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A legend surrounds Steve Jobs. He is described as brilliant and tone-deaf, dynamic but with a sharp tongue. A bunch of movies and books have sought to describe what made Jobs, who died in 2011, so special and so different.
I just finished reading “Creativity Inc.,” the excellent book by Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar and Disney Animation, and Jobs features throughout the book. He bought what became Pixar from Lucasfilm in 1986 and remained involved with the company until his death.
In an afterword titled “The Steve We Knew,” Catmull addresses some of the popular depictions of Jobs, and he said many of them missed the mark.
“I worked closely with Steve Jobs for twenty-six years,” Catmull wrote. “To this day, for all that has been written about him, I don’t believe that any of it comes close to capturing the man I knew.
“I’ve been frustrated that the stories about him tend to focus so narrowly on his extreme traits and the negative, difficult aspects of his personality.”
The book added:
“The word genius is used a lot these days – too much, I think – but with Steve, I actually think it was warranted. Still, when I first came to know him, he was frequently dismissive and brusque. This is the part of Steve that people love to write about … To let them drive Steve’s narrative, however, it so miss the more important story. In the time I worked with Steve, he didn’t just gain the kind of practical experience you would expect to acquire while running two dynamic, successful businesses; he also got smarter about when to stop pushing people and how to keep pushing them, if necessary, without breaking them. He became fairer and wiser, and his understanding of partnership deepened – in large part because of his marriage to Laurene and his relationships with the children he loved so much.”
One anecdote in the book is about Jobs’ design for Pixar’s new office building in the late 1990s. His first attempt “was based on some peculiar ideas he had about how to force interaction among people,” according to Catmull. For example, there was a single women’s and single men’s restroom in the building. There was protest, and Jobs backed down from his plan.
Next, he suggested separate buildings for each movie in production, so each team could have its own space. Again, Catmull was less than keen, so he took Jobs to a Disney building known as Northside. There, he saw wide-open hallways, open floor plans, and “accidental mingling” under a single roof.
After the trip, he met again with his architects, and set down the principles for a single Pixar building. It would be designed to “encourage people to mingle, meet and communicate,” Catmull said. Jobs presided over every detail of the building’s construction, and Pixar workers came to call the building “Steve’s movie.”
“I worked with Steve for more than a quarter-century – longer, I believe, than anyone else – and I saw an arc to his life that does not accord with the one-note portraits of relentless perfectionism I’ve read in magazines, newspapers, and even his own authorized biography,” Catmull said. “Relentless Steve – the boorish, brilliant, but emotionally tone-deaf guy that we first came to know – changed into a different man during the last two decades of his life.”