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?

Express yourself at your own peril

Writer at large, Tom Chiarella has an intriguing sidebar in the August issue of Esquire magazine, entitled “What Mad Men has taught me.” As we prepare for the show’s fourth season on AMC , I want to take a closer look at his commentary. Not so much to publicize the show or his remarks but to analyze them. And challenge them. He rightly claims the show has an ambiguous “moral center.” To be accurate he writes it has none. But he qualifies the remark by stating the show “is rife with lessons, public and private, cautionary and exemplary, and not just for white guys who secretly wish that all men wore hats.” While I think he’s being facetious and I know he’s being provocative, I’d like to challenge him on a couple of his points. They are as follows:

1) Don’t befriend the people who work below you. There is power in distance.

2) Don’t befriend the people who work above you. That way they will want you more than you need them.

3) Don’t ever tell anyone everything.

Basically, Chiarella is declaring self-disclosure a no-no in the office. He cites Don Draper’s adamant stance that “the past is the past” as epigram to the notion. Other cliché’s that fit would be “still waters run deep” or “always keep a stiff upper lip.” Stoicism is a virtue.

Most men, even those of us utterly unlike Don Draper, would believe there is wisdom in admiring, if not adhering to, the “strong silent type.” We’d like to think our fathers or their fathers were that way. We aspire to it, even if we fail doing so on a daily basis. That is why Don Draper is such a compelling character. Morally uncertain as he is, men nevertheless want to be him and, if the gossip magazines are correct, women most certainly want to be with him. He is the consummate anti-hero.

That’s Don Draper, the character. But what about us? I’m a creative director. I freely admit to failing the above three “rules” almost every day. I enjoy fraternizing with my “staff,” if staff is even the right word. And I look forward to friendly “face time” with management. In conversation with all parties, I self disclose. Christ, I’m doing it now in this fricking blog.

I understand this makes me vulnerable. But if at work I talk about relationship issues at home –it happens- will the listeners then have something on me? Does talking about my parent’s ancient divorce or my troubles with alcohol weaken me in the eyes of those above and below me? Are these subjects only weak men and silly women are allowed to talk about? Is not disclosing personal information a masculine virtue? In the world of Mad Men I know the answers. In real life I can’t abide. Can you?

I’d argue self-disclosure is preamble to creativity. We creatives are compelled to probe the human condition, be it ours or someone else’s well past the point of normal discourse. To do our jobs well we have to. This is why Don Draper does not exist in real life, thank God.

Recently, I wrote about various profound difficulties involving some people I care about. I shared with you my advice to them as they shared their dilemmas with me. Some of this took place in a professional environment and some of it didn’t. Of course I was discreet. But should we have all kept our mouths shut? Don Draper would have –except maybe when he was in the arms of his mistress or drunk at the club.

I do not want a mistress or to be drunk at the club. I do, however, want to relate to others as best I can. Those others are often fellow workers, above and below me. I am not one for small talk. I do not much care for rehashing golf scores. If we’re talking movies I want to know how the film made someone feel. A simple thumb up or down is not a conversation. In other words, the only way I can relate to others is by being emotionally honest.

Therefore, by Chiarella’s criteria, I am an abject failure as a man, at least as it pertains to my conduct at work. And so, it would seem, are the people who confided in me.

If Chiarella was not being glib (and even if he was), his “lessons” are something I worry and wonder about. A lot. In her philosophy of Objectivism, Ayn Rand rhapsodized about rare men who had zero interest in petty, emotional issues. I adored Rand (who didn’t?) until I realized I was a human being.

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