I’ve recently finished reading Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Steve Jobs. It’s a surprisingly illuminating read, mostly as a compassionate, cautionary tale. Below are a few of the lessons I’ve extracted from Steve’s story.
1. Learn to skillfully manage stress. Steve was pretty driven, which seems to have resulted in him being unskillful in managing his stress levels. By his own admission, the stress of being a father and family man and simultan- eously the CEO of both Pixar Studios and Apple Computer seems to have contributed to the illness that ultimately killed him. He was probably right. Just driving in traffic from Cupertino to Emeryville every week would have done me in.
Three parts to skillful stress management are: A. first, recognize that stress absolutely needs to be managed; B. next, learn your own distinctive signals that indicate when eustress (good stress) has crossed over into distress; and then C. develop personal practices to effectively manage that crossover. Frequently the crossover happens when we believe a thought that isn’t true. Which is often much that we believe about the past and frequently imagine disastrously about the future.
2. Don’t have friends and family get to know you by having some acquaintance write your biography; have your family write it together with you … one day at a time. This is just SO obviously insane I can’t believe it wasn’t apparent to everyone, especially Walter Isaacson! If Steve was to ask his kids or wife which they’d prefer: to have a book about him and a new iPhone 4S around for the next 30 years, or him alive in the flesh, I would hope Steve alive would have been their preferred choice.
Steve would have additionally been well-served to realize that a biography will not ever make people know or understand anyone. Our hearts, brains, minds, bodies and souls make us all way too complex and dynamic for that. All people will ever know and understand from a biography is the story the writer chooses to tell, a partial and necessarily selective story at that.
3. Practice constructively channeling anger. There are numerous reported instances of Steve unskillfully displacing anger and deliberately hurting people who worked for him, as well as the people closest to him. He would commonly direct anger to wound people where they were most vulnerable. Steve needed to learn to continually challenge the illusion of separation: what harms others, harms oneself even more. He needed to stop the rationalizing and hypocrisy: “This is just the necessary truth-teller I am.” He was constantly challenging his engineers to exceed themselves. What made him exempt from growing into kindness? I suspect the failure to learn that lesson contributed in some way to his life ending early – when we hurt other people, considerable anecdotal evidence suggests it profoundly adversely affects our own neurophysiology.
4. Preferential treatment of sons is less than optimal for daughter’s brain development. As well as for son’s. As social worker, Cathy Jo Cress points out, many kids inherently grok the unfairness of such treatment. But they often feel stuck and powerless to say or do anything about changing it. Feeling stuck and powerless is probably not how most of us would ideally choose to raise our kids.
5. Even integration has a shadow side. Just as Steve yearned for technological integration, the human brain, too, yearns for integration as well. Integrated systems, after all, simply work better. UCLA neuro psychiatrist Dan Siegel often speaks eloquently and forcefully about the need for, and the power of an integrated brain. But just as the mystical poet Rumi observed there are a 1000 ways to kneel and kiss the ground, my guess is there are many more ways to integrate the brain, and some of them, like stringent demands and unexamined assumptions, will often produce disintegration, just the opposite of what’s needed. To paraphrase Jimmy Buffet (who probably borrowed from someone else), “We end up becoming the people our parents warned us about.”
6. Recognize the need for balance. Steve somehow missed this central tenet of Buddhism, a passionate pursuit of his. They don’t call it the Middle Path for nothing. Anytime we’re shooting for something “insanely great,” we may wish to look a bit more closely at the insane piece. Also, the ego piece. When the passionate pursuit of excellence morphs into the compulsive drive for perfection, we’ve crossed an important line. The pursuit of perfection is as bad for CEOs as research shows it is for parents. Even Buddha was satisfied with excellence, with becoming a “good enough” Buddhist.
7. Have the courage to live a life threaded with regret. Although it isn’t directly expressed by Steve at any time in Isaacson’s account, what I came away with was a sense that at the end of his life Steve had many regrets. As Kathryn Schulz details in this recent TED talk, allowing ourselves to deeply feel our regrets leads ironically to a life filled with few of them.
8. To constantly work to distort reality is to fail to love reality. Rather than pander to people’s addiction to toys and other technologies that will eventually end up in a landfill somewhere, Steve would have been better served substituting his “I-Know Mind” for “Don’t-Know Mind.” That might have allowed him to see that technology most often is a poor substitute for authentic human connection as this recent research suggests.
9. Don’t passionately pursue technological excellence in order to solve the wrong problem. One central problem Steve seemed to be continually trying to solve, that many technology companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google, are still trying to solve, is what NY Times columnist David Brooks terms the world-wide oxytocin shortage. Oxytocin is the bonding hormone. It is essential in order for people to feel great affection and affinity for one another. From the telephone, to radio, to television, to computer-mediated-communication, to Skype video, technology keeps trying, but has so far failed to sufficiently address the oxytocin shortage. I think it might actually require human beings hanging out in person helping other human beings, heart to heart and face to face.