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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Sociopath alert: Steve Jobs

Any cult of personality -- in the corporate world or elsewhere -- is often accompanied by a strong whiff of sociopathy.

Steve Jobs used to be spoken about in the same hallowed, reverential manner that Saint Lance (Armstrong) was. Even Jobs's obvious flaws were couched in a complimentary context. Temperamental? C'mon, he's just a perfectionist.

I knew people like this at Goldman Sachs. All of them were at the very least narcissistic personalities if not outright sociopaths. They would lose their tempers whenever frustrated, glare at you, and say something along the lines of, hey, I'm losing my temper because I care. In other words, if I didn't lose my temper and act like a hysterical ninny like them, it was only because I didn't care enough about my job.

I was never an Apple fanatic -- I only switched over to a MacBook a year or so ago -- but I always had the vague impression that Jobs deserved credit for every product that came out of the company. Those who were there had a different impression.

From Wikipedia:

According to Apple cofounder, Steve Wozniak, "Steve didn't ever code. He wasn't an engineer and he didn't do any original design... Daniel Kottke, one of Apple's earliest employees and a college friend of Jobs', stated that "Between Woz and Jobs, Woz was the innovator, the inventor. Steve Jobs was the marketing person."

That is the essence of who Jobs was: a marketing person, and the product he was shrewdest about marketing was Steve Jobs.

Walter Isaccson, in his extensive biography of Jobs, made it clear that Jobs was simply not an inventor. Sometimes Jobs didn't even know what he wanted, but would lash subordinates until he got something he liked. And he would often take credit for others' ideas. After Wozniak left, you simply never heard of anyone besides Job at Apple (other than John Sculley, the temporary CEO, and Tim Cook, the heir apparent and current CEO).

Even when it came to marketing, his supposed forte, Jobs still had few ideas of own. He would keep telling his ad agency that what they had shown him wasn't good enough, and that he would know what he wanted when he saw it. In other words: you produce, and I'll take credit.

A revealing incident (also from Wiki) about Jobs' early career, after he had spent time in India engaged in various hippieish pursuits:

Jobs then returned to Atari, and was assigned to create a circuit board for the arcade video game Breakout. According to Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell, Atari offered $100 for each chip that was eliminated in the machine. Jobs had little specialized knowledge of circuit board design and made a deal with Wozniak to split the fee evenly between them if Wozniak could minimize the number of chips. Much to the amazement of Atari engineers, Wozniak reduced the number of chips by 50, a design so tight that it was impossible to reproduce on an assembly line. According to Wozniak, Jobs told him that Atari gave them only $700 (instead of the offered $5,000), and that Wozniak's share was thus $350. Wozniak did not learn about the actual bonus until ten years later, but said that if Jobs had told him about it and had said he needed the money, Wozniak would have given it to him.

What kind of person cheats a friend like this, especially when the friend did all the actual work? This wasn't the spur of the moment sort of dishonesty most of us would be capable of: it required planning, or premeditation, if you will. And Jobs had plenty of time in which to change his mind about it, but he didn't. This is a level of treachery that nonsociopaths simply don't rise to.

Another revealing incident (also via Wiki) from when Jobs was in his 20's:

Jobs's first child, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, was born in 1978, the daughter of his longtime partner Chris Ann Brennan, a Bay Area painter. For two years, she raised their daughter on welfare while Jobs denied paternity by claiming he was sterile; he later acknowledged Lisa as his daughter.

Perhaps Jobs learned about parenting responsibilities from his own biological parents, who gave him up for adoption early on. Bear in mind, by 1978 Apple Computer was already big enough that Jobs was able to lure away Mike Scott from National Semiconductor to serve as their CEO that year. And this baby didn't come from a careless, drunken one night stand, but from his longtime partner, whom he tried to con with that lie about being sterile.

As always with sociopaths, it's the people who've actually spent time with them who are least influenced by the PR. When the Apple board decided to fire Jobs in 1985, they did so for good reason -- because he was so difficult.

Jobs cloaked his sociopathy with a heavy layer of hippie mysticism, a mysticism given ostensible credence by the fact that he'd taken LSD and had traveled to Nepal to visit an ashram. But a difficult person is such no matter what countercultural airs he puts on.

