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Authors: Joshua Kendall

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America's Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation

BOOK: America's Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation
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For Andrew Brink (1932–2011)

The truly strong and sound mind is the mind that can embrace equally great things and small. I would have a man great in great things, and elegant in little things.

—Samuel Johnson


The Obsessive Innovator

The Archetypal Super-Achiever

When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life.…You can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

—Steve Jobs

’m on my way to the factory. Meet me there.”

It was shortly after 8 a.m. on a Sunday in the fall of 1984. Steve Jobs was about to hop into his black Mercedes sedan to make the forty-minute trek from his home in Woodside to Fremont where Apple was churning out its latest product—the Macintosh computer.

On the receiving end of the phone line was Debi Coleman, the company’s head of manufacturing, who had been sitting on her porch in Cupertino, buried in the Sunday paper. After two and a half years at Apple, she was accustomed to her boss’s demanding and eccentric behavior—the rage attacks, the intrusions during off-work hours, and the sudden disappearances for days at a time. “I was less surprised by the timing of Steve’s call than by what I saw when I got there,” recalled Coleman, now a partner at SmartForest, a Portland, Oregon–based venture capital firm.

Eager to build the perfect factory, Jobs had been badgering Coleman for months. After deciding in late 1983 that the initial site—Dallas, Texas—would not do, Jobs became consumed with every detail. He wanted to bring to America the elegantly designed machines that he had seen in Germany such as Braun appliances and BMW cars. But his focus went way beyond acquiring state-of-the-art equipment. He insisted that the walls all be painted white. “No white was too white for Steve,” stated Coleman. Jobs would also don white gloves to do frequent dust checks. Whenever he spotted a few specks on either a machine or on the floor, which he was determined to keep clean enough to eat off, Coleman had to arrange for an instant scrubbing. Despite her frequent exasperation, Coleman did not think about quitting. “I was mesmerized by his genius and charm. And like several other women in the company, I was a little bit in love with him,” she added.

When Coleman arrived that Sunday, she noticed a side of Jobs that she had never seen before. “He was particularly reserved and eager to please,” Coleman noted. The reason? The normally high-octane entrepreneur, then still several months shy of his thirtieth birthday, had brought along a special guest—his adoptive father, Paul Jobs. From nine to eleven, Coleman escorted father and son around the nearly empty factory; in contrast to a weekday, when two shifts of workers would file in, only a few members of the security staff were present that morning. “The facility was not yet completely finished,” added Coleman, “but Steve couldn’t wait to show his father what he had created.” A master craftsman himself, Paul Jobs, who had supported his family by working as a repo man, liked to build cabinets and fences. The elder Jobs also had a knack for fixing used cars. “While his father was impressed by how everything worked,” stated Coleman, “he asked a lot of questions. He, too, paid attention to details.”

While Steve Jobs did many great things at both Apple and Pixar, where he revolutionized the animation industry, he also never failed to keep track of the small things. And this intensity rattled many of his employees besides Coleman. Pamela Kerwin was the marketing director at Pixar when Jobs arrived in 1986, as his first stint at Apple was coming to an end. She was terrified whenever she printed anything for him to read, even memos. “He was a control freak and perfectionist in all things,” recalled Kerwin, now a principal at the Los Angeles tech firm Luminous Publishing. “He would carefully go over every document a million times and would pick up on punctuation errors such as misplaced commas.”

Commas. Cleanliness. Jobs could obsess and go ballistic about minutiae that would not even register on the radar screens of most CEOs. A tad mad, Jobs suffered from what psychiatrists call obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). Though little studied, this condition affects as much as 8 percent of the U.S. population, according to a survey of more than forty thousand Americans published in 2012 in the
Journal of Psychiatric Research
. The current edition of psychiatry’s bible, the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual
, defines OCPD as a “preoccupation with orderliness…and mental and interpersonal control” and lists a total of eight common symptoms, four of which need to be present to reach the diagnosis. The key ones are:

  • preoccupation with details, rules, order, lists, organization, or schedules
  • perfectionism  
  • excess devotion to work 
  • inflexibility about matters of morality, ethics, or values 
  • reluctance to delegate tasks unless others submit to exactly his way of doing things 
  • rigidity and stubbornness 

But for Jobs, these emotional difficulties didn’t just impede his ability to get along with others; paradoxically, they also emerged as assets—the very skill set that enabled him to create the behemoth that is now Apple. After all, in our fiercely competitive culture, being results oriented rather than relationship oriented has its advantages.

