Steve Jobs the biography (by Walter Isaacson) was amazing; Steve Jobs the movie, not so much.
To be clear, I’m not judging the movie based on the quality of the story, the writing, or the acting. The dialogue, as with all Sorkin movies, is witty, fast-paced, and utterly engrossing. Instead, I’m judging the movie based on how accurately it portrayed Steve Jobs, and by that criteria, it absolutely failed. The movie got most of the main facts right, though some were out of order and a few were completely off the mark. But most crucially, it misses the essence of Jobs. It paints a completely one-sided portrait of him. The movie Jobs is an all-show-no-substance huckster scheming to get back to Apple, and a man consumed by the guilt of being a shitty father to his daughter. Maybe I’m naïve for wanting a movie titled Steve Jobs to at least attempt to fully encapsulate the complexities of the person it’s named after. Maybe film is a bad medium for such a task and only a ten-episode Netflix series would give proper treatment to Jobs (I would totally watch that by the way). But, I recently finished the Isaacson biography of Jobs and the difference in nuance between the two is night and day, so I’m going to point out what the movie gets wrong and hopefully give you a more complete understanding of Jobs.
Jobs’s Impact and his Reality Distortion Field
Jobs was a legendarily charismatic leader, famous for his reality distortion field (an ability to get others, and himself, to believe anything). The movie’s interpretation is that those qualities made Jobs a conman and it portrayed him as such. For example, the main conflict between him and Woz in the movie boiled down to Woz’s assertion that Jobs contributed absolutely nothing to the Apple II and that Woz did all the work. We’ll cover this conflict later on in the article, but it was partly introduced to depict Jobs as a showman with no substance behind him. The NeXT demo in the movie served the same purpose by claiming that it had no operating system on the day it was about to launch (untrue by the way; in reality people made the argument that they should ditch NeXT’s hardware altogether and focus solely on licensing the operating system). These scenes and others serve the same purpose: make the viewer equate Jobs to a sleazy salesman, someone who can only hype a product up but cannot actually deliver anything of substance. The truth is entirely different.
The genius of Jobs was that he integrated design and technology to make beautiful, friendly products that people would not only love looking at but would also love using. Yes, he was extremely concerned about his products’ aesthetics, but his obsession went beyond that. He was concerned with all aspects of the user’s experience and was the visionary who pushed his team to accomplish great things that went way beyond the surface level. To quote Isaacson, Jobs’s “passion for perfection and ferocious drive revolutionized six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing. You might even add a seventh, retail stores, which Jobs did not quite revolutionize but did reimagine.” Once you’re lucky, twice you’re good. Seven times you’re …? Jobs undoubtedly had help from many people throughout all of this and I certainly don’t subscribe to the Great Man Theory, but my point is that portraying him as a vacuous salesman does him a great disservice, to say the least.
So how did Jobs’s famous reality distortion field actually work? It warped not only the opinions of the people around him about what was possible, but would even affect his own beliefs. This had positive effects, such as when his belief empowered others to achieve the “impossible”. For example, Woz recalled how when he and Jobs were working on a project for Atari, Jobs’s belief in Woz’s engineering pushed Woz to finish in four days what (according to Woz) would take most engineers a few months. Another time, a week before the Mac was to ship, the engineers said their code wouldn’t make the deadline and that they needed two additional weeks. Jobs told them that they were great, so great in fact that he knew they could get it done on time. And so they did. These stories remind me of when people recount that one teacher or coach they had, someone who believed in them, who made them fall in love with a subject and pushed them to achieve things they never thought they could. But, the reality distortion field also had its dark side. Jobs’s belief that the rules did not apply to him had minor consequences that were laughably absurd, such as his refusal to put a license plate on his car and his constant parking in handicapped places, but also major consequences, such as denying his paternity or refusing to confront his cancer (he refused to let his tumor be surgically removed for nine months and tried to get rid of it through his odd diets and a bunch of other unscientific treatments). He was a complicated man indeed.
