Malcolm Gladwell On Steve Jobs’ Perfectionism: The Genius Is In The ‘Tweak’


There is something about creativity that tends to bring out the worst in certain people. Maybe this is because the pursuit of a personal vision tends to be isolating and not particularly conducive to sharing or collaboration, or maybe this is because success requires often off-putting qualities like aggression and ruthlessness or the need to set impossibly high standards. In either case: Getting to know the personalities behind bold names can be an exercise in frustration, as Malcolm Gladwell‘s New Yorker piece on the late Steve Jobs aptly demonstrates.

As evidence of Jobs’ sometimes difficult nature, Gladwell offers the following revelations from Walter Isaacson‘s well-timed biography on the driving force behind Apple:

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.”)

Gladwell also notes that, despite what many would expect from a inspirational narrative suitable for a feel-good summer biopic, Jobs remained firmly set in his ways to the very end, going through various nurses and complaining about the design of medical equipment.

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This, Gladwell’s article suggests, could all be used to make the argument that Jobs, despite the myth forming around him both in life and, now, after his passing, was a “tweaker,” (Arrested Development fans, stop your laughing.) rather than an individual who devoted himself to large-scale visions. Gladwell explains the term by noting that Britain “dominated the industrial revolution because it had a far larger population of skilled engineers and artisans than its competitors: resourceful and creative men who took the signature inventions of the industrial age and tweaked them—refined and perfected them, and made them work.”

Gladwell’s look at Jobs may not be the most flattering — included are allegations that he took credit for others’ work and ideas — but it doesn’t diminish or undermine the fairly widely-held idea of Jobs as a man whose work and vision are testament to something like genius. He was a genius not because he was a modern-day equivalent to the kindly if reclusive inventors of yore, holed away in some laboratory, spinning history-making creations out of nothing more than blood, sweat and tears, but because he was able to look at an existing product or idea, identify where it was lacking, and perfect it.

h/t The New Yorker

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