Steve Jobs: Heroic or Pitiable?

I recently read a biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, and it made me think about fulfillment and the purpose of life. It did so because in many ways Steve Jobs epitomizes the life which attempts to find fulfillment in “worldliness.”

By most accounts Jobs was outrageously successful. He built the most valuable company in the world: Apple. Jobs’ energy, creativity, vision, and intensity were responsible for the remarkable rise of Apple. Because of the level of control that he exerted over every aspect of the company, he deserves much more of the credit for its success than a typical CEO. That is not to downplay the contributions of others who poured their heart and soul into the company, but Jobs was clearly the guiding light. Without him, Apple would be a ghost of what it is today. His abiding passion to make great products drove the company to an unbelievable number of innovations in the computer and music industry.

For me, however, the thing that is most striking about Jobs is not his enormous success. Rather, I find most interesting his clear and single-minded adoption of a purpose in life through which he tried to find fulfillment. His purpose seems to have been to build great products. That is what he lived for. While we might praise this purpose, to my mind it resulted in a tragic life.

Of all the people about whom I have read, Steve Jobs would have to be the person that I would least like to emulate. While he may have a legacy of great products and a great company, his legacy with regard to those things which have eternal significance seems to have been to cause pain and misery to nearly every one he met, friend or competitor. The biography makes clear that he treated people as tools to achieve his purpose. He was often narcissistic and abrasive in his interactions. What came through the biography was a story of a person who could not love and could not be kind. He constantly attempted to bend reality to his will, so much so that those who knew him regularly referred to his “reality distortion field.” He personified the stereotype of the man who makes himself god.

Neither his faults nor his strengths were hidden behind a veneer of politeness the way they are with most people. Instead, he wore his passions and his cruelty on his sleeve for all to see. I had the sense that he unapologetically gloried in the path he had chosen. Every ounce of his considerable strength and skill were given over to the impossible task of taking the place of the creator. Isaacson’s biography has exposed the poisonous results of his efforts. For many in our world it may appear as if Jobs succeeded. To me, however, his path was not heroic but pitiable.

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