The same bloody minded independence that let Steve Jobs stick to his own principles even when it meant swimming against the tide of an entire industry may, in the end, have killed him, according to interviews surfacing yesterday and this morning with the author of Jobs' authorized biography.
Jobs' most recent bout with cancer was diagnosed as a rare form of prostate cancer that is rarely fatal if it is caught in time because it grows so slowly and is susceptible to the combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy that is the current standard treatment, according to Walter Isaacson, who interviewed Jobs dozens of times for a biography of Jobs will hit bookstores Oct. 24.
Despite being told by a phalanx of doctors that his slow-growing cancer would respond well to treatment and that the condition was far from a death sentence, Jobs ignored the treatments his doctors recommended to focus on a range of alternative – though ultimately unsuccessful – series of treatments.
"He tries to treat it with diet. He goes to spiritualists. He goes to various ways of doing it macrobiotically and he doesn't get an operation," Isaacson said in the '60 Minutes' interview, as reported by Reuters.
Jobs, Isaacson said, didn't want his body violated by the surgery or abused by chemo or radio therapy and had managed to convince himself alternatives to the techniques of traditional Western medicine would be just as effective for him.
Carefully designed, well-regarded studies do show glimmers of hope of some real benefits from "alternative" approaches to medicine – including acupuncture, aromatherapy , homeopathy and other techniques more accurately called "therapy" than "treatment."
Jobs knew the difference between the two and was conscious that he was increasing his own risk by delaying treatment, Isaacson said.
Taking a calculated risk, using the wrong formula
He delayed treatment anyway, for nine months, during which his cancer advanced from a relatively weak threat to his life to an unavoidable fate.
"I think that he kind of felt that if you ignore something, if you don't want something to exist, you can have magical thinking," Isaacson said. "We talked about this a lot."
Jobs realized his mistake and went back for more standard treatment, but not before his cancer made up enough ground that the all-tech-on-deck medical treatment couldn't handle it, either, Isaacson said.
It's surprising that a rational, Western-educated, intelligent guy like Jobs would go for nutty-crunchy healthcare fads shown to be better at improving regularity than they are at improving the patient's health, let alone overcoming one of a set of diseases even more persistent and aggressive than jobs himself.
It's not surprising someone widely acclaimed as a genius (accurately, I think) would follow his own decisions rather than accepting someone else's judgment about what he should do.
'Smart' doesn't always mean 'correct,' let alone 'wise'
That contrariness served him and Apple well when the rest of the industry was driving as hard as it could a design for "personal" computers so awkward to use that even intelligent users without much technical training faced learning curves steep enough that many got tired or annoyed long before reaching the top and bought an Apple instead, or went back to using paper instead of silicon.
It's a truism in both academia and psychology that intelligence and wisdom are not the same thing.
Intelligence is measurable, for one thing, though not accurately.
It's fairly simple to analyze a person's ability to solve specific problems or remember a series of numbers.
As in the performance tests on computers, cars or any other highly complex product demonstrates, it's harder to figure out whether putting a big engine into the chassis you designed will make either one really scream on either the track or test bench.
My father used to like telling the story about joining the high-IQ club Mensa where e lived in Cleveland at the time, and going out on a short day hike, looking forward to sophisticated discussion of arcane scientific topics, or possibly debate over the subtleties of philosophy or politics, in the company of people who have to demonstrate IQs in the top two percent of the population to even join.
They went for a one- or two-hour hike in the woodsy but highly domesticated Cleveland MetroParks and became, he swore, the only group of hikers ever to get lost in the MetroParks while still within sight of the flagpole in the parking lot.
The Mensans were bright enough, but not what you'd call a posse of high performers. Some were cheerful autodidacts who followed their own path and were happy doing it.
Most wanted more success at work than they'd achieved, but couldn't figure out how to do it, often because they were unable to make emotional connections with other people, unable to muster enough creativity or invention even within their own specialties to allow them to stand out from the crowd.
He compared it to buying a muscle car someone had modified by installing the transmission from a Pinto. The result looked like it should go fast, and make plenty of noise, but never managed to get that power from the engine to the wheels in a way that would get the kind of performance you'd expect.
People who are both smart and effective are the ones who can get the power they have down to the road rather than wasting it with empty noise and smoke.
Geniuses add some other critical element – one more common and even more frequently misused than the obvious factors you can read about in biographies of Thomas Edison or others who managed to consistently deliver results that were innovative, practical, and delivered on a regular basis throughout the person's life.
That element is a stubborn self confidence that allows true geniuses to recognize the value of their work and continue pushing to make it better, more practical and more widely recognized for its unique benefits the creator can see.
Stick to your guns, but be sure which direction they're pointed
That charismatic stubbornness is what made Jobs successful – though often disliked – for driving both partners and employees farther than they thought they could or should go to build things that were really special, not just smart.
Unfortunately, brilliance and brilliant self confidence don't guarantee every decision will be correct.
Sometimes fear, ignorance, contrariness or any of the judgment-twisting emotions characterized in the Five Stages of grief, can make even an obviously correct decision feel wrong.
That warping of thought and judgment is the special trap of those who realized their own genius early and succeeded by trusting their own judgment rather than the warnings and objections of others – which is exactly how Steve Jobs go to be what he was in the years before he passed away.
Unfortunately, faced with yet another frightening but probably non-fatal diagnosis, he decided to take the risk that he could be more right than his doctors, and stuck to that decision long after the point that returning to conventional treatments could overcome the deterioration of his condition and progress of a disease that also depends on persistence. It was a decision that turned into a tragedy for Jobs, his family and the cult of Apple that grew up around his charisma, reality distortion field, and insistence that his ideas would prevail, whether his opponent was prostate cancer or Microsoft.
He was right about Microsoft, though it took decades to prove it. He wasn't right about his own health.
"Magical thinking worked for [Jobs] in the past," Isaacson said in the interview. "He regretted it."
Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.