I was truly dismayed to see someone as influential and talented as Steven Johnson, author of the brilliant book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation say this about Steve Jobs:
“But for all his obnoxiousness with his colleagues…, Jobs had a rich collaborative streak as well. He was enough of an egomaniac to think of himself as another John Lennon, but he was always looking for McCartneys to go along for the ride with him.”
To me, this is an example of the kind of socially accepted intolerance, bias, and disparaging name-calling that creative, emotionally intense and gifted adults (and children) frequently experience their entire lives. Even though Mr. Johnson is intending to show the “other” side of Steve Jobs complex personality, it doesn’t excuse his perpetuating the portrayal of Steve as an “obnoxious egomaniac.” Those are some powerfully degrading and hurtful words for such a respected author to be using as though they were mere objective facts and not defamatory or derogatory character slurs. To me, those words are just offensive as any racist or sexist epithets.
Yes. Steve was emotionally intense. Yes, he had a temper and SOME people felt bullied by him. But he was so much more than that — he had many allies, supporters and people who overlooked his outbursts as being part of his intensity and found his intense convictions inspiring. They didn’t take his emotional intensity personally and loved working with him.
Intensity is one of the many forms of neurodiversity that are misunderstood, not tolerated and aggravated by our culture. Unharnessed, emotional, intellectual and energetic intensity can feel overwhelming to people who are not intense.
When people assume that other people are sharing the same experience in the same way, and at the same level of intensity, it’s so easy to assume they simply lack self- control. In reality, it’s more like two people can be in a 70 degree room and to one it feel like 100 degrees and they are uncontrollably sweating and to another it can feel like 40 degrees and they could be having uncontrollable shivers and goose bumps. Emotional intensity works similarly. There is actually a biologically based neurochemical reason (one of which is dopamine levels) that literally and profoundly affect how intensely we feel emotionally in response to events. For example, we might feel such a strong surge of emotion in response to a new idea that it’s not “controllable” though with practice we CAN learn how to change the way we respond to it. But that requires advanced habit shaping and emotional intelligence skills that are rarely taught.
To the intense person, what seems like nothing to most people, for example, seeing a typo or mistake, can trigger such a strong emotional discomfort that it feels like being hit by a crashing wave. In our culture, instead of recognizing that some people are just that way, we treat it as a mental illness, we invalidate the reality of what it feels like to live with this, or we make it a character defect. When you really look at the situation deeply and objectively, you begin to see that it’s actually a need to learn skills. Thankfully therapy is moving toward an educational model, but why do we still classify the learning as a “treatment” for a disorder?
This fundamental variation in intensity is at the the root of many of our “differences” and when not recognized causes misunderstanding and over time can lead to such extreme frustration and anger that people become very abusive to each other.
Intense people themselves are usually unaware of how different their experience of life is from most people and their descriptions of how they feel are often not believed by others. Consequently, instead of learning how to cope with intensity, it is invalidated and people try to repress it. The repression leads to build up and eventually meltdowns, tantrums and other forms of emotional outbursts. My intention with this article is not to “excuse” anyone’s rude behavior, but rather to move us forward in understanding so that we can find more productive ways to deal with our differences. Like learning more about the ways people are different and how to resolve the inevitable conflict in respectful ways. We have a culture where most people seek to avoid conflict or confrontation. If we learned early on how to see conflict as an opportunity to learn to become more accepting of differences, more patient, more emotionally agile, mentally flexible and less certain that what we think is right, perhaps we wouldn’t have an epidemic of social anxiety and depression.
Back to the article that inspired this article — I wonder if Mr. Johnson is familiar with the literature on giftedness and intensity and, if he were, would he still choose to use words like “egomaniac” so easily?
Intensity of energy, drive, compassion, and frustration is a well-documented aspect of having extraordinary intelligence and empathy. Steve Jobs was lucky he had productive outlets for his intensity, but he also paid a high price. I deeply admire that he was strong enough to not let his creative passion be subdued or muted by the people around him who were clueless about how to cultivate or cope with his intense drive to innovate. Luckily he insisted on cultivating it himself. Even when he got booted from Apple for his emotional intensity, he refused to give up and moved on to become the force behind Pixar and Toy Story.
It takes a very intense kind of person to challenge the status quo and do what people say can’t be done. Not only did many people not support him, they actively tried to suppress and modify him as well.
How long would you stand up for your big idea if everyone around you was trying to change it?
To me, Steve Jobs exhibited a personality trait called “hypersystemizing” or “addicted to insight.” Hypersystemizing has a biological basis and is often the driving force behind the kind of idealism and perfectionist behavior that Steve Jobs displayed. This is not everyday perfectionism, however. It’s a deep driving need to create something truly magnificent and not let others water down the visionary ideas with “groupthink.”
