does the movie version of his life, just watch that. It'll probably be, as Steve would say, insanely great. Enough said.


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