Charles Dickens and Steve Jobs... more similar than you'd think?
Posted by Kate on Dec 29, 2011
Yesterday and the previous evening I read, pretty much in one indulgent sitting, Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life.
My older daughter, who was aware I’d given the book to her father for Christmas, and also that I’d recommended that he read Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs after I read it in November, asked which of the biographies I’d liked best.
I hadn’t thought to compare the books, but rather than think about their relative merits as biographies (they’re both very good, both highly-readable, both thorough, both long, both sympathetic), her question made me think about the similarities between the men – Dickens and Jobs.
Of course, I don’t want to push this too far: Dickens was an English novelist, born 200 years ago; Jobs was an American technology and design entrepreneur born in the second half of the 20th century. Their world views, their circumstances, their focuses, their attitudes towards food and drink, their family lives and what they did all day was utterly different.
And of course, there are may be traits that are common to many, many of the kind of successful men who are described as geniuses, rather than just to Dickens and Jobs, but, still, here are a few similarities that jumped out at me.
They both worked very hard:
Dickens was bound by a punishing schedule of deadlines driven by the publication of much of his fiction in serial form, whether as novels published by themselves in chunks, or serialised in publications. He often wrote through the night: “Day and night the alarum is in my ears, warning me that I must not run down.”
I loved this image:
“After he’d been writing for long hours in Wellington Street, he would sometimes ask his office boy to bring him a bucket of cold water and put his head into it, and his hands. Then he would dry his head with a towel, and go on writing.”
For Steve Jobs it was famously important that he control every detail of design or marketing of an Apple product or experience… and at one point in his life, not only was he managing Apple, he was managing Pixar too. He blamed his brutal work schedule for his subsequent health problems.
They were both extraordinary successful – successful young and successful at the end of their lives – despite huge setbacks:
Dickens’ titles sold in their tens of thousands, and he read to sell-out audiences of thousands. When he visited America, and when he travelled in England, he was greeted and feted by adoring fans. His celebrity and talent were recognised at his death: he was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. The grave, left open for two days, overflowed with flowers and messages and Longfellow wrote, “I never knew an author’s death to cause such general mourning. It is no exaggeration to say that this whole country is stricken with grief”. Dickens died relatively wealthy, supporting several households, many family members and families of friends.
But, starting with his scarring childhood experiences of family poverty, Dickens had several brushes with financial disaster as publications folded and books sold less well than predicted particularly in the economic squeeze of the 1840s. And, though it’s hard to imagine now, his work, often finished hastily, was frequently panned by the critics.
Jobs built Apple into the most valuable business in the world. In 2010, Apple had 7% of the revenue in the personal computer market, but 35% of the operating profit. He was a home computing pioneer. He facilitated Toy Story and other Pixar blockbusters. He was behind the iPod and the iTunes store which changed the way we consume music. He was behind the iPhone, which turned mobile phones into music, photography, video, email and web devices. He was behind the iPad, which launched tablet computing, and the App Store, which is leading to the formation of a new content-creation industry. His death made headlines throughout the world and people who’d never met him left flowers near his house.
But he was fired from the company he founded and the launch of his NeXT computer was disastrous.
They both had absolute conviction that they were right:
Dickens was convinced of his own abilities, and nothing in the biography suggests that he wavered from his belief in his own intrinsic talents, though sometimes he lamented that his heath or other commitments got in their way. As he wrote to an aspiring author, George Henry Lewis, “I suppose like most authors I look over what I write with exceeding pleasure”.
He said in 1843, “That I have feel my power now, more than I ever did. That I have greater confidence in myself than I ever had. That I know, if I have my health, I could sustain my place in the minds of thinking men, though fifty writers started up tomorrow”. He dismissed negative critics as “knaves and idiots”.
What Jobs said about Android tablets could stand as a summary of his convictions that the Apple approach was always right: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough… We think that we have the right architecture not just in silicon, but in our organisation to make these [right kind of] products.” And he was brutally dismissive of critics and, generally, alternative viewpoints.
They were both focused on their consumers, and believed they knew what their consumers wanted:
Dickens’ blend of comedy, high drama (sometimes melodrama) and sentiment was what his audience wanted, and sales of his books were generally high even when critics panned them.
Jobs said to Isaacson, “Some people say, ‘Give customers what they want’, but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
They were both interested in creating integrated experiences… experiences that disrupted the industries they worked in:
Dickens fought with his various publishers and, at different points in his career cut a deal with a printer, pushing the printer towards a publishing role and cutting out his publisher altogether; self-published his work by paying for copies of his books to be printed; and self-published his work by setting up and part-owning periodicals whose main attraction was that they carried his work. He even, towards the end of his life, read his books aloud to paying audiences – an entirely new business model.
Steve Jobs’ commitment to providing an end-to-end user experience, integrating hardware, software and, with iTunes and apps, content acquisition and consumption, was legendary… and runs counter to the direction of the rest of the consumer technology industries. He even created iconic stores that made shopping for technology a different kind of experience.
They were both brilliant performers:
Always interested in the theatre (he staged and acted in a number of amateur and semi-professional plays), Dickens reworked his novels into sequences of set pieces and honed his performances in front of a mirror to maximise his impact when he read to audiences of thousands on extensive tours in the UK and in the US and Canada. Annie Thackerey describes a London appearance (in a way that sounds to me a lot like a later Jobs product launch): “The slight figure (as he appeared to me) stood alone quietly facing the long rows of people. He seemed holding the audience in some mysterious way from the empty stage.”
Jobs’ precision-managed Apple product launches were focused on him as much as the product he was launching, with “…and one more thing…” becoming a catchphrase. He could hold an audience captive, as his famous Stanford Commencement Address demonstrates.
They were both difficult men – ruthless, demanding and sometimes unpleasant and unprincipled in their personal relationships – who nevertheless compelled extraordinary love and loyalty:
Dickens quarreled with even his most supportive and unwavering friends; waged a campaign against his long-suffering wife to justify leaving her, taking his side of the story to the press; cut himself off from spendthrift siblings; and wished one of his disappointing sons “honestly dead”.
His daughter, Katey, speaking to a biographer after his death, said of her father (and his separation from Katey’s mother), “He did not care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home. I know things about my father’s character than no-one else ever knew. He was not a good man, but he was not a fast man… but he was wonderful!”
Isaacson says of Jobs, whose view of people was either that they were great or that they were terrible, and who was willing to manipulate, retaliate and eliminate the people who opposed him or who he just didn’t think were good enough, “Even his family members wondered whether he simply lacked the filter that restrains people from venting their wounding thoughts or willfully bypassed it… When he hurt people, it was not because he was lacking in emotional awareness. Quite the contrary: he could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will.” Anne Bowers, looking back at her time working as Apple’s HR director, told Steve Jobs, “You were very impetuous and very difficult but your vision was compelling. You told us, ‘The journey is the reward’. That turned out to be true.”
I could go on: I could mention many other things that both men share: complicated childhoods with themes of abandonment and self-sufficiency; distant and fractured relationships with biological parents and the quest for alternative father figures; challenging relationships with offspring; the ability that each man seems to have had to persuade himself of things that were strongly believed, but quite untrue; their defiance in the face of declining health and the prospect of death. I could even mention the beards…
Dickens died at 58.
Jobs died at 56.
“Now, at last, the core of his being, the creative machine that had persisted in throwing up ideas [and] visions… for thirty-six years, was stilled.”
This is how Tomalin describes the death of Dickens. But it could just as well have been written of Jobs.