Reading "Steve Jobs": The Upside Of Unreasonable Demands

Steve Jobs gave little heed to preconceptions about what could and could not be done. Should we all follow that example?

[Steve Jobs is the most consequential figure in the history of design. So I’ve been taking it slow with Walter Isaacson’s definitive biography of the man, hoping for insights into how Jobs’s personality, timing, and influences managed to produce so much innovation—and what the rest of us might learn from his example. I wanted to share those thoughts with you, in a regular series. I hope you enjoy, and, if you’re reading the book as well, I hope you’ll add your own thoughts in the comments below.—Ed.]

Steve Jobs was an exceptionally unreasonable man. In the first 100 pages or so of Isaacson’s book, you hear constantly how he cajoled, swindled, and browbeat those around him into doing what he wanted. Mostly, it was the latter: If Jobs wasn’t crying about getting his way, he was usually making those around him cower in fear—and his tirades felt particularly acute because he had a way of spotting personal weaknesses, and calling them out to devastating effect.

It’s a testament to his vision and other virtues that so many around him continued working for him—and even loved him, despite all those failings. But reading the book, you often get the feeling that so much of what Jobs accomplished was, at least partly, because his management style was so awful. Here’s a telling quote from the book, on p. 122:

One day Jobs barged into the cubicle of one of the Atkinson’s engineers and uttered his usual "This is shit." As Atkinson recalled, "The guy said, 'No it’s not, it’s actually the best way,' and he explained to Steve the engineering trade-offs he’d made." Jobs backed down. Atkinson taught his team to put Jobs’s words through a translator. "We learned to interpret 'This is shit’ to actually be a question that means, 'Tell me why this is the best way to do it.' But the story had a coda, which Atkinson also found instructive. Eventually the engineer found an even better way to perform the function that Jobs had criticized. "He did it better because Steve had challenged him," said Atkinson, "which shows you can push back on him but should also listen, for he’s usually right."

This struck me for a couple of reasons. For one, I think that most companies don’t create many products of note because they lack this basic attitude of always attempting things they don’t know they can pull off. Most companies are managed in a way that keeps them producing what they already know how to produce. They play it safe.

That’s simply how most managers are taught: The ideal line manager in a typical company oversees a process that is, first and foremost, predictable. You rise in the ranks by being a superstar at accepting trade-offs, and having the trade-offs you’ve made accepted as the best practice. Put another way, most companies encourage their employees to simply do what they’ve always done—that makes investors happy, and it keeps your employees content in jobs they know they can do. But If there was one thing that Steve Jobs was known for, it was asking people to do ridiculous things that everyone around him said were impossible.

Isaacson continues:

Job’s prickly behavior was partly driven by his perfectionism and his impatience with those who made compromises in order to get a product out on time and on budget. "He could not make trade-offs well," said Atkinson. "If someone didn’t care to make their product perfect, they were a bozo." At the West Coast Computer Faire in April 1981, for example, Adam Osborne released the first truly portable personal computer. It was not great—it had a five-inch screen and not much memory—but it worked well enough. As Osborne famously declared, "Adequacy is sufficient. All else is superfluous." Jobs found that approach to be morally appalling, and he spent days making fun of Osborne. "This guy just doesn’t get it," Jobs repeatedly railed as he wandered the Apple corridors. "He’s not making art, he’s making shit."

You begin to get the sense that Jobs was the conscience of the people around him—think about that engineer who later found an even better solution, simply because Jobs told him, at some point, "This is shit."

To be fair, Jobs could have accomplished this without being such a jerk. Moreover, not everyone has a reserve of untapped genius inside of them, as that engineer did. I could berate a class of 8th-grade science students all day, and they still wouldn’t produce the Theory of Relativity. But there’s a distinction to be made between the demands one places on average talent and the demands you place on exceptional talent. The latter needs to be pushed, because exceptionally talented people can unwittingly settle on what comes easy to them. (Just think of professional endurance athletes: It’s often said that there’s no talent gap between winners and losers; rather, it’s the mental trait of not accepting your limits that decides who wins as this superb episode of Radiolab points out.) Jobs knew that: He always thought that his own impossible demands had a way of weeding out everyone who didn’t want to exceed their own expectations.