And Jobs is just one in a long ticker-tape parade of American icons—beginning with Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and continuing through Pittsburgh entrepreneur Henry J. Heinz and Boston Red Sox star Ted Williams—whose obsessions and compulsions have fueled their stratospheric success. This list includes librarian Melvil Dewey, author of the pioneering search engine the Dewey Decimal Classification System, sexologist Alfred Kinsey, aviator Charles Lindbergh, and cosmetics tycoon Estée Lauder, all of whom also led the way in their chosen fields. Like Jobs, the author of the Declaration of Independence kept sweating the small stuff. The man who gave us the penny—his 1784 paper “Notes on the Establishment of a Money Unit, and of a Coinage for the United States” organized our national currency—couldn’t help but keep track in his copious account books of every cent that he ever spent. And Jefferson’s attention to detail was also responsible for the better-known chunks of his legacy—his brilliant writing, his pioneering architecture, and the University of Virginia, the exemplary public institution of higher learning that he founded. Like Jefferson, Heinz, who turned ketchup into our national sauce at the dawn of the twentieth century, had an obsession with counting, which he used to create one of the most successful slogans in advertising history, “57 Varieties.” Slavishly devoted to his craft, Ted Williams was also an order and cleanliness nut. When visiting the Red Sox spring training facility in the late 1970s, the retired Hall of Famer would pester the clubhouse attendant about why he used Tide on the team’s laundry. This ballplayer didn’t hit to live, he lived to hit; and until the day he died, he loved nothing more than talking about the perfect swing.  

To describe this exclusive group of archetypal super-achievers, of whom Jobs is the most prominent recent example, I prefer to use a term of my own coinage: “obsessive innovator.” Current nomenclature can be misleading because we tend to associate obsessives solely with careful, plodding performance. While the consultant Jim Collins, author of the megaselling
Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t
(2001), puts obsessives at the top of his leadership pyramid, he contends that these “Level 5 Leaders” are mild-mannered, self-effacing types and not creative trailblazers. Making the same assumption about those suffering from OCPD, authors who have recently explored the link between madness and greatness assign other psychiatric maladies to our biggest movers and shakers. For example, in
The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America
(2005), a study of a half dozen American leaders including Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Carnegie, Johns Hopkins psychologist John D. Gartner argues that hypomania, a mild form of bipolar disorder, “helped make America the richest nation on Earth.” Likewise, in
Narcissistic Leaders
(2007), management guru Michael Maccoby lumps Jobs together with his fellow techie Oracle’s Larry Ellison, calling them “productive narcissists.” According to Maccoby, who notes that “productive obsessives” make excellent middle managers or CFOs rather than CEOs, the highest rung to which an obsessive can aspire is to play a fastidious Sancho Panza to a visionary Don Quixote. To make his case, Maccoby cites the steady Ray Lane, Larry Ellison’s longtime number two at Oracle. But Apple’s stupendous growth in the first decade of the twenty-first century occurred precisely because Steve Jobs was both an obsessive like Ray Lane and a narcissist like Larry Ellison; he was a two-for-one. While obsessive innovators also possess the grandiosity and self-absorption characteristic of narcissists, they are driven primarily by their particular obsessions and compulsions; and it is precisely this connection between unremitting internal pressures and extraordinary external achievements that has received surprisingly little attention.

To illustrate the distinction between obsessive innovators and narcissists, consider how Larry Ellison stacks up against his contemporary and close friend Jobs. While the two tech titans had similar early histories and shared several common behavioral traits, their internal preoccupations appear to have been quite different. In her unauthorized biography,
Everyone Else Must Fail
(2003), the late technology journalist Karen Southwick describes Oracle’s domineering CEO as “a modern-day Genghis Khan who has elevated ruthlessness in business to a carefully cultivated art form.… Ellison runs through and discards [subordinates] with unusual ferocity.” Like Jobs, Ellison was abandoned by both his parents shortly after birth. When Ellison was nine months old, his unwed mother shipped him off to Lillian and Louis Ellison, his grandmother’s sister and her husband. In contrast to Jobs, who bonded with both his adoptive parents—particularly his father—Ellison got along with his mother but feared his father, who constantly belittled him.

