Bad Manners and Creative Genius: Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs is nothing if not a remarkable feat in articulating a life. It’s an hugely impressive work about a truly innovative individual. Yes, we’ve all admired Jobs from afar. He absolutely changed the human race, mostly (arguably) for the better. What is made crystal clear in Isaacson’s biography, is that his genius came from an ability to combine technology and art in a way that revolutionised an emerging technological industry.

But that’s not to say this genius didn’t come at a cost. Bluntly, Jobs was a dick. He was rude, insulting, brutally honest, immature, often childish and extremely temperamental. If he didn’t like an idea, there was no holding back: ‘That’s shit’ was often his response – without care for the person at the receiving end of his temper. Isaacson often refers to Jobs’ binary way of viewing the world: something is either insanely great or a piece of shit. And he’ll tell you exactly what he thinks. In his early days he was prone to ripping you a new one for handing him something that was a ‘piece of shit’ and then returning the same idea back to you a week later and claiming it as his own. Jobs made no apology for his brutal personality. He said it was part of his job.

This got me thinking. How often, seriously, have we encountered people like this? I’ll be more specific: how often do we encounter men like this? Men who are impolite, brutish and emotional bullies, but are excused their behaviour because they are ‘creative’ and therefore, somehow ‘special’. A long list of directors springs to mind immediately…

I worry about this. Being creative gives you license, apparently, to have a deeper recess of emotions. More than that, it appears to be a criteria for true artistry. You need to be in touch with depression, rage, or mania in order to create something outstanding. This rule seems to be so ingrained it’s near invisible. Tantrums, bullying and bad manners are given (supposed) zero tolerance in almost every other industry. In the Arts, it’s the cost of doing business.

Even the victims see it like this. On one occasion, I wanted to lodge an official complaint on behalf of a friend who had been victim to a vicious, unprofessional insult from a director they were working with at the time. But it turned out I was more angry about it then they were. In fact, after a few tears, they shrugged it off, remarking: ‘say what you want about them, [the director], but they’re an absolute genius.’

I’m sorry, does any one else think this is bullshit? For every bully genius that the creative world gives rise to, there are equally nice, humble, beautiful creative people who still manage to create stunning art. So why do we give permission for emotional bullies to continue their behaviour unpunished? More than that, we empower their behaviour by equating their bad mood with their talent.

A similar argument can be made for the innumerable depressives, alcoholics, and painfully introspective creatives. Their artistry seems to depend on (and encourage) their black moods. We seem to think one cannot exist without the other. The difference, of course, is that artists who express their pain in rage and bullying end up directly hurting others, while the more introspective depressive will always hurt themself first.

But then, it was Job’s brutality that ultimately got him kicked out of Apple in 1986. He became so uncontainable that the board of the company he founded threw him out. He would return a decade later to spearhead the technological renaissance, but he came back a humbler man. He still had fits of rage, inexcusable tantrums and episodes of colleague bullying, but those who knew him for his whole life said the youthful edge had worn off. He was, overall, easier to work with and had learnt diplomacy.

In addition, the exile led to an important period of creativity and self-exploration for him. He funded Pixar and led them to Toy Story, and created NeXTNeXT was a computer company doomed to fail, but it became a stage for Jobs to learn from his failings. Jobs remained wounded about how he left Apple in the 80′s until his death, but it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t necessary at the time. Moreover, the exile and period of self-reflection seemed to be what empowered him to be the incredible CEO that he grew into, and the technology that he would end up gifting to the world.

Plus, of course, he’s Steve Jobs. So maybe he’s allowed to be a dick. He created the iPhone. But are you still entitled to be a dick if you’re working on a production of a local show? Or an exhibition for your local gallery? Or a jingle for the air-conditioning salesman down the street? Or the latest bit of management policy for your staff?

I have little evidence, but I hope, with all my heart, that emotional pain and torture is not necessary to create works of great art. I think it’s worth a shot, at least.