January 2, 2012

I'd give up my Mac



I finished Steve Jobs' biography last week. CanNOT stop thinking about it: riveting for a range of reasons.  The topic also makes great conversation. My question to everyone has been: "is it worth it?" by which I mean was Jobs' apparent mental illness worth his success and the Apple legacy?

When I read (and of course I have no way to know how accurate the book is) about how this man's dysfunctional social relations, interpersonal cruelty, maniacal business management, narcissism, obsessional focus and compulsive behaviors led to his fame and fortune -- and they did, it seems -- I don't see how they are worth it. Others around me disagree: they consider his madness to have been both admirable and his own damn business. I see a tortured, ill man who wreaked havoc on others and lived uneasily in his own brilliant mind and body. My ipod and MacBook are heavier when I think about their cost.

Would we take a different view if he had the same personality and attributes but was unemployed and living in his aging parents' back bedroom?

I'm particularly struck by the obviousness of his eating disorder. It is mentioned frequently in the book, but as usual framed as a set of choices he was making. It is obvious to me that his eating disorder killed him, too: he was unable to comply with the necessary dietary and behavioral recommendations of his medical team treating his cancer. His wife and friends were helpless as are most families facing an eating disorder in a self-supporting adult. Driven exercise, intermittent fasting, extreme dietary restriction, and purging seemed to have been taken for granted in this man but are frightening symptoms to me.

But his children have lost their father: will they some day question how a treatable mental disorder played a role in their family's fate, and consider it differently as society better understands mental illness over time?

Mental illness is almost always limited to certain functions, not a global mental problem. People with extreme and life-threatening eating disorders can and often do continue to perform at high levels on thoughts and tasks unrelated to eating and the body. There are many examples of geniuses of many types who are floridly mentally ill with other disorders.

Had Jobs been my father, son, or brother, I don't think I would consider his business and design legacy "worth it" for the suffering he experienced and caused. I would rather he receive treatment and recover from his eating disorder, and from co-morbid conditions (many have been proposed -- including personality disorders and Aspergers and OCD and bipolar -- but of course we can never know).

I've taken this "not worth it" position in many conversations this past week, and most people have disagreed with me. Fame and wealth and our pleasant kludge-free electronics seem their own reward. Finally, yesterday a friend of my daughter's said I did have a point: "He wasn't Churchill" he said. "He invented the iPad."

6 comments:

  1. I think Walter Isaacson wrote an incredibe book about a quixotic man who was, indeed, brilliant. Along with that brilliance did come all the behaviors you have mentioned and yet his wife married him and accepted him as he was while many who interacted with him came to understand him and either tolerate him or leave him. [I have begun reading Isaacson's book on Einstein.]

    As one who nowhere near approaches the personality and capabilities of Mr. Jobs, I sank into a deep depression two years ago after struggling with dysthymia probably since my teens and began taking an SSRI to bring myself back to "normal" and after having fought an ED for more than 15 years before that, I think I'd rather have my ups and downs and be quirky rather than become, as I felt I had become, a kind of lackadaisical person who came to care less about too many things and flatlined my life. This sense of no moods at all led me to taper myself off the med that so altered the "who" that I was. I also have come to understand these past seven years, by attending a 12-step program to counter the effects of my daughter's illness, that I needed to take care of myself and address my behaviors and thoughts in a different way. I think I am a healthier person for it and others have noticed the change in my demeanor. I am no longer "driven" but at least I'm still in the driver's seat.

    I also believe that Mr. Jobs knew his shortcomings. It was his life to do as he wished. He was a genius. His brilliance added much to the world. That's how he wanted to live his life. I love my iPhone and my iPad. I never had a Mac. I think of him now when I use the devices I do have.

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  2. I am right behind you on this one, Laura. The fact he may not have even weighed up the arguments in his head is warning enough for me. The delicate balance of all this affected not just himself, but as you state, his family and colleagues. I walked from the near completion of a PhD and the promise of a great career for a more balanced life. It is a hard decision to make and to live with. There is regret, but the challenge of facing my anorexia, my inner monsters and being a more balanced citizen of my nation means more than making people do things that suit my desires. It is a personal choice and one I am not sure Jobs ever considered. That is the shame of it all. Shows he was not as brilliant as society and the world makes out. The most brilliant man I've ever met was a semi literate Imam on Lombok in a tiny village. He observed the world, participated deeply and gave of himself endlessly but in a very measured and considered way. THAT is brilliance.

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  3. If Mr. Jobs had been my father, son or brother, I would have preferred him to get treatment for whatever his mental illnesses were. However, I doubt that any of my efforts in those roles would have resulted in getting him any of that treatment. Often, when a person has serious mental illness as an adult, intervention by loved ones is only successful if the sufferer is unable to support himself on his own and needs help just to survive physically. Mr. Jobs was a man of phenomenal wealth and it's possible that no one would have been able to exert effective leverage to get him into effective treatment. As we are well aware, there is much fear involved in changing when suffering from an eating disorder. It is difficult, if not impossible, to face down those fears unless the alternative (not facing them and being homeless and destitute) is even worse. It is possible that his loved ones did urge him to get treatment and were not able to convince him to do so.

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  4. Laura, I have been avoiding thinking of the mental health aspects of this subject having just listened to the book (unabridged) while making a long drive! I was horrified by the life of the man that it exposed but there were so many, to my mind, overly simplistic connections and judgments and supposed psychological insights being made by friends, family and author throughout (repeatedly, might I add, in case we didn't pick up on them the first time) that I was quickly put off making any easy judgments of my own on this, acknowledged, genius because I felt it was probably a little ridiculous coming from a much lesser mortal; you have clarified it for me - mental illness, in some guise or another, seems to be staring us in the face and we can talk about that and how we feel about it even if we can never know the entirety for sure and even though it was never up to us to intervene.

    I love the look and the feel and the functionality of my MacBook and my iphone and know that, if the design were not as good, I might love them a little less but, after listening for a while, I did start to question at what point the particular shade of green or white or beige can really matter that much, when it can possibly be worth pushing people to the limits of their endurance (and possibly beyond) to work within an unrealistic time frame and how long it is worth sitting on the floor while debating the design (or other) merits of a sofa.

    I do know that I would have hated to work for Steve Jobs or for my children to work for someone in any way similar to him or for them to be driven to behave in a similar manner themselves. What a tortured existence he seemed to have lived and what a torturer he seemed to have been in his turn; no designed product, however beautiful or functional, whatever place in history it gives you once you have shuffled off your mortal coil can surely be worth that kind of a price.

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  5. I know this is an old entry, but I have to respectfully disagree on one part of this entry... Steve Jobs died from pancreatic cancer, which has one of the lowest survival rates of any cancer out there, unfortunately. I doubt that any changes to his diet would have helped that in the long run, although of course research is always ongoing. Other than that, some good points you have made.

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  6. Jobs' pancreatic cancer was a rarer form, one that is far less deadly. The book describes how he delayed recommended treatment, undermined treatment, and was unable to nourish himself properly to survive treatment - continuing to fast, diet, and restrict. His wife is described as consulting eating disorder experts for help on this.

    For those of those familiar with eating disorders I suspect the description of Jobs' behaviors, thoughts, and lack of self-awareness around his body and food will sound very familiar and harrowing.

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