Culture and shit

I’m here! I swear.

The last week has been kind of crazy, a flurry of long-awaited vacation days, GOP debates and the restarting of approximately 647 of my favorite shows. I do have a book review to pen at some point—my humble opinions of an amazing little novel called Geek Love—but in the meantime thought I’d hold all four of you over with a fun fact. Because who doesn’t like fun?

Amid all the lowbrow distractions this week (one might even say in spite of them), I also managed to do something vaguely intellectual. And it’s only Wednesday! Last night, Walter Isaacson, whose biography of Steve Jobs I link to or praise at least once a day, spoke at the 92nd Street Y, which, if you’re a non-New Yorker, does not mean signing books next to a pilates class. For whatever reason, YMCAs here are sometimes gyms, residences and cultural institutions all in one, and I decided last night that it’d be in my best interest to figure out how to live in one.

In any case, the session—a casual conversation between Isaacson and Time magazine’s managing editor, Rick Stengel—ended with questions from the audience. It’s worth noting that this was an eclectic group, lots of older people who I might have otherwise (perhaps unfairly….definitely unfairly) judged as unlikely to be interested in technology.

Anywho, brown-nosing lecture-goer that I am, I submitted a question to Isaacson about what he personally had taken away from Jobs’s life, or, more specifically, from his interactions with the Apple CEO. I’ve written, somewhat facetiously, that one of the book’s perhaps unintentional lessons is on the benefit of pursuing perfection. I even suggested that I might begin approaching my own professional life a bit more asshole-ishly, so that I could one day invent the next iPod and transform a half dozen industries. …I am still waiting for that to pan out. 

So I was curious, given the opportunity to see Isaacson speak, as to whether he had the same takeaway from Jobs. It would be an odd experience, to spend so much time discussing matters both personal and professional with someone whose life you were chronicling but who you had no obligation to actually like. Steve was clearly a jerk a lot of the time, but did Isaacson think there was something to be said for that approach?

Fortunately for everyone in the 92Y audience, my question was asked on stage. It’s worth adding that throughout the dialogue between Isaacson and Stengel, I got the overall impression that Isaacson really did like Steve Jobs, had perhaps even become something of a Jobs apologist. Yes, the man had a cutting tongue and was unafraid to berate colleagues and underlings when he felt they needed it, but he was, Isaacson said, a genius, someone history would look back on—perhaps already does—as a contemporary of  people like Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein (both of whose biographies Isaacson has also written.)

Anyway, the point of this long-winded setup is that Isaacson’s response was the exact opposite of the conclusion I jokingly drew after finishing the book in November. Steve was mercurial, he said, prone to fits of rage and despair in equal measure, but he was also honest to a fault, had somehow been born or grown up without the natural filter that keeps the rest of us from (actual example) berating the girl at Whole Foods for taking too long with our smoothie. In meeting with Jobs over the last few years, Isaacson had felt himself reminded of the importance of niceties, if not during crucial business negotiations, then at least with casual acquaintances, at least with people whose “professions” consist of putting frozen fruits in a blender. Isaacson seemed simultaneously impressed and confused by Jobs’s refusal to extend such a basic level of courtesy to others. He found the outbursts more forgivable when directed at Steve’s family and coworkers—noting that Apple’s loyal employees suggest Jobs’s management style was never a dealbreaker—but felt they were callous and unnecessary when it came to situations in which being rude could serve no greater purpose. The smoothie girl, in other words, wasn’t making an iPad.

So there you have it guys. Walter Isaacson says to be nice. And I’ve learned that any life lessons I glean from sprawling biographies—chances are high their authors will have taken away a moral teaching exactly the opposite, and will tell me so given the opportunity to at a culturally advanced swimming pool. Which sucks, really. Because I totally thought this hairstyle was the key to my next accomplishment.

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