“Larry hated that man and had nothing but venom toward him,” Nancy Wheeler Jenkins, the second of Ellison’s four ex-wives, told me in a recent interview. When Ellison was a sophomore in college, Lillian Ellison died of cancer, leaving him without much of a support system. He would end up bouncing around a couple of colleges and never earned a bachelor’s degree. The self-taught programmer, who began working in northern California tech firms in the late 1960s, was nothing if not ambitious. “If I needed information to build something,” Ellison told an interviewer in 1995, “I was relentless. I could not stop thinking about a problem that had to be solved in order to build something. I was obsessive.” But in contrast to Jobs, Ellison was obsessive only about success—not about cleanliness, order, or details. According to Jenkins, who married Ellison in 1977—the union lasted only eighteen months—just as he was starting Oracle, his first manual for the company was littered with spelling mistakes. “He thought it a total waste of time to fix those errors,” she stated. Jenkins, who found Ellison brilliant and witty, believes that his drive for vast wealth stemmed from his difficult childhood: “Larry wanted to show everyone that he was legitimate—he wanted to be a somebody.” While fellow adoptee Jobs struggled with a similar, if not larger, batch of insecurities—his routine failure to attend to his own personal hygiene in early adulthood suggests that unlike Ellison, he also endured a period of neglect in childhood—the Apple founder viewed the accumulation of material possessions as secondary to the pursuit of his obsessions.

In contrast to narcissists like Ellison, obsessive innovators like Jobs aren’t consumed solely by raw ambition. He did not design “insanely great products” just to build a great company; he built a great company so that he could keep designing “insanely great products.” So compelled was Jobs to pursue this obsession, which dated back to his childhood in Mountain View, California, that he could not
of stopping. Becoming a master craftsman was his way to earn the approval of his beloved father; it was thus forever associated with his deepest needs for both validation and connection. This was something that mattered more to the adult Jobs than life itself. When the sedated cancer patient was lying in his hospital bed, he once ripped off his oxygen mask, railing that he hated its design. Much to the surprise of his doctors, Jobs then ordered them to begin work on five different options for a new mask. Similarly, Estée Lauder was also a prisoner to her own compulsions. As a little girl, she assisted her mother in her daily beauty rituals; and for the rest of her life, she could not stop putting makeup on women’s faces.

Like narcissists, obsessive innovators are made more than born. While it is not possible to rule out a genetic component, as a general rule OCPD constitutes a direct response to adverse circumstances in early childhood. The seven super-achievers profiled in this book all faced more than their fair share of early stressors; medical illness, neglect, emotional abuse, parental mental illness, loss of a parent, and severe family discord are common in their histories. “The obsessive personality type emerges in response to unmet emotional needs. Children who have little control over the key events and people in their lives begin to focus on something that they can control, such as details,” says psychiatrist Kerry Sulkowicz, founder of the Boswell Group, which provides advice to CEOs and corporate boards. Sulkowicz, also a clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University, emphasizes that over time this strategy of adapting to the environment becomes ingrained. Paradoxically, the cure to the child’s stressful predicament is this lifelong disease.

Behind every obsessive innovator is a unique constellation of family circumstances that derails normal parent-child bonding. And the same obsessions and compulsions, which originally constitute an ingenious resolution to this existential crisis, eventually beget the legacy. By adolescence, these future dynamos are typically friendless loners who are much more attached to things than to other people. As a child, Ted Williams was neglected by both his parents, who couldn’t stand each other and rarely spent much time at home. The baseball bat was not just his ticket to stardom; it was also his emotional anchor. In high school, Williams lacked the social skills to do the basics, such as go out on a date. The same was true for Lindbergh and Kinsey. The Lone Eagle’s tempestuous parents were also constantly bickering with each other; as a teenager, he ogled not girls but the gadgets at the local hardware store. His closest ties were to the machines and animals on the family’s Minnesota farm. Likewise, Kinsey’s favorite boyhood pastime was bonding with bugs and ferns during his long, solitary hikes in suburban New Jersey.

BOOK: America's Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation
6.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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