Obviously, we can’t all be Steve Jobs. We can’t all have his perfect timing. And we can’t (and shouldn’t) all be dictators in our companies, as he was able to do as Apple’s exalted founder. But we can still recognize that it’s precisely those talents that a stable company encourages—smart trade-offs, an emphasis on the practical, and a sense of the possible driven by inertia—which keep most companies from making anything remarkable.

Entrepreneurs are sometimes able to escape that trap, because of the embrace risk more readily than most of us. The work of a good designer also pushes what seems possible, by solving problems that haven’t been articulated yet. Jobs, as it happens, had the soul of both an entrepreneur and a designer. That is what made his irrational expectations something more than wild fantasy. We should all have a few more irrational expectations in our work lives—and the way to do that is to encourage both the entrepreneur and the designer in each of us.

Read Design Crazy: Good Looks, Hot Tempers, and True Genius at Apple, our captivating oral history of the company that "taught the world taste." The ebook is available through Apple, Amazon and Byliner.

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  • Despi

    The cost of this kind of stress.... (I'm doing a paper on academic/achievement stress - that's all I can think of as I read this piece). Tutoring Asians has made
    me very aware of this, as well - and its physical and emotional effects. It makes sense - and why Apple products are as they are.  Thanks, Cliff.

  • Andy

    Awesome stuff.  I've been as anti-Apple as I could be for many years now due a perceived "superiority complex" exuded by Apple and Jobs.  Reading how Steve Jobs actually worked behind the scenes has actually changed my perception of him and his company.  Thanks for the good read(s).

  • David Poole

    Your contemplative pace through Walter Isaacson's Biography of Steve Jobs is appreciated. Please continue the insightful exercise. You just became the first writer added to my iPad 2s "Reading List."

    I have been reading my copy slowly but, for reasons associated with work and fitness goals. You just challenged and inspired my reflective capacity.

    Looking forward to your series and thoughts posted by others.

  • Wingroveusmc

    Cliff. Nice writing talent. Why not go the extra mile and pick up a good old fashioned book on the use of typography. You seemed to have missed one important basic practice. Design in your articles. One of the most important decisions Steve Jobs made in his early computers other then keeping them simple and easier to use. Typefaces! There were many of them. These were the bridges and options he allowed to his Mac users. A way for them to make their Mac's personal and he never stifled creativity. Gates wanted more for less. Jobs wanted to give the consumer more for more. Gates knew that everyone wanted technology yesterday. He was nothing more then a salesman. His motivation was to use the old sales method get them to sign by clicking on the accept terms button. Jobes wanted his consumers to interact and enjoy. Where gates only wanted them to react and sign. React vs act. Who won? Roger Wingrove

  • RAS

    I worked for the Byte Shop selling Apples and Osbornes when the Osborne came out.  Apple's mean time between failures was so outstandingly low we could sell them out of the box with no testing or burn in. Osborne's failure rate was almost 50%.  My first computer was an Apple. I never wanted nor bought an Osborne.

  • $656629

    I believe  his greatest trait is able to see beyond the idea and realised what it can do much much beyond the premise as laid down by the one who pitched the idea.

  • Carol S.

    Many of the folks at 3M including management, also seem to have the "Apple" attitude of pushing through the status quo to try things they aren't sure they can do. From what I have heard, the majority of 3M's annual revenue comes from products that are less than 5 years old. They constantly innovate and get those innovations to market ASAP.

  • SJ4Ev3r

     "This IS
    SHIT"-- love those words from Steve Jobs which he intentionally uttered as
    he confronts an Apple employee trying to 'pitch' a new product/prototype/idea
    in front of him! To me, Steve as Apple CEO played the ‘role’ of representing the
    "status quo” (Mona Simpson mentioned how Steve did not mind being 'misunderstood')  and it is up to the Apple employee to have the audacity and conviction to
    prove that Steve "the status quo" needs to change!

    My insight as to his seeming ' intentional brusqueness" was his way of
    encouraging his employees to challenge him and the status quo--as a result made
    Apple the most innovative, progressive company ever!

    That is what is impressive about Steve--he is willing to be challenged, and if
    you prove to him that your point/ idea/product is greater or better than his
    existing one--he is willing to listen, and implement the neidea, even if it
    is NOT his!! That is a mark of a confident LEADER! Willing to be proven wrong,
    and humble enough to admit it!

