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The Troubled Genius of Steve Jobs

The Troubled Genius of Steve Jobs

He went to meetings barefoot. He ate only fruit for long stretches of his life. He refused to wear the oxygen mask given to him on his deathbed because of its poor design. He could be a terror to work for and a tyrant around One Infinite Loop in Cupertino.

You may have heard these stories. You might have a few of your own. Steve Jobs is the sort of cultural figure for whom stories abound. We tell tales about him the way cowboys talk about Pecos Bill. His life has taken on a mythic status.

Calling him eccentric would be an understatement.

And the mythology around Jobs has only grown more extreme since his passing. This Friday, almost two years after Jobs’ death, the Jobs biopic, which stars Ashton Kutcher, will bring the innovator’s legacy back into the spotlight.

But what was it about Jobs, and others like him, who carry the “burden of genius” that makes them so influential and yet so hard to understand? Furthermore, why are people like Jobs with such apparent talent often so difficult to work with? 

Certainly, part of the answer has to do with structural issues. There can be all sorts of reasons why smart people are tough to work with, including a bad industry fit, the pace of the company and whether the person has been given the tools they need to create and produce. It’s tough to imagine Steve Jobs would have been as successful had he landed in the drywall industry.

We can also point to our culture of celebrity and promotion for an individual’s abilities regardless of their output. We like to elevate the person without taking a critical eye towards their creations. We do what we can to discount character flaws and humanize accomplishments, which allows us to feel like we can scale the same heights.

The critical distinction, however, is found in the expectations gap between people like Jobs and everyone else.

Specifically, it was Jobs’ obsessive drive to see a project through to its perfect completion that created the biggest and most frequent point of agitation with his colleagues. Steve Jobs was a man determined to set the bar superhumanly high, and he felt any who could not attain to its height were either not committed enough.

Jobs was famous for saying “real artists ship,” by which he meant that ideas don’t matter unless you act on them, regardless of how long they take or at what cost. Even Albert Einstein, whose very name is used interchangeably with the word genius, once said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

This is the stage—when we start to experience resistance—where most of us give up. We assumed that a passionate feeling alone would be enough to take us to some desired end state. Jobs was passionate, but more importantly, he was obsessed with results. This made him a difficult person to work for, to be sure, but there is something for us to learn from his uncompromising drive.

A disconnect develops between what many of us want passionately and what few of us are willing to obsess over and sacrifice to achieve. The passionate and obsessive are often reading from similar scripts with entirely different endings.

Obsession camps out for Radiohead tickets. Passion goes to the show and sings along, but thinks the fans with their Kid A tattoos are creepy. However, only the obsessed end up with front row seats.

Obsession demands an outcome, where passion doesn’t. It can be swayed into other pursuits when it doesn’t get its way.

Passion wants to change the world, but often hasn’t put in the effort to become great at anything of value. Even worse, passion sometimes knocks over those in the trenches, the obsessed doing the hard work to push their fields forward despite the obstacles.

Consider that millennials spend just two years on average with each employer, and that we expect a promotion every three years. That’s like a president making a 10-year promise despite having a maximum eight-year job, which we all know would be totally ludicrous and would never happen in real life.

Is it possible that the constant stream of advice to “follow our passion” can actually be discouraging and counterproductive if we haven’t spent much time grinding out the hard work?

Steve Jobs did not follow his first passion into a meaningful life. Instead, he stayed longer with his developed obsession. Remember that the iPod didn’t launch until 2001, 25 years after Apple was founded, when Jobs was 46 years old and had already been kicked out of the company once.

We crave the easy answers and roads well-traveled, but truly revolutionary progress requires the kind of persistence that can’t be summarized through an internet list, an inspirational tweet or a schizophrenic résumé. 

Studying Steve Jobs offers a messy curriculum. There were dark issues associated with Jobs’ obsession, as we are seeing more clearly now after his passing and the disclosure of serious ethical lapses in areas including the company’s supply chain.

But what is clear is that from the perspective of Jobs and the few obsessives like him: we are the weird ones. We are the non-obsessed, the meandering and the merely passionate.

And until we start actively learning, staying with problems longer and most importantly, “shipping,” we may be the ones who are actually hard to work with.

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