The Tweaker

By Gladwell, Malcolm | The New Yorker, November 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Tweaker


Gladwell, Malcolm, The New Yorker


Not long after Steve Jobs got married, in 1991, he moved with his wife to a nineteen-thirties, Cotswolds-style house in old Palo Alto. Jobs always found it difficult to furnish the places where he lived. His previous house had only a mattress, a table, and chairs. He needed things to be perfect, and it took time to figure out what perfect was. This time, he had a wife and family in tow, but it made little difference. "We spoke about furniture in theory for eight years," his wife, Laurene Powell, tells Walter Isaacson, in "Steve Jobs," Isaacson's enthralling new biography of the Apple founder. "We spent a lot of time asking ourselves, 'What is the purpose of a sofa?' "

It was the choice of a washing machine, however, that proved most vexing. European washing machines, Jobs discovered, used less detergent and less water than their American counterparts, and were easier on the clothes. But they took twice as long to complete a washing cycle. What should the family do? As Jobs explained, "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."

Steve Jobs, Isaacson's biography makes clear, was a complicated and exhausting man. "There are parts of his life and personality that are extremely messy, and that's the truth," Powell tells Isaacson. "You shouldn't whitewash it." Isaacson, to his credit, does not. He talks to everyone in Jobs's career, meticulously recording conversations and encounters dating back twenty and thirty years. Jobs, we learn, was a bully. "He had the uncanny capacity to know exactly what your weak point is, know what will make you feel small, to make you cringe," a friend of his tells Isaacson. Jobs gets his girlfriend pregnant, and then denies that the child is his. He parks in handicapped spaces. He screams at subordinates. He cries like a small child when he does not get his way. He gets stopped for driving a hundred miles an hour, honks angrily at the officer for taking too long to write up the ticket, and then resumes his journey at a hundred miles an hour. 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, the strawberries are inadequate, and the flowers are all wrong: he wanted calla lilies. (When his public-relations assistant returns, at midnight, with the right flowers, he tells her that her suit is "disgusting.") "Machines and robots were painted and repainted as he compulsively revised his color scheme," Isaacson writes, of the factory Jobs built, after founding NeXT, in the late nineteen-eighties. "The walls were museum white, as they had been at the Macintosh factory, and there were $20,000 black leather chairs and a custom-made staircase. . . . He insisted that the machinery on the 165-foot assembly line be configured to move the circuit boards from right to left as they got built, so that the process would look better to visitors who watched from the viewing gallery."

Isaacson begins with Jobs's humble origins in Silicon Valley, the early triumph at Apple, and the humiliating ouster from the firm he created. He then charts the even greater triumphs at Pixar and at a resurgent Apple, when Jobs returns, in the late nineteen-nineties, and our natural expectation is that Jobs will emerge wiser and gentler from his tumultuous journey. He never does. In the hospital at the end of his life, he runs through sixty-seven nurses before he finds three he likes. "At one point, the pulmonologist tried to put a mask over his face when he was deeply sedated," Isaacson writes:

Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it. …

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