One former employee of his talked of the "reality distortion field" you entered when in Jobs's presence. This is a great description of how a successful sociopath operates: using fear of being fired, as well as of being yelled at, and the sheer weight of his outsize reputation to cow and intimidate others into going along with your plan. In such an atmosphere disagreement feels almost suicidal. (Whenever you hear of someone "bending others to his will through sheer force of personality," it's usually this kind of dynamic at work.)

After Jobs died, he was compared with Edison. Obituaries tend to run fulsome, but this was ridiculous. It was almost as if Jobs had reached out from the grave to make people say what he wanted them to -- through sheer force of personality.

A more appropriate comparison for Jobs would have been Akio Morita, who headed Sony during its glory days of the 70's and 80's. (Remember the Walkman?)

But Morita was a relatively benign presence, so an even better comparison would be the Wizard of Oz. He thundered at people until they quaked in his presence. People weren't allowed to question him ("Who are you to dare to question the great and powerful Oz?!") He was worshipped by mindless acolytes (Munchkins). And he'd send supplicants on impossible missions, like getting the Wicked Witch's broom. (He may not have known what he wanted, but he'd know it when he saw it.)

The Wizard was actually a pretty good metaphor for every malignant personality who ever lived, including Steve Jobs.


Quartermain said...

I really enjoy your sociopath alerts. They're a national treasure that should be required reading.

Here is a post from another blogger that kind of ties with this article:

Quartermain said...

I have been hearing that Bill Gates is a sociopath as well.

I am hoping and praying for a computer company not owned and run by any sociopaths.

John Craig said...

Allan --
Thank you very much, and thanks also for recommending me to Uncle Bob. I read his post on narcissism and it's quite well done. I agree with him about narcissism, though much of what Roissy says is true (insofar as, his methods work).

I haven't seen anything about Gates that makes me think he's a sociopath. He started out driving hard bargains with Microsoft (famously paying $50,000 for DOS, and insisting that the companies he sold software to contract for more than they used), but that's just being a hardheaded businessman, it doesn't rise to the level of personal betrayal which characterizes sociopaths. I've heard it said in a number of places that he probably has Aspergers, and I find that easier to believe.

Glen Filthie said...

I surfed in from Uncle Bob's too - you come highly recommended, my friend - and a fine lecture indeed!

My question to you is this: are sociopaths made, or are they born? To me the term 'sociopath' implies mental illness which would excuse Jobs' behaviour...and I am uncomfortable with that. The mentally ill do not deserve punishment; shitbirds like Jobs definitely do! Could this behaviour be a defense mechanism? When you have money like he did - every two bit shill and con will be out to relieve you of it.

Not trying to excuse him or anything...but I would love to understand him.

John Craig said...

Glen --
Thank you very much.

Sociopathy isn't a defense mechanism people develop after they get rich in order to forestall people who want their money. It's generally determined within the first year of life, when a baby is unable to form a bond with another human being. This is why so many orphanages are filled with little sociopaths-in-the-making. There is some evidence that sociopaths are literally born, because they have damage to their prefrontal cortexes, or limbic systems. But generally it's thought to be caused mainly by the lack of a close emotional bond in the first year or two of life, which means that they will be unable to form any emotional bonds for the rest of their lives as well.

I agree, people shouldn't be punished for mental illnesses, but sociopathy is more of a syndrome than an illness, and if you were to define it in one word, it would be, evil. If you want a more comprehensive description of a sociopath and how he acts and what gives him away as a sociopath, write "Sociopath alert: Bill Clinton" in the search box of this blog and read that one.

bluffcreek1967 said...

Excellent post John! Over the years I've read various articles about Steve Jobs, and listened to his biographer as well. I have mixed emotions about Jobs. On the one hand, he seemed to be brilliant, greatly creative and visionary. On the other hand, he was, as admitted by those who knew him, to be tyrannical and volatile.

Once I learned that he didn't really 'invent' anything, but was really good at marketing a product, etc., I began to see him as less than great. I like Apple products, no doubt, but I think it's clear that the real geniuses were those creative people who surrounded him.