People tend to admire super-talents like his from afar, but up close, they find it challenging to deal with the kind of intensity that comes along with the super-talent. Without realizing it usually, they tend to become defensive and try to change the person in order to “make them easier to deal with.” They try to get them to compromise their vision because they want their ideas to be considered, and they want to have input into the outcome. It’s only natural to want to put your stamp on someone else’s project, but it’s not always the best thing for the project. Sometimes other people’s ideas do enrich a product, but the truth is, sometimes their ideas water it down or muddy it up.
The super-talented person also does their share of stubbornly not listening to other people’s input, rejecting the input they do listen to and not always being very nice about it. But imagine how you would feel when people give you advice you know isn’t right for you – you know they don’t get you. Now magnify that by a thousand percent. That’s what profoundly gifted and talented people experience MOST of their lives. It’s draining, frustrating and demoralizing. Feeling deeply and chronically misunderstood can lead to existential grief, depression, anger, a profound sense of disconnectedness and social alienation.
People like Steve Jobs who are strong enough to self-advocate and push back over and over again do act out in socially abrasive ways, but when you realize that alternatives to being your authentic emotional self, even when it feels “abrasive”, include some extreme mental health disorders including addiction, violent aggression, dropping out of society, and even suicide, you begin to see the problem in a whole new way. There are no easy answers to the dilemma, but name-calling, outcasting, trying to get them to “conform” and bullying – whether verbal or physical – certainly doesn’t help.
Calling people like Steve Jobs “not a team player” is overly dismissive and is fundamentally biased. It’s usually said as though not being a team player is some kind of personality defect that makes you the equivalent of an “untouchable”. Why not just say that his strength is being “an independent or creative thinker”? Why do we divide the world into “team players” (good) and “non-team players” (bad)? There is so much more to the story than that.
Who said being a “team player” is the “best” way to be or something that everyone should aspire to be?
When someone is “not a team player” – most likely there is some valuable talent they DO have that team players DO NOT have. Like DEEP thinking.
Groups often make the WORST decisions in many arenas of life and business. Keep in mind it was a group decision that got us into the war in Iraq.
Most great thinkers accomplished their life’s legacy work mostly working alone – supported by and supporting others, giving and getting input to each other’s work in other ways besides teams. They publish and read each other’s work, they attend conferences, they challenge each other in a way that is not usually acceptable in a group setting.
They are not designed for and don’t need to work in groups to produce their best work. Just like planes don’t fly in groups or in single file the way cars do, some people are not designed for teamwork. Challenging independent thinkers who are also emotionally intense are less common, but every bit as valuable as a team player. Just as a plane is less common, but is still a fundamentally needed and valuable form of transportation, we NEED people who don’t work well in teams to have their place in society respected and valued. (Read more about Group Think here.)
Society needs challengers. Without them, we would probably still have slavery. Women would still not be allowed to vote. And Child Labor would not be against the law. You get the picture.
It takes incredible internal fortitude and vulnerability to stand up to social pressure and express yourself when most people would much rather you kept your challenging ideas to yourself.
Staying true to a vision like Steve Jobs did is a rare thing. In many ways it requires becoming a difficult person, even if at heart you really don’t want to be difficult. Many people who produce truly great work have suffered lifelong cognitive “bullying” for being different – sometimes intentional, sometimes not.
We wonder why so many smart creative people suffer from depression and social anxiety. It’s not very mystifying to me.
As Mr. Johnson noted in his article, Steve Jobs also had a deep hunger and desire for collaborators. That is part of the curse of being gifted. The search for people that “get” you, and don’t try to “control” you, who don’t mind if you keep changing your mind as you evolve the quality of your ideas. The search for a way to make a living and work with people who won’t overly pressure you to give in to doing something on schedule instead of getting it right is an excruciatingly painful search.
Steve Jobs went through 67 nurses in the end to find three that he felt really cared about his needs. When he found “the ones” he kept them with him till the end. He was intensely loyal to the people who let him be himself and didn’t need him to conform to make them comfortable. (Source: His sister’s eulogy as it appeared in the New York Times.)
The kind of existential loneliness and angst that leads to the impatient behavior Steve Jobs exhibited is something most people can’t really understand. Our society is so biased against people who are different and have intense emotions and passions like his, we rarely question that kind of name calling. I think that’s why Mr. Johnson didn’t even flinch at calling Steve Jobs an “egomaniac.” It is so insulting to Steve Jobs and deeply inaccurate. My guess is that if he better understand cognitive and neurodiversity, he would rethink using such a derogatory word.. His family and friends sure paint a very different image of him.
People like Steve Jobs experience so much negative criticism and push-back from teachers, bosses, and others who seek to control and “reign them in” that they often become dictatorial and controlling in order to accomplish their mission. Who teaches them how to cope with the constant pressure to conform in more effective ways? There are no courses I know of to help kids stand up to the kind of pressure you get from school and parents to, for example, do the homework assigned by a teacher instead of working on inventing a computer.
Innovation REQUIRES breaking conventions like doing a “book report” when you’d rather be actually “writing a book.” There are so many examples of geniuses who had to quit school in order to actually make the most of their genius – it’s actually kind of frightening. Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs are just a few.
