Worshiping Steve Jobs’ Depravity

“I’m not a jerk like Jobs was. Which is the biggest reason why I’m just a moderately successful business guy, and not a super billionaire.”

Gene Marks, Forbes, Steve Jobs Was a Jerk, Good for Him, October 10, 2011

Steve Job
Steve Jobs

“Gene might have hit a nerve among managers who haven’t found themselves and are willing to try whatever the business press declares to be the flavor of the moment.

I can imagine headlines like “Are You Jerk Enough to be the Next Steve Jobs?” or “Want to Be Like Jobs? Be a Jerk!” or “Think Different: Like a Jerk!” or whatever will sell a book or magazine.

David Coursey, Forbes, Steve Jobs Was a Jerk, You Shouldn’t Be, October 12, 2011

“Those who have followed Apple closely throughout the years have heard dozens if not hundreds of stories of Jobs berating employees … Here’s the thing: the tech world could probably use more jerks.”

MG Siegler, TechCrunch, The Jerk, November 18, 2011

To celebrate a man’s accomplishments while overlooking his shortcomings is normally good, even noble, especially when discussing the recently deceased. But some writers are holding up Steve Jobs’ nastiness as something to emulate. To be clear, I’m fully on board with the idea that you should drive your people to excellence through honesty, high standards, and a commitment to greatness. But I’d like to call bullshit on the religion of Steve before people go further on the path of worshiping Steve Jobs’ dark side.

Power Leads to Asshole-ness, Not Vice-Versa

“Power is wielded most effectively when it’s used responsibly by people who are attuned to, and engaged with the needs and interests of others. Years of research suggests that empathy and social intelligence are vastly more important to acquiring and exercising power than are force, deception, or terror …

People with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes … a condition that seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behavior. Thus the experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior.

Dachne Kelter, Greater Good, The Power Paradox, Winter 2007-8

There are many reasons for our image of powerful people being jerks. But apparently most of the evidence indicates that being a jerk doesn’t generally lead to being powerful; it generally gets in the way. It’s after assuming power that some people lose the modesty and concern for others that helped them achieve a position of responsibility and influence.

It Minimizes Others

“Often Jobs would suddenly “flip,” taking an idea that he’d mocked (maybe your idea) and embracing it passionately – and as his own – without ever acknowledging that his view had changed.”

Peter Elkind, Fortune, The Trouble with Steve, March 5, 2008

“As soon as people in Silicon Valley heard I was writing a book on the downsides of assholes, I had many people — I mean hundreds, and quite a few who were or had been very close to him — immediately start telling me Steve Jobs stories.

Bob Sutton, Work Matters, The Trouble with Steve Jobs: Asshole, Genius, or Both, March 6, 2008

[Following 11 suicides at Apple’s Chinses sweatshops]  “new measures were being secretly introduced at Foxconn to prevent the suicide scandal from worsening and damaging Apple sales globally. Astonishingly, this involves forcing all Foxconn employees to sign a new legally binding document promising that they won’t kill themselves. …

They sleep in cramped rooms in triple-decked bunk beds to save space, with simple bamboo mats for mattresses.
Despite summer temperatures hitting 35 degrees, with 90 per cent humidity, there is no air-conditioning. Workers say some dormitories house more than 40 people and are infested with ants and cockroaches, with the noise and stench making it difficult to sleep.”

Andrew Malone and Richard Jones, Mail Online, Inside the Chinese suicide sweatshop where workers toil in 34-hour shifts to make your iPod, June 11, 2010

“Our secret is teamwork. I do great teamwork.”

Fred, Scooby Doo

Decent people build up their friends, colleagues, and teammates.

To be fair, Jobs was apparently such a genius, and so driven to excellence, that may of his colleagues were willing to put up with the humiliations for the opportunity to join in his quest for greatness.

