Sunday, November 27, 2011

TED Book Club Selection - November 2011

 Today, the lastest TED Book Club Selection arrived, Walter Isaacson's biography Steve Jobs.  What an appropriate choice!  Both TED and Jobs stand for Technology, Entertainment and Design. I've received many comments on my posts about TED book selections, showing that many people enjoy hearing what the folks at TED have chosen.  So I decided to post this, even though I've barely begun the book.

Jobs life is linked to three inspirations in my own life: Clayton Christensen, TED and Ian Sharp. 

It's said that Jobs was inspired by Clayton Christensen's book The Innovator's Dilemma, and that it was pivotal in molding his views about innovation.  I've talked about Christensen's ideas in previous posts (such as this one).  I celebrated the fact that The Innovator's Dilemma was chosen as one of the six best business books of all time(click here), and that Christensen was named the top Business Thinker (click here).  These posts explain why I think Christensen's ideas are so important, and if you examine the trajectory of Jobs' career, you can see his products as an illustration of Christensen's theories.  Consultants from Innosight (the firm founded by Clayton Christensen) had a great article about the innovation lessons learned from Steve Jobs.  I've seen lots written about Jobs recently, but that assessment is my favourite.

Jobs' life is an illustration of the very essence of the TED conference.  So many conferences bring together people with shared interests in a particular field.  They are very focused, and can often provide deep information, but seldom any true inspiration because they simply reinforce an industry's entrenched way of thinking.  TED is different - it brings together people from a wide variety of disciplines and the sparks of creative and innovative thinking fly.  Jobs similarly capitalized on the breadth and depth of his interest in technology, entertainment and design in the breathtaking innovation in his products.  In just the first few chapters, there have been appearances by people I've met at TED like Larry Brilliant and Stewart Brand, and the index reveals more to come.

The description of those early days in Silicon Valley brings back memories of my early days in  timesharing (now called cloud computing) in the early 70s in Canada.  I worked for I.P. Sharp Associates, a pioneering software and network communications company, led by the brilliant and unassuming Ian Sharp (shown at left).  Ian's penchant for hiring bright people resulted in a company full of them.    Like Jobs, many 'Sharpees' had dropped out of university  (often leaving the US motivated by the Vietnam draft).  Like Jobs, some of them had nevertheless earned a BA (brilliant & abrasive) or a BE (brilliant & eccentric).  Ian exhibited huge tolerance of eccentric behaviour as long as people were contributing and were respectful of their colleagues and focussed on solving customer problems.   Jobs' success arose, at least in part, from the diversity of his interests and his appetite for ingesting ideas from many fields. Ian's disregard for people's area of specialization meant that I.P. Sharp was seething with people from diverse backgrounds - computer science as well  as education, mathematics, biology, music and many fields.  (It was also full of 'minorities', because Ian seemed blind to nationality, religion, skin colour, or sexual orientation).

Authorized biographies often present a somewhat varnished version of events.  What has surprised me so far about this book is that it shines a glaring light on both Jobs' brilliance and his less desirable traits.  Jobs and Wozniak have just founded Apple, and Jobs' trademark chutzpah, passion and single-minded drive are already evident.  The reality distortion field has made its appearance.  So has Jobs' arrogance, although that aspect of his personality remains to be polished and honed.  His penchant for abuse and his 'anti-loyalty' is disturbing to read about.   Perhaps it's a final comment on Jobs' unfailingly high  self-esteem that he was willing to support a book that could present him in such an unforgiving light.


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