If You Could Raise a Steve Jobs Would You Want To?

The sofa in the den has a Karin-shaped crater in it. I’ve spent so many hours lying there lost in the Steve Jobs biography that it may take me days to puff the cushion back into shape.

I’ve consumed scads of biographies over the years, but I could always manage to put them down long enough to grab a snack. The Jobs book has me bound in a headlock, and until this morning I was puzzled by my attraction to this particular life. My list of favorite topics includes the American and French revolutions, but certainly not the technological one. No geek am I. Yet something is compelling me to rifle through this book in search of something elusive. Meaning? A moral? A warning? This morning, after a phone call from my son during which I bombarded him with Jobs anecdotes, the epiphany came. I am not reading the Jobs biography from the point of view of an interested observer of human nature, or a curious wannabe, or a jealous competitor, or simply a voracious reader. For some reason, I am reading this book from the vantage point of motherhood.

Perhaps because my sons are all of an age when they are seeking their professional niches in the world, I am particularly attuned to the story of one man’s journey to the top of the heap. The more I read the more questions arise…questions I fear no biographer will tackle.

Walter Isaacson, Jobs’ biographer, asserts that he was asked by Jobs to write the book because the man at Apple’s core wanted his children to see into his. Jobs took no issue with Isaacson’s warning that in the interest of full disclosure he would have to paint an unflattering portrait of his subject as friend, colleague, employer, and father. As I wade deeper into this man’s life, I become more surprised by this. Most of us want to shield our children from the evil inclinations that lurk within us. It seems Jobs almost dares his kids to enter his dark side.

When Jobs’ mothers, both biological and adoptive, read the book, will they be proud? The man’s genius is legendary, but so are his narcissism and aloofness. Can a parent burst with pride over a son’s monumental accomplishments while simultaneously being ashamed of him for putting miles of emotional distance between himself and others, including his own children? Does one overwhelming emotion cancel out the other?

If building an empire demands total self-absorption, do we rob our children of their fiefdom by teaching them to care about others?If we push our children to excel academically and then professionally, do we sacrifice time they could have spent learning to be empathetic?

Of course, the answer is balance. Good parents try to establish a healthy self-esteem in their children without giving them the false impression that they are the center of the universe. At the same time, we encourage our progeny to set goals, work hard, and ignore the naysayers who tell them they can’t succeed.

Balance is key for most people, but Steve Jobs was not like most people. The question remains, could Jobs have created Apple and changed the world if he hadn’t demanded perfection (often to the point of boorishness) from the mere mortals who served him? Could he have found the time to be an emperor if he had accepted responsibility for the child he fathered at 23?

By all reports including his own, Jobs’ adoptive parents were lovely and loving people. If ever a subject was fodder for the nature/nurture debate, Steve Jobs is it. Like his father, he was a perfectionist. Like his graduate student biological parents, he was extremely intelligent. But the bare feet, the failure to bathe regularly, the freedom with which he insulted people and their work, the rude behavior in restaurants? He may have brought all that to the table himself.

I’d love my children to be visionaries. It would be wonderful to have a child who changed the world. But if my child had to be Steve Jobs to be Steve Jobs, I think I’d say never mind.

Karin Kasdin’s most recent book is a novel, Life, Death, and Doughnuts. Karin is a playwright, author and essayist whose books include Oh Boy Oh Boy Oh Boy: Confronting Motherhood, Womanhood and ...read more

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