9 years, 4 months ago

There is always another story

Steve Jobs talks about death

“About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. … It turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.” [Stanford University, June 2005]

But according to some sources, there is a critical omission from the story. The diagnosis was in October 2003. Jobs spent several months trying alternative medicine before agreeing to the surgery, which took place in July 2004. Some cancer experts believe this delay may have shortened his life.


Jobs himself judges the world in binary terms. Products, in his view, are “insanely great” or “shit.” One is facing death from cancer or “cured.” Subordinates are geniuses or “bozos,” indispensable or no longer relevant. People in his orbit regularly flip, at a second’s notice, from one category to another, in what early Apple colleagues came to call his “hero-shithead roller coaster.” (Fortune Magazine 2008)

Some might think that this was at odds with his Buddhist beliefs: Polarity is an Illusion, Oneness is a Reality.


It is important to understand the ways in which Jobs’ attempts to manipulate his world pose risks for Apple – and thus its investors. They are evident in his difficult partnerships with music and television companies, which chafe at his insistence on setting uniform prices for their songs and videos on iTunes; in the real story of his battle with cancer; and in his deployment of stock options at Apple and Pixar, which exposed both companies to backdating scandals. (Fortune Magazine 2008)

The risks here come not only from the attempts to control everything, but from the polarity, delay and denial, which emerges from the way he tackled his cancer as well as in the way he ran Apple.


Writing in the Guardian, in the week Jobs died, Charlie Kaufman reveals something important about story-telling. He wasn’t talking explicitly about Jobs, but as Matthew Creamer points out, he might as well have been.

Storytelling is inherently dangerous. Consider a traumatic event in your life. Think about how you experienced it. Now think about how you told it to someone a year later. Now think about how you told it for the hundredth time. It’s not the same thing. Most people think perspective is a good thing: you can figure out characters arcs, you can apply a moral, you can tell it with understanding and context. But this perspective is a misrepresentation: it’s a reconstruction with meaning, and as such bears little resemblance to the event.

The other thing that happens is adjustment. You find out which part of the story works, which part to embellish, which to jettison. You fashion it. Your goal is to be entertaining. This is true for a story told at a dinner party, and it’s true for stories told through movies. Don’t let anyone tell you what a story is, what it needs to include. As an experiment, write a non-story. It will have a chance of being different.

Meanwhile, some reviewers of Walter Isaacson’s authorised biography of Steve Jobs are questioning whether it is a true representation of the man – see revew roundup by Clare Spencer.

Is a single true representation possible – of anyone, let alone Jobs? Brent Shlender writes

“Most of us who wrote in depth about the brilliant career of Steve Jobs sooner or later came to realize that we were complicit in the making of a modern myth. … Nevertheless, Steve was merely mortal. And his storied life was one of dissonances and contradictions.”

For more, see There is always another story – part 2
Steve Jobs wasn’t a visionary


Matthew Creamer, Walking with Steve Jobs (AdAge 7 October 2011)

Peter Elkind, The Trouble with Steve Jobs (Fortune March 2008)

David Gorski, Steve Jobs’ cancer and pushing the limits of science-based medicine, Steve Jobs’ medical reality distortion field (Science-Based Medicine, October 2011) (via Jason Yip)

Sue Halpern, Who was Steve Jobs? (New York Review, Jan 2012)

Charlie Kaufman, Why I wrote Being John Malkovich (Guardian 3 October 2011)

Moses Ma, The Apple-Theosis of Steve Jobs (Psychology Today 15 November 2011)

Evgeny Morozov, Form and Fortune – Steve Jobs’s pursuit of perfection and the consequences (The New Republic, February 22, 2012)

Brent Schlender, Steve Jobs and Me: A journalist reminisces (Fortune, October 25, 2011)

Clare Spencer, Is Steve Jobs biography accurate? (BBC News 25 October 2011)

Ryan Tate, Steve Jobs Probably Doomed Himself With Alternative Medicine (Gawker, October 2011)