Jobs the Asshole
Ask anyone who knows anything about Steve Jobs (not personally know, but know through reading or hearing others talk about him) and almost invariably, one of the first things they will say about him is that he was a jerk. There are plenty of anecdotes in Isaacson’s biography to point to as support. Steve Jobs the movie takes the worst ones to one-sidedly paint Jobs as a cold, emotionless jerk. The movie starts with him berating Andy Hertzfeld, moves to Jobs denying his paternity (the absolute low-point in his personal life), goes back to him berating Hertzfeld, and then to him fighting with Woz. This serves to introduce him as an asshole and reinforce that notion again and again. At no point in the movie did I think, “I really want to work for this guy!” and yet he attracted and retained incredible talent at both Apple and Pixar. He got the best out of “A players” and got them to do things that they did not believe was possible. Yet watching this movie, you wonder how anybody could put up with his mere presence.
Isaacson’s biography does a better job at painting a fuller portrait. Isaacson notes that Jobs had a binary view of the world where we would categorize people as “enlightened” or “an asshole” and their work as “the best” or “totally shitty”. The categorization could change if he changed his opinions about someone or something, but there’d never be a middle ground; it would just go from amazing to shit or vice-versa. When we think of jerks we think of someone who lacks emotional sensitivity. But Isaacson says that Jobs was almost the opposite, that he was very emotionally attuned which allowed him to read people and “made him masterful at cajoling, stroking, persuading, flattering, and intimidating people.” That emotional sensitivity caused him to cry many times when he was frustrated or in a passionate disagreement, which is not something one imagines when picturing an “alpha male” Silicon Valley CEO.
Part of the reason Jobs was perceived as an asshole was because of his extreme attention to detail, especially when it came to anything on the design side. “The design of the Apple II case was one of many examples. The Pantone company, which Apple used to specify colors for its plastic, had more than two thousand shades of beige. ‘None of them were good enough for Steve,’ Scott marveled. ‘He wanted to create a different shade, and I had to stop him.’ When the time came to tweak the design of the case, Jobs spent days agonizing over just how rounded the corners should be.” Such attention to detail may feel excessive to the average person. It certainly does to me. But, that obsession with every little thing is what allowed Jobs and Apple to create such beautiful, consumer-friendly products. Unfortunately, when that meticulousness is combined with his emotional sensitivity, it invariably results in him lashing out at others and being extremely critical, which leads to the belief that he was an asshole. I agree that he could sometimes be an asshole, but I think that viewing him solely as an asshole misses the other sides of him.
And this is where I am somewhat skeptical of even Isaacson’s portrayal of Jobs. There are numerous examples of Jobs being a complete jerk, many examples of him manipulating people to get what he wants, but only a couple of examples of him motivating his team in a positive way or helping someone believe deeper in themselves (like he did with Woz and the Apple II). I don’t know your experience with working in a job and the corporate world in general, but my experience has been pretty mundane. I’m pretty good at my job but I feel no passion towards it. And I don’t think I’m the only person that feels this way. My impression is that this is a pretty ordinary experience for most working adults. Most of us lack meaning in our work. Our lives and especially our work can feel Sisyphean at times. Clock in, clock out. Given that, what would it feel like to have someone infuse meaning into your work? To have someone get you to believe you are part of a project that is changing the world? That is what I think Jobs did for his colleagues and that is what I feel like is underemphasized in even Isaacson’s illustration of Jobs. We know that Jobs is charismatic, that he is able to motivate people to believe in a mission and get them to accomplish things that they never thought they could. What is that feeling worth to someone on the receiving end of it? That, to me, is the flipside of the part of Jobs that could be an asshole and it is something I wish Isaacson emphasized more in his book (Sculley and the sugar water story aside).
