Alright, here’s a more serious Steve Jobs post than the last one.
One thing that I’ve heard stray mentions of, but little that goes in depth (gee, any guesses why?), ;is that Steve Jobs might have counted Ayn Rand as an inspiration, or at least a kindred spirit. As far as I can tell, the citation here is Woz himself.
Ok, the actual quote is
He must’ve read some books that really were his guide in life, you know, and I think… Well, Atlas Shrugged might’ve been one of them that he mentioned back then.
All very vague, so definitely take it with a grain of salt. But whether or not Jobs was a Rand fan, there are a lot of parallels between the Steve Jobs I read about in the media and the Ayn Rand I read about in the media. Here are a few:
(1) Charming and uncompromising with a definite nasty streak. Nuff said. Everyone who met Rand personally liked her, and yet people who stuck around often found themselves cast aside completely over what seemed minor quibbles. Ditto Steve Jobs. Meeting him once, or hearing him speak, was a lot of fun. Having to work with him, maybe not so much.
(2) A gatekeeper and not an innovator. Jobs is getting a lot of credit for being an “innovator,” but is there any evidence he actually invented anything? I think of Jobs more like a gatekeeper. He had a very definite sense of what he DIDN’T like, but in terms of what he did, well, there were all kinds of random obsessions. Ayn Rand is exactly the same. She knew what she was against, but for most of her life what she was for was kind of nebulous. “Individualism,” “heroes.” Kind of like Jobs’ “good design.” It’s hard to know what that means without examples. Jobs basically hired people to do work for him and picked and chose what he liked from what they did. Rand was famously also a delegator. It’s true that she wrote all her novels entirely by herself, but her philosophy was mostly articulated by people she delegated to. She just stamped approval or not, very rarely issuing “corrections,” and what essay writing she did on her own was more often than not in specific answer to something else. Both Steve Jobs and Ayn Rand fans like to think of them as “innovators” and “visionaries,” but the truth is really that they just knew what to reject.
(3) Very strong sense of self. Maybe I’m repeating (1) here, but the number one things that you associate with both Jobs and Rand is “uncompromising.” To an extreme.
(4) Following their secondary dream. If Rand had had it her way, she would’ve been a movie star, and Steve Jobs wanted to be a buddhist monk. Both passed on their first choice for the same reason: calling them “unsuitable” would be a radical understatement. Short, dumpy, brusque Ayn Rand was about as far from 1930s movie star material as one can imagine. Maybe if she’d been a toothless one-eyed former sharecropper it would’ve been worse, but honestly. And yet, she did spend years working as an extra on movie sets! Steve Jobs wanted to go to Asia and lead a life of quite contemplation. Seems really out of place for the middle-class technology nerd who went on to become a billionaire! But don’t take my word for it – here’s Businessweek citing a real Zen master who had the same opinion:
Jobs consulted Kobin Chino, a Japanese Zen master in Berkeley he met after he got back from India. Should Jobs head to Japan or descend into business? Chino, who barely spoke English, observed the dramatic soul-searching and, like Kottke, found it funny. So obvious: Stick with the computers, the Zen master said.
(5) A focus on quality. There’s that famous speech from 1997 (the “Michael Dell speech”) where Steve Jobs asks if anyone knows what BMW’s market share is? The punchline is that it’s less than 2%, but it doesn’t matter, because BMWs turn heads. Apple is going to be that kind of company. All the “good” companies in Atlas Shrugged are like Apple. They all make products that are top-of-the-line, pricey, and well worth the money. Almost no one buys Rearden Metal, but the companies that do survive the economic catastrophe. Do it right the first time, even if you nearly kill yourself doing it.
(6) Producers are primary, consumers secondary. This is a constant theme not just in Rand’s fiction, but also in her essays. Consumers do in some sense dictate who wins and loses in the marketplace, but they only get to pick from what’s available. Steve Jobs is famous for, on many occasions, having said that people don’t know what they want, so you have to make what you know they want rather than what they say they want. Anyone who’s read much Rand will find that concept very familiar.
(7) A populist streak. I know, the last thing anyone should call Ayn Rand or Steve Jobs is “populist.” The guy who only wants 2% market share and strongly believes customers don’t know what they want a populist? And yet, he made a really big deal about loving Bob Dylan, and his products were nothing if not designed for the end-user. Jobs was an elitist, but he was no snob. And I think the same can be said for Rand. Rand was the first to say that she was writing for a mass audience, and when she wasn’t saying it about herself she was admiring Mickey Spillane for similar statements. She definitely wasn’t shooting for esteem from the so-called “experts!” And while it’s easy to remember that she didn’t like Elvis Presley, keep in mind that she also didn’t like Mozart or Beethoven, prefering to listen to marching bands (much to her parents’ chagrin). To try to figure out whether Rand or Jobs were “high-brow” or “low-brow” is to ask the wrong question: they were outside that scale.
(8) No parents. Steve Jobs was adopted, and though he spoke highly of his adoptive parents (refusing to acknowledge his biological parents as parents), he wasn’t close to them. They died in 1986 and 1993. Ayn Rand was likewise never close to her family and left them behind in Russia to move to the United States. She rarely heard from them after her emmigration, and only briefly reunited with a sister thought long dead in the early 1970s. Of course, one should add that Jobs was eventually a devoted husband and father, while Rand stepped out on her husband and never had children.
OK, there will be lots of points of dissimilarity as well. But I think in pairings of American icons, Jobs and Rand are much more similar than not.