Is there a correlation (and/or justification) between creative genius and bad behavior?

October 8, 2012

A genius…and a douchebag?

Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs died one year ago. However, I’m just now reading his biography by Walter Isaacson. Among the book’s many surprises, none are as jolting (to me) as the endless examples depicting Steve Jobs as an egomaniacal asshole. Since so much has already been said regarding these controversial passages, I won’t go into them here. Among other things, he publicly berated his staff, stole ideas, took credit inappropriately and was unpardonably cruel to his family.

This by no means diminishes Job’s enormous contribution to Apple and, indeed, the world. Case in point, I’m writing this on one of his inventions, an iPhone and iPod are in my backpack. I use his stuff every day, constantly. So do most of you. Apple has become the most impressive brand in the world. And Steve Jobs had a lot to do with it.

Yet should that excuse him for having been an “assoholic” as one of his peers called him?

In a rare bit of self-awareness (apparently, he mostly had blinders on), Jobs admitted to being overly rough on his people but he remained unapologetic. He claimed the Mac would never have been created if not for his intolerance and meanness. Many people, including some he was ruthless to, concurred. In the end, according to Isaacson, they didn’t mind getting fucked over by a visionary.

Makes me think. In my time on the planet I’ve been intermittently difficult in matters of social discourse. I’m uncomfortable making small talk and listening to it as well. I’ve been an ass. Perhaps my record at work isn’t as spotty but it’s hardly immaculate either. I can be socially inept.

Granted, I’m not a creative visionary like Steve Jobs was but I am always trying to improve my behavior. What struck me about Steve Jobs is that he never bothered. When a brave insider called him on his bad behavior Jobs berated the man: “You don’t know what it’s like being me!”

Well, now we do.

Jobs’ claimed he was perpetually hard on Apple employees because otherwise the company would have softened, invariably inviting “B” players and eventually “C” players; which, of course, was unacceptable (to him).

Reminds me of Vince Lombardi.

Or Ayn Rand, a notoriously brilliant asshole.

Few of us are “special” like Steve Jobs but then we are not as cruel and unfair as he was either. Does that make us “B” players? Can an “A” player be a nice person?

Precious few creative geniuses grace Adland. Yet, I’m privileged to have known several of these men and women and can say, with a fair degree of certainty, that they’re not assholes, professionally or personally.

Obviously, there are jerks. Talent does not always predict good behavior. The backstabbing, cherry-picking, credit-hogging SOB is alive and well in Adland. While they are sometimes foiled by their own hubris, most hide inside the lingering fat of big agencies, manipulating people and the truth, and making too much money on the backs of others.

We are quick to call them hacks. But that might be a specious declaration. For hacks often possess great people skills. It helps him or her succeed in lieu of talent.

My wonderment is about the very best in our business, past and present. The true creative geniuses. Are/Were any of them assholes? If so, is/was bad behavior tolerated because of exceptional talent? Is “thinking different” a license to kill?


3 Responses to “Is there a correlation (and/or justification) between creative genius and bad behavior?”

  1. It’s very true, all the manipulations in Adland, but I always associated it with greed not genius. I figured genius was just a slight advantage. I left that world thinking I’d find “nice” behavior in an environment where money doesn’t rule. I was so wrong. Everyone carries a “license to kill.” Character decides whether the person uses it or not.

  2. theescapepod said

    I worked for a notoriously temperamental ad legend in New York in my first advertising job. He was insanely demanding, very energetic and he screamed a great deal.

    And when i say “screamed” i mean in a way that is difficult to imagine if you never experienced it personally. It was like the roar of a lion. It could be very unsettling and could happen at any time. I actually picked that habit up from him. It works a treat in the right circumstances. 😉

    Personally I think he may well have had a slight chemical imbalance. Something was up that’s for sure.

    But the really annoying part was that he was invariably right. It was painful but worth it. And it made life exciting.

    Too many people I’ve met in advertising since have merely mastered the asshole part but forgot about the crucial talent/genius bit. That is truly insufferable and unforgivable.

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