Steve Jobs and I-It Relationships

It’s true.

Steve Jobs was a jerk.

He made a habit of ridiculing, manipulating, and belittling people, habitually took credit for others’ work, and parked in handicapped spots for no good reason. While Walter Isaacson doesn’t mention it in his excellent biography of Jobs, I have no doubt that he would not have balked at taking candy from the proverbial baby if he thought it would help make a better product.

But there were a lot of things he got right. He was obsessive about making great products, and wanted to do that more than he wanted to make money. In fact, he complained that the CEO who drove him out of Apple in the mid-’80s, John Sculley, turned Apple into an inferior company because he placed profits over products:

“Sculley destroyed Apple by bringing in corrupt people and corrupt values,” Jobs later lamented. “They cared about making money—for themselves mainly, and also for Apple—rather than making great products.” He felt that Sculley’s drive for profits came at the expense of gaining market share. “Macintosh lost to Microsoft because Sculley insisted on milking all the profits he could get rather than improving the product and making it affordable.” As a result, the profits eventually disappeared. (295–296)

He also had an intuitive sense of what made a great product. He knew one when he saw it, though he couldn’t always describe how to turn an inferior product into a great one. He had the confidence to trust his intuition about what a great product was, which few people have the confidence to do—perhaps because their intuitions are not as finely tuned as Jobs’s was. He also had the confidence to make decisions without relying on market research, trusting that his instincts could tell him what people would want even better than people themselves could articulate it.

I think that Jobs’s greatest strength and his greatest weakness were, as is so often the case, opposite sides of the same coin. Jobs was great at controlling his environment and manipulating objects until they were as good as they could possibly be. But he treated people the same way he treated objects: as things to be manipulated and controlled. Isaacson writes this about Jobs’s relationships with Sculley and Gil Amelio, whom Jobs ousted as CEO of Apple in 1997:

Jobs could seduce and charm people at will, and he liked to do so. People such as Amelio and Sculley allowed themselves to believe that because Jobs was charming them, it meant that he liked and respected them. It was an impression that he sometimes fostered by dishing out insincere flattery to those hungry for it. But Jobs could be charming to people he hated just as easily as he could be insulting to those he liked. (312)

The problem is, people are not as amenable to being manipulated as objects are, which is why Jobs had so many strained relationships. Isaacson repeatedly mentions how indulgent Jobs’s adoptive parents were, and that Jobs came to believe that rules and social conventions didn’t apply to him. An ex-girlfriend said he “perfectly met the criteria” for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (266).

What if Steve Jobs and Martin Buber had a staring contest?
In theological and philosophical terms, Jobs had what Jewish philosopher Martin Buber called an I-it relationship with many people, rather than an I-Thou relationship. He treated what he found in his external world as an object to be used, experienced, and at times discarded. We may treat people this way, but people are meant to be treated in an I-Thou relationship that recognizes and affirms their humanity.

Of course, Jobs didn’t always treat people this way, and Isaacson makes that clear in his book. Jobs and his wife were married for 20 years and had three kids, it doesn’t seem possible to treat your family like a collection of objects for that amount of time. Nevertheless, it does seem from Isaacson’s book that the I-it relationship was Jobs’s default mode.

The sad thing is that, even until the end of his life, Jobs never thought he was able to refrain from being mean to people.

Even his family members wondered whether he simply lacked the filter that restrains people from venting their wounding thoughts or willfully bypassed it. Jobs claimed it was the former. “This is who I am, and you can’t expect me to be someone I’m not,” he replied when I asked him the question. (565)

Jobs’s meanness wasn’t necessary to his greatness, but I do believe they came from the same source. Everything in his external world was an object he sought to control.


One thought on “Steve Jobs and I-It Relationships

Comments are closed.