Inspiration from the Book of Jobs

by Jeff Rubin

Steve Jobs has been memorialized as the Edison of his age, a man who ushered in technologies that changed the way we live. Walter Isaacson’s comprehensive and compelling biography of the Apple co-founder exposes the flawed man behind the visionary public persona.

It would be all too easy – and unfortunate – for Jewish leaders to emulate the Jobs example to find “disruptive” answers to age-old questions. It would be equally unfortunate to reject the Jobs approach out of hand for the destructive narcissism that was part and parcel of his success.

We owe it to ourselves and to our community to tease out the best of what Jobs had to offer this generation, and to dismiss those elements of his leadership style that were unsuccessful or inconsistent with our values.

The Reality Distortion Field. Jobs became famous among his friends and coworkers for his ability to see and describe the world in ways that were patently untrue or impossible. They labeled this approach the Star Trek-inspired “Reality Distortion Field.” On the one hand, this quality enabled him to ignore limitations and push his staff to exceed their own self-expectations. On the other, his belief that he was not bounded by the restrictions of other mere mortals led him to treat his cancer for months without standard treatment, a tragic error that may have shortened his life.

Jobs, clearly, did not invent the Reality Distortion Field. The Patriarch Abraham was the first to say “Hineni,” “Here I am,” and became the father of monotheism. Theodor Herzl coined the phrase, “If you will it, it is not a dream,” and became the father of the modern Jewish state. Sometimes ignoring reality is a good thing, particularly when you are a relatively weak minority. We don’t call it a Reality Distortion Field. We just call it faith and it’s as essential today as it’s been from the beginning.

Narcissism. The flip side of Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field was his ability to block out the needs of others to achieve his goals. As Isaacson points out, the Silicon Valley is strewn with the bodies of former Jobs friends and staff members he insulted, berated or otherwise alienated in pursuit of his vision. (Jobs’ monomaniacal pursuit of his ideas – and ignorance of his family members – even cost him dearly in his relationship with his oldest daughter.)

Job’s abrasive, abusive management style is inappropriate for the Jewish community. The employees that Jobs dismissed were not bad employees – they contributed to his success – they were the collateral damage of his ego and impulses. The philosopher Martin Buber called on Jews to emulate the sacred relationship between humankind and God by looking upon one another as holy beings to be appreciated, not utilitarian objects to be exploited. He called it the “I-Thou” relationship. Otherwise known as menschlichkeit.

Forced Collaboration and Unitary Thinking. Jobs was a talented engineer but not a brilliant one. His genius was to think across disciplines and bring isolated groups together in collaboration. The beauty of Apple products reflects Jobs’ desire to unite art and technology and his compulsion to bring together engineers and designers to create iconic machines. Similarly, Jobs united musicians, businesspeople and technologists to create iTunes, a legal, profitable platform for sharing and distributing music. By contrast, without the dogged insistence of a CEO like Jobs, Sony could not achieve the same end, even though it had content and technology under the same corporate roof.

Jews have never been known for their ability to unite, unless under extreme conditions. At the institutional level, too many organizations silo their staff members into isolated working groups unconnected to one another and discouraged from collaboration. At the community-wide level, we have been unsuccessful in joining together behind a new approach to Jewish identity development, acting much like the music industry, which was incapable of uniting to stem its losses to piracy. The most monumental step forward in our time, Taglit-Birthright Israel, was essentially the vision of a few Jobs-like individuals who imposed their will and brought the community together. We could use another Jobsian campaign to address our educational shortfalls before we go the way of the Walkman.

Integrated Hardware and Software. Jobs insisted on integrating his own proprietary software into Apple machines unlike Microsoft whose software may be used on any manufacturer’s machine. Not only did this ensure that Jobs could dictate the quality of the user’s experience, it also maximized Apple’s profits.

Far too often, Jewish institutions insist on providing both the structure and the content of its members’ experience. For example, does it matter if Jewish children spend their summers at a camp that belongs to their synagogue’s movement, or another equally enriching Jewish camp? And yet, many synagogues erect barriers to collaboration across organizational lines. I contend that we are not maximizing our profits by insisting on denominational loyalty, but minimizing our effectiveness at a time when fewer and fewer Jews care about movement labels.

Research Versus Intuition. Jobs famously and loudly proclaimed that he did not engage in market research to produce his products, but relied on his own intuition. The record shows that his successes far outstripped his failures. But if everyone had his creative abilities, Apples would be falling from every tree.

Harsh as it may sound to our Jewish mothers’ ears, we are not all geniuses. Recognizing our own limitations, research can and should guide us as we chart a new course for the future. And yet, we cannot fully dispense with that “pintele Yid,” that irreducible Jewish essence, that adds so much flavor and spice to our community and, indeed, to the world at large.

Isaacson’s book is not just a biography of a successful businessman – it is a behind-the-scenes look at products that many of us use religiously. Reading the Book of Jobs while listening to an iPod is a little like reading the Torah while wearing tzitzit, bringing text and context, art and object, together in a seamless reality. The best books – Biblical or biographical – show leaders in all their greatness and their flaws, enabling us to draw inspiration from their successes, and cautionary tales from their failures.

Jeff Rubin is director of communications for a prominent foreign policy research organization.