It Invades Your Life

Cause and effect is hard to determine regarding Jobs’ darkside. Three of his uglier moments outside of work:

  • Made his daughter and her mother live on welfare, though he was already quite wealthy, for two years while he denied paternity.
  • Proposed to his girlfriend twice. Each time she accepted, and each time he stepped back. He then asked his friends which of his girlfriends was prettier, and which he should marry.
  • Drives his Mercedes around without a license plate and parks in handicapped spots.
His biological sister’s novel based on him begins with the sentence “He was a man too busy to flush his own toilets.” I don’t know whether that statement was a literal truth or just the author’s crystallization of his character into a single image.
People who are assholes at work are probably prone to bad behavior outside of work as well.

You Become What You Despise

“The Steve Jobs who founded Apple as an anarchic company promoting the message of freedom, whose first projects with Stephen Wozniak were pirate boxes and computers with open schematics, would be taken aback by the future that Apple is forging. Today there is no tech company that looks more like the Big Brother from Apple’s iconic 1984 commercial than Apple itself, a testament to how quickly power can corrupt.

Apple’s rise to power in our time directly paralleled the transformation of global manufacturing. As recently as 10 years ago Apple’s computers were assembled in the United States, but today they are built in southern China under appalling labor conditions. Apple, like the vast majority of the electronics industry, skirts labor laws by subcontracting all its manufacturing to companies like Foxconn, a firm made infamous for suicides at its plants, a worker dying after working a 34-hour shift, widespread beatings, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to meet high quotas set by tech companies like Apple.”

Mike Daisey, The New York Times, About Nostalgia, October 6, 2011

The greatest curse of revolutions and revolutionaries is they generally become what they despised. Truly successful revolutions, the ones that replace not the individuals but the ideas, can only be brought about through discipline, patience, humility, self-control, and a commitment to a morality greater than ourselves. Steve Jobs was a revolutionary only in the tragic sense of the word, creating an empire of fear, secrecy, and domination that far exceeds IBM’s worst offenses.

It’s Not Worth It

“If you are a winner and an asshole, you still remain — at least in my book — a loser as a human being.  Put differently, if the journey is the reward, then why would any of us choose to travel with a companion who treats his fellow travelers like dirt? ”

Bob Sutton, Work Matters, The Trouble with Steve Jobs: Asshole, Genius, or Both, March 6, 2008

Even if being an asshole were good for business, would it be worth it? Because at the end of the day, you’re an asshole.

Conclusion: Emulate the Good, Reject the Bad

I’ll be honest. I despised Steve Jobs. I despised him for all the reasons I listed above, all the nasty things he did to others. I also despised him because he built an empire that had no room for anybody else. Microsoft and Google, for all their flaws, built platforms around which other partners could innovate. Ultimately IMO that’s why Microsoft won in the 80s and why I hope Google wins today. Steve Jobs seemed to go to sleep at night terrified that somebody else might make a nickle that could have been Jobs’. Since he was a Buddhist I hope he comes back as a worker in one of his iSweatshops.

But let’s put that aside.

Consensus is that Steve Jobs was a genius who led the creation of great products. Let’s learn from his commitment to excellence. Let’s celebrate his tribute to the crazy ones and the misfits who think differently, whether or not there was room for them at Apple. But let’s neither envy nor emulate his depravity.


I’ve received a lot of feedback to this article. At the end of the day, it comes down to Gene Marks’ quote with which I opened this post

“I’m not a jerk like Jobs was. Which is the biggest reason why I’m just a moderately successful business guy, and not a super billionaire.”

Sorry Gene. The biggest reason you’re just a moderately successful business guy and not a super billionaire is because you’re not a creative genius, as talented in his field as Mozart and Michael Jordan were in theirs. It’s a perverse pleasure we take in telling ourselves and others that our morality is what separates us from the greats. It allows us to deny that our shortcomings may be primarily due to inferior talent, effort, or commitment.

Admittedly I’m biased too, because I don’t want managers emulating Steve’s dark side.

Was Steve Jobs great despite being a jerk? Was he was great because he was a jerk? Had he not been a jerk, would his company have created products that were worse? Or better? Was it worth it? And what lessons should we teach our children, and ourselves? What do you think?