  • g.rondeau

    i have to agree with this last statement. as a designer, i am also a perfectionist, and appreciate the smallest of details. in fact "god lives in the details" is a motto i have carried all my career, from one such imposing individual whom i worked for as a junior. to this day he remains my most influential mentor. on the flip side of things, one isn’t always just a jerk, as imposing as they may — and even in his worst brash period (his 20's), neither was jobs.

  • Guest

    It's easier to take a jerk if you know they're being a jerk for something that you agree with. Engineers and Designers all have at least some perfectionism in us.  This is a different animal from the boss that's a jerk to just get more done faster, or just for the power trip of it.

  • Savio

    Jobs may have been the typical dictator and without doubt many have learnt the art of perfectionism from him however this could be seen as workable only in the last 5 years where did this attitude to perfectionism get him in the early part of his career. The inference one can draw is the more visible you are and successful you are even your negatives are viewed as delibarately yielding positive results. For instance fill in the shoes of the engineer and more likely than not he could deliver better results when led by a leader with three distinct qualities Compassionate, magnanity and innovative...

  • Adrian Salamunovic

    It's funny that Guy Kawasaki (Apple's former VP Marketing) said: 
    "Don't worry, be crappy. An innovator doesn't worry about shipping an innovative product with elements of crappiness if it's truly innovative. The first permutation of a innovation is seldom perfect--Macintosh, for example, didn't have software (thanks to me), a hard disk (it wouldn't matter with no software anyway), slots, and color. If a company waits--for example, the engineers convince management to add more features--until everything is perfect, it will never ship, and the market will pass it by."

    This contradicts Steve's apparent disgust for trade-offs or creating anything that is less than perfect.  What do the other readers think? Is it best to be first to market with a crappy product then reiterate and perfect it over time (i.e: Hyundai, Honda) or launch with a perfect product but risk missing a market opportunity? Should we all become perfectionists with zero tolerance for anything short of perfection? 

  • Cjperrie

    15 years ago I worked for an "asshole" of a boss who was uncompromising in his standards for design and advertising etc.It was the hardest job I ever had but the most satisfying and we created some amazing things. If you were strong enough to cope he also proved to be a very loyal and considerate employer. I still use tactics I learned from him to this day and appreciate what he taught me. I expect Steve Jobs was very similar.

  • Larry Miller

    This is a comment on the comments. I've worked for at least two of the advertising greats: Lou Dorfsman, and Onofrio Paccione. Everyone wanted to work for them, even for poor salaries. Because they produced great work. No matter what the cost! And it was known going in that they were tough. I suspect that at Apple people stood in line to take Steve's mercurial or whatever-it-was personality because they knew that at the end they'd have something to show and brag about. (And portfolio to sell at their next job interview.) They took it, in stride, because they knew he stood for quality that would rub off. Look at today's cellphone and pad commercials: his agency shows us the product, simply, sometimes with almost barren simplicity. His long-running ad agency has imbibed that quality, adding its own. Now look at competitors' TV spots: Photoshop tricks. Baloney to hide lack of substance. No quality. Lack of trust in the viewer/prospective customer. To be simple you gotta be honest. Maybe that was Steve's "fault": He was honest.

  • Kharshman

    Your comment regarding good design is universal, leads me back to the Bauhaus;  an extremely influential group of designers that affected our lives in ways we cannot always comprehend

  • Chris

    All it really takes is a genius mind.  Everything else is opinionated views on how he conducted his work and why he has succeeded.  Let's not overanalyze the genius that was Jobs.  Simply put, be a genius, apply yourself, succeed.

  • mod*mom

    i <3 my apple products :)

    2000 clamshell iBook is adorable

    apple stores + employees are enlightening

    steve jobs aesthetic inspires-catalyzes creativity

  • MikeC

    I believe you have clearly articulated the management style (behavior) of most American based companies.....accepting trade-offs.... don't try to achieve something unknown.  I worked for a Fortune 100 company for 25 that claimed to be an innovator.....but innovation was not nourished nor happened mostly frequently by accident.  The had some of the very best in their fields of expertise but were "beaten-down" to conform, and not encouraged to unfortunate.  This company continues to be successful but will never achieve it greatness..... Apple has achieve that greatness through the inspiration ( albeit difficult) of Jobs.

  • Chris G

    Bad behavior should never pass as creative management, even (or especially) in the post-mortem. Getting "the best" out of people who won't be bullied is one thing--but who knows what kind of innovation left the company with people who simply thought, "no, working for management with this little respect is shit."