John Craig said...

Ambrose --
Thank you. Yes, as you can see, my thinking evolved exactly the same way.

Glen Filthie said...

One thing I disagree with you fellas on is your attitude toward marketing. I am a technical sales guy myself and I can tell you the world is chock-full of guys like Wozniak with great ideas and innovations - but without the ability to present them and market them.

The sales guys have to be able to
a. Appreciate the merit of the innovation and critique it for improvement


b. Either stoke or create the market for that product.

Consider: the 'mouse' concept for computers was sold for $50k. Do you think that is a fair price for an idea that re-shaped the industry and home computer? The man that invented it didn't know what he had, nor did the market even exist for it - it had to be created by marketers.

The patent for the quartz watch movement was also sold for a pittance by the people that invented it - it was too expensive to produce back in the day.

Jobs CREATED markets. There are only a handful of men capable of doing that. In fact...I wonder if this doesn't argue against the sociopath idea? Sales and marketing is all about successful relationships and making them work...and Jobs did that in spades.

Can sociopaths 'fake' their way through such relationships John?

John Craig said...

Glen --
This post was not a knock on a certain type of job description, but an analysis of Steve Jobs' character. The reason I emphasized that he was a marketing guy was because the general public was always left with the impression that somehow he personally was responsible for the creation of his products, which he wasn't.

Yes, of course marketing people are necessary, without them the wheels of commerce would not spin. (My first job out of college, btw, was working for an ad agency.) I'm not sure I agree with your assessment that Jobs actually CREATED markets though. What Apple did was, first, build a better computer -- and there was already a market for those. Next came the iPod, which was essentially a superior Walkman. Then the iPHone, which was admittedly more original in concept -- a smartphone was a novel concept. Then, the iPad, which was essentially a simplified computer.

Sociopaths are very skillful at cultivating relationships, especially with people who can help them. They're not good at maintaining these relationships in the long run, as eventually their dishonesty and disloyalty will always emerge. But yes, in the short run, they can fake their way through relationships. Washington DC, Wall Street, and Hollywood are all based on such mutually self-serving relationships.

Anonymous said...

John, what I find incredible about Steve Jobs is that he is not known for his philanthropic pursuits. I believe he generated a lot of money for AIDS with the sale of the red i-pods, but that is more marketing to philanthropic consumers who cared about AIDS research. Did Steve Jobs have a charitable foundation or donate a great deal to charity? He certainly doesn't have the reputation that Bill Gates does. Donna

Quartermain said...

"Thank you very much, and thanks also for recommending me to Uncle Bob."

No problem, I like bringing my favored bloggers together.

Plus, I had to do something to make up for my silly Bizarro World comments.

John Craig said...

Donna --
You're right, getting others to give money is not the same as giving your own. No, Jobs didn't have any big charities he supported as far as I know. He was a fairly active donor to Democrat politicians, though, to the tune of something like $200,000 over his lifetime (which I realize isn't much for a guy with his wealth).

John Craig said...

Allan --
That was you! I thought some crazy guy had invaded for a while.

Unknown said...

I don't really mean to defend Steve Jobs but it doesn't seem fair to compare his charity contributions with Bill Gates for 2 reasons:

1) Bill Gates had tens of billions more dollars and was a multi-billionaire over twenty years ago.
2) I believe the Gates Foundation is more a tax dodge for Bill Gates than a charity. In selling over half of his Microsoft stock, tens of billions of dollars, Gates created an enormous tax burden even if the long-term capital gains rate was just 15%. However, through the Gates Foundation, his tax rate is 0% and I believe the foundation only has to spend 5% of its worth each year to remain qualified as a charitable organization. So, if he can just generate a 5% return each year, the foundation -- his money according to Forbes -- only gets bigger.

What has he been doing with all that money lately? Through the foundation, he recently became the largest shareholder in Exxon-Mobil.

John Craig said...

Stettin --
Thank you, interesting point about Gates. I'd never really thought about it before but what you say rings true.

His foundation's three big causes (from what I saw) were (1) providing computers to classrooms, which seemed a bit self-serving at the time; (2), improving education in poorer schools, which he evidently failed at; and (3), eradicating malaria in Africa, which he definitely helped with and which seems to have no self-serving aspect. But recently? I haven't heard much.

