Allowing some time for the Steve Jobs dust to settle, Malcolm Gladwell in this week's New Yorker offers his insight on the Walter Isaacson biography of the late Apple CEO, proving once and for all that Jobs was more than a little crazy. From visionary to "evil genius," Jobs has been received a number of illustrious (and not so much) titles. Gladwell concludes that Jobs was all of these things, but most of all he calls him a "tweaker," someone who made bad ideas better. "Jobs’s sensibility was editorial, not inventive," he writes. "His gift lay in taking what was in front of him—the tablet with stylus—and ruthlessly refining it." This ruthless refinement is what made Jobs a genius, always perfecting designs until they popped out as perfect little iProducts, but it also made him a little crazy, not always for the better.
Perfectionism is the disease that plagued Jobs. It pushed him to not only make the iDevices we cherish, but to make unreasonable decisions. At times this constant striving for perfection demonstrated an almost endearing Larry David-esque neuroticism. "He sits in a restaurant and sends his food back three times. He arrives at his hotel suite in New York for press interviews and decides, at 10 P.M., that the piano needs to be repositioned," writes Gladwell.
But this OCD didn't stop at these harmless incidents. It pushed him to both hurt himself and others. Others have pointed to Jobs's terse behavior with his employees. Some recalled him as "rude, dismissive, hostile, spiteful," writes Gawker's Ryan Tate, who discusses the manipulation Jobs used to "inspire" his workers. Yet, Jobs went beyond the pushy boss, who blows off the handle. "He screams at subordinates," writes Gladwell and once told his public-relations assistant that her suit is "disgusting." He couldn't handle anything less than perfection, and often took it out on others.
Beyond driving him to scream and shame employees, his drive for beauty and perfection also had an effect on his own health and safety. We had heard that Jobs refused cancer treatment for spiritual reasons. He didn't want to be "violated." But it turns out something else was driving Jobs away from treatment. Jobs couldn't handle the aesthetics of it all. Gladwell pulls out an anecdote in which Jobs refused to wear a face mask because it was too ugly.
Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked… . He also hated the oxygen monitor they put on his finger. He told them it was ugly and too complex.
The mental capacities that led Jobs to perfect computers and phones didn't stop at his inventions, but seeped into all aspects of his life. Jobs approached even the most mundane tasks, like picking out a washing machine, with the same thoughts of perfection in the back of his mind.
We spent some time in our family talking about what’s the trade-off we want to make. We ended up talking a lot about design, but also about the values of our family. Did we care most about getting our wash done in an hour versus an hour and a half? Or did we care most about our clothes feeling really soft and lasting longer? Did we care about using a quarter of the water? We spent about two weeks talking about this every night at the dinner table.
All for a washing-machine.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.