Okay maybe you’re still not convinced and you still think Steve Jobs is an asshole. I don’t blame you since I too think he could be an asshole at times. But, please recognize that he is not unique among visionaries. This isn’t me attempting whataboutism. I can accept people viewing Jobs as an asshole. My only objection is when they imagine other visionaries to not be an asshole. Being the leader of a company or a project that is disrupting the old way of doing things or transforming the world takes an extreme amount of perseverance, attention to detail, and motivation. Such extreme people tend to lash out when others aren’t up to par with their expectations. Take Bill Gates. Although he’s perceived as a cuddly teddy bear today, he was a killer back in his Microsoft days. He publicly humiliated employees and said things like “that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard” or “that’s the stupidest piece of code ever written” so many times that employees basically expected him to say it whenever he was criticizing their work. He even schemed to dilute Paul Allen’s stake in Microsoft when Allen was sick with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Or take Stanley Kubrick, widely regarded as one of, if not the greatest director of all time. He was a perfectionist who was incredibly hard on all his actors. The worst instance was when he emotionally traumatized Shelley Duvall while shooting The Shining. While shooting the iconic baseball bat scene, Kubrick infamously made the cast do a record-breaking 127 takes, and worked Duvall so hard that she ended up with severe dehydration, raw and wounded hands, and a hoarse throat from crying so much. Kubrick was so emotionally abusive to Duvall that her health suffered during the shoot and she started losing hair from the stress. Or Elon Musk who is also a notoriously tough boss and who tweets very ill-advised things. Or Andy Grove, who publicly humiliated an employee for being late to a meeting. The list of visionaries who behave like an asshole at times is endless. Again, I don’t bring all of these examples up to excuse Jobs. I do it to point out that Jobs is not unique among visionaries for being a jerk, and to urge people to consider him holistically.
Woz and Jobs
The conflict between Jobs and Woz throughout the movie was completely made up. Woz did have frustrations about the lack of appreciation the Apple II was receiving (especially since it was Apple’s cash cow at the time), but his frustration extended way beyond just Jobs. Jobs had a lot of power at Apple, but Sculley was the CEO and, as shown by the movie, won the power struggle against Jobs.
Woz, in the movie, is jealous of Jobs’s fame and chafes at the lack of recognition he and his team received for their work on the Apple II. The irony is that Woz never even craved attention. One of the reasons he was reluctant to quit his job at HP to work full-time as a founder at Apple was because he was scared that if he did so, he would be forced into management. It was only when he was assured that he could remain an engineer at the bottom of the ladder that he ultimately agreed to join Apple full-time. More importantly, Woz’s engineering genius on the Apple II is universally recognized. In fact, Jobs is the one who probably gets less credit than he deserves for his role in the creation of the Apple II. From the Isaacson biography:
Wozniak deserves the historic credit for the design of its awe-inspiring circuit board and related operating software, which was one of the era’s great feats of solo invention. But Jobs was the one who integrated Wozniak’s boards into a friendly package, from the power supply to the sleek case. He also created the company that sprang up around Wozniak’s machines. As Regis McKenna later said, “Woz designed a great machine, but it would be sitting in hobby shops today were it not for Steve Jobs.” Nevertheless most people considered the Apple II to be Wozniak’s creation. That would spur Jobs to pursue the next great advance, one that he could call his own.
The movie also made it seem like the two did not respect each other and it especially depicted that dynamic in a way that was unfair to Jobs. In reality, Jobs always recognized that Woz’s engineering genius was crucial to the Apple II just like Woz always recognized that without Jobs, he would be giving his creations away for free in geeky meetups.
Jobs’s Return to Apple
One of the critical scenes in the Steve Jobs movie is during the NeXT demo day when he reveals to Joanna that the reason NeXT has no operating system is because he’s stalling until he knows what Apple needs so that he can build exactly what they need in order to force them to buy NeXT for half a billion dollars and put him back in charge of Apple. The scene is pure fiction. Instead of abiding by the facts, the movie chose to follow the narrative it wanted to tell. It wanted to portray Jobs as a man obsessed by revenge, as a puppet master who could manipulate Apple’s shareholders to buy a worthless company so that he could be reinstated as King of Apple, and it wanted to continue to present him as an empty marketer without an actual product.
Apple at the time did really need an operating system, but it was considering multiple companies: Be, Solaris, Microsoft, and NeXT. Apple then narrowed it down to Be and NeXT (funny enough, Be was founded by Jean-Louis Gassée, who was also a former Apple exec.), before ultimately choosing NeXT. Isaacson states that the key difference between Be and NeXT was that “NeXT had an actual product, real revenues, and a great team”.