Unknown said...

I think Bill Gates wants to "win" the battle against malaria especially since he's received so much credit for it. Malaria deaths have dropped by about 35% from 10 years ago but how much of the credit should be given to Gates? Over that time span, other money donated for malaria from the U.S. and Europe is far more than what the Gate Foundation contributed.

What concerns me is that far from telling the facts about the Gates Foundation, its tax status and actual contributions for a given year, the media has run a virtual propaganda program filled with misleading headlines and articles (Gates has strong economic ties with at least NBC & ABC). Typical are headlines like CNN's "Gates donates $750 million to fight AIDS, TB and malaria" with comments below the article like "to give away 95% of your wealth is a huge feat of pure generosity" and "This man and his wife are good people." NBC had a Dateline segment about Gates and his wife entitled "People that Care." Just google "Gates Foundation" and you'll see this type of press ad nauseam.

It is difficult to get facts from these articles. For example, an article stated that in 2010, the Gates Foundation "disbursed 3 billion dollars on AIDS, TB and malaria, the biggest single-year payout in its decade-long history." Actually, the fund was 16 years old in 2010 and they just promised to give $3 billion more to fight these 3 illnesses. This type of error continues to turn up in articles and in sources like Wikipedia.

If the Gates Foundation were giving away money like this, it would be declining in size. However, the facts are this foundation has increased in size every year since its founding in 1994. It has to spend at least 5% of its worth each year to maintain its tax status. Given that it presently has assets of at least $36 billion, it has to give away a minimum of $1.8 billion a year or else it will owe billions in taxes (I'm certain the figure would be over $5 billion but it might well prove to be $10 billion). This fund is fond of listing its donation figures as grants -- claims over $3 billion in grants for 2012 -- instead of what was actually given out by the fund in a given year. Large grants from the Gates Foundation though are distributed over a number of years.

Anonymous said...

Actually,the Edison-Jobs comparisons aren't far off the mark. Edison was more of a maketing sort of guy too-he was very similar to Jobs in many ways. I personally find both pretty detestable.

You know, I think the Wizard was more of a harmless bumbler. I'd say Glenda was more like a malignant personality-she was manipulative, dishonest, "good" in name only.

John Craig said...

Anon --
You now, I'd heard that about Edison recently; I had always assumed that he was the genius he was supposed to have been, though I'd never really looked into it.

That's an interesting take on Glinda, ever seen her in that light. But you're right, people who present themselves as "good" are usually pretty bad. Have to disagree about the Wizard though, a harmless bumbler wouldn't have demanded that they gt the witch's broom.

Anonymous said...

Great article. I just saw the documentary about Steve Jobs. I didn't know much about him. I have never owned an Apple product. In fact, it's 2016, and I still don't own a cell phone. So, I think I'm a pretty neutral observer of this guy, having never been subject to the appeal of Apple products and the cult of personality surrounding Jobs.

When I left the movie, I was trying to make sense of the question posed during the film: just what were Jobs's values? I could see no redeeming humanity or compassion in this guy. And I told my friend, who is kind of Jobs freak, that I thought he is a sociopath. I mean, he has all the traits. He is abusive, habitually lies, steals ideas from others, relies on intimidation and bullying to get his way, is incapable of receiving criticism, micromanages others, and even parks his Mercedes in the handicapped parking lot.

Steve Jobs had no compassion, humility, or even simple human empathy. That is not to say he isn't quite human, beause clearly he is. But this article nails it, and pins it down. Steve Jobs was quite simply evil. There is no other word for people who so exploit and manipulate others, and who find ways to evade responsibility and honesty their entire lives. He's a piece of work, a monster. And he doesn't deserve the respect and attention accorded to him, no matter how great a marketeer he was.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Thank you. You actually just nailed it yourself, in your second paragraph. And you figured it out by watching a movie which (I understand) was semi-laudatory (I never saw the movie myself). I also agree that he doesn't deserve the godlike status he is habitually accorded.

Congratulations, by the way, for holding out on owning a cell phone .