But beyond that, Jobs was actually very ambivalent about returning to Apple. When Gil Amelio, the CEO of Apple at the time (who by the way is not even in the movie; by 1998, Sculley was long gone, having been fired in 1993), purchased NeXT for $427 million, Jobs asked for his payout to be in cash but Amelio insisted that Jobs have skin in the game. They ultimately compromised and Jobs received $120 million of his payout in cash but the remaining $37 million in stock, which he promised to hold for at least six months. Taking the majority of his payout in cash was a big indicator that Jobs didn’t know what he wanted to do. Had he known from day one, he would’ve taken his payout solely in Apple stock. Furthermore, whenever Amelio asked Jobs to return to Apple in a full-time capacity, Jobs would deflect and demur (Jobs returned as a part-time advisor). Even after the board fired Amelio and asked Jobs to return, Jobs would still not commit and instead said he’d remain an advisor.
That’s not to say that Jobs didn’t want to return to Apple. So, why was Jobs so hesitant? Isaacson attributes it to his not wanting to be set up for failure and his personality. “For all of his willfulness and insatiable desire to control things, Jobs was indecisive and reticent when he felt unsure about something. He craved perfection, and he was not always good at figuring out how to settle for something else. He did not like to wrestle with complexity or make accommodations.” “If he knew for sure a course of action was right, he was unstoppable. But if he had doubts, he sometimes withdrew, preferring not to think about things that did not perfectly suit him.”
Jobs ultimately couldn’t help himself and became de-facto CEO while he was still an advisor (eventually becoming interim CEO, or iCEO). After a long courtship of over two years, Jobs officially took the CEO title.
Jobs being given up for adoption as a baby undoubtedly affected him immensely. He felt abandoned and would struggle with that fact constantly in his younger years. Isaacson said that more than one person close to Jobs attributed his controlling nature to being abandoned at birth. Abandonment was a key emotion Jobs felt, but not the only one. Isaacson emphasizes that just as key to understanding Jobs was that he was made to feel special from a young age. That feeling of specialness came from the love and care Jobs’s adoptive parents showered on him. For what it’s worth, Jobs believed that feeling of specialness contributed much more to the formation of his personality than the feeling of abandonment.
That’s what makes the movie’s portrayal of Jobs’s adoption process so cruel. In the movie, Jobs explains the legal battle that happened during his adoption, which did happen, but then goes on to say “My mother said she refused to love me for the first year, in case they have to give me back.” Sculley responds, “You can’t refuse to love someone, Steve” to which Jobs responds, “Yeah, it turns out you can.” We’ve already established that this movie has major inaccuracies, but this one’s the worst, and if Jobs were to watch this movie, this scene would’ve undoubtedly angered him the most. His adoptive parents loved him unconditionally, from the moment he entered their life. As mentioned earlier, they made him feel special. Throughout his life, Jobs would lose his temper whenever people called them his “adoptive” parents or implied that they weren’t his “real” parents. He treated his parents better than he treated anybody else in his life. I don’t even want to imagine how angry he would get if he saw this pivotal scene. And all for what? Just so that the movie can explain to its viewers why Jobs was controlling? I’m incredibly skeptical that being given up for adoption was the dominant contributor for Jobs being fixated on the smallest details in his work. Plenty of perfectionists obsessed with control exist without having ever been abandoned at birth, such as many of the founders of the largest companies in the world today.
As purely a movie, I’m sure that Steve Jobs is pretty good. I’m definitely not the person to best judge that. But, as a movie about Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs (the movie) is an absolute train wreck. It had a narrative it wanted to tell, so it twisted and made up facts in order to do so. Whereas the real Steve Jobs was full of complexity and contradictions, the Michael Fassbender Steve Jobs is simply a controlling marketer with abandonment issues who can only hype products up but can’t create anything of actual substance. I’m not saying that Steve Jobs was a nice guy, because he certainly wasn’t. But he wasn’t the one-dimensional asshole the movie would have you believe. The man inspired two whole generations and revolutionized multiple industries. He deserves better.
Should you watch the movie? Only if you want to be entertained by snappy Sorkin dialogue, not if you want to learn anything about Steve Jobs. Would this be better as a ten episode Netflix series? Assuming it is done by someone who actually wants to show Jobs in all his complexity, hell yes. Should you read Isaacson’s biography? Definitely. It’s full of gems that I didn’t have time to mention and gave me a much deeper appreciation for Jobs.