Living with the constant pain of being misunderstood by most people combined with being pressured to conform to think, feel and act like “normal” people is exactly what kills most innovation and creativity.
If Steve Jobs had conformed and become a conventional “team player” Apple wouldn’t exist. It would be just another failed victim of “groupthink” that bows to lower standards of design just to get the job done “good enough.” There is a time and place for good enough, like when you are cleaning a floor or doing the laundry. But “good enough” doesn’t get you products like iPads. (James Cameron’s Titanic is another example.)
Why should Steve Jobs have been so maligned and even ousted from Apple for being emotional and prone to crying? Emotion, empathy, caring for people, and dedication to higher principles than “speed” and “short term profits” are exactly what those unemotional corporate leaders who are responsible for our economic meltdown are deficient in.
The real travesty in our culture is the pathology of corporate types who DON’T respect the power of emotion and who lack, or have very low levels, of compassion, empathy, ethic, and integrity. There is name for people who experience very low levels of emotional intensity, compassion or empathy and have such a high degree of self-control that they can easily manipulate others as well and can get themselves to do anything that serves their own interests regardless of who gets hurt. Strong self-control is required to be good at concealing your true thoughts, feelings, and intentions from people so that you can manipulate them.
Yes, there is a dark side to high self-control just as there is a dark side to low self-control. Highly charming, charismatic, philanderers, con men, politicians and executives who find it easy to say whatever people want to hear so that they can do whatever they want in private are very HIGH in self-control. Interestingly, people with LOW intensity and HIGH self-control may also qualify as sociopaths.
Could it be that our culture has so idolized the achievements of getting good grades, making lots of money, seeking fame, and winning awards, elections and sporting events that we are literally glorifying sociopathic tendencies and behavior while simultaneously repressing and medicalizing those who are uniquely so intense that they are biologically driven to challenge what doesn’t seem right to them?
The epitome of “cool” today is to be unemotional, unaffected, to appear centered, self-controlled and to not say anything that would offend or challenge anyone. And yet, we are also supposed to be “passionate” about something? You can’t have it both ways. Passionate IS emotional. Being emotional and having the capacity to care and be passionate IS what makes us human.
When did having and showing deep emotions become a fatal flaw? Even Jesus had deep emotional outbursts. Can you imagine the names he would be called today?
The so-called leaders and managers of most companies do everything they can to prevent displays of emotion and to punish people who display emotion in the workplace. Showing stress, anger or frustration in any job will get you an instant downgrade in your performance appraisal and it will certainly affect your ability to get a promotion. And yet, people who show those feelings are usually the people who care the most about doing the “right thing” or about doing a “great job.”
We as a culture have no idea how to cultivate and respect exceptionally, gifted, talented, creative people who have strong emotional drive and intensity. Our schools, workplaces, medical system, etc. are all literally designed to destroy people’s passion for learning and thinking for themselves. It’s not intentional, but it is a real challenge that we as a collective nation must face up to.
The change is coming…led by innovators like Sir Ken Robinson and many others like www.sengifted.org– Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted
The animation below was adapted from a talk given at the RSA by Sir Ken Robinson, world-renowned education and creativity expert.
For more information on Sir Ken's work visit: http://www.sirkenrobinson.com.
If you love someone who is “challenging” or seems driven to do things “their way” I hope you will be moved to take a deeper look at the tension between you. Cognitive and emotional biases play a huge role in communication and conflict resolution difficulties.
Could it be that the person you are dealing with has experienced the kind of systemic and indirect “bullying” that comes from our assumptions that being intense or emotional is some kind of “character flaw”?
Could it be that the person is more likely starving to feel understood?
Starving to feel freer to pursue their creative or technical passions without compromising their ideals?
Charles Darwin took 20 years to write his masterpiece that changed the world. He was persecuted much of his life (and still is.) He suffered great depressions as a result of being a different kind of thinker.
I’m not saying the answer is to tolerate anyone treating people disrespectfully. But I am saying that perhaps the disrespectful outbursts are a reaction to being chronically disrespected by others in a way that is systematically condoned and leaves them no recourse.
For example, calling a high energy child or highly emotional adult disordered? Isn’t it possible that it is just as disrespectful to expect a child who is naturally full of energy, creativity and curiosity to sit still in a classroom all day as it is when that child disrupts the classroom because it is literally painful for him or her to sit still? Who is disrespecting who here?
We have the luxury today to use the power of technology to help us design more customized and innovate approaches to education that respect children’s natural strengths and cultivate them. Is it really worth it to spend so much time and energy trying to get people to conform? What if we spent all that energy working on ways to teach people how to resolve the conflict that naturally arises from our differences instead of trying to eliminate the differences?
I dream of a world where emotionally intense and creative visionaries are respected for their differences, and where we ALL learn to respect each other and resolve our differences in constructive ways – empowering us to design or discover contexts that fit our natural gifts, without feeling the need to label people as “disordered” and having “deficits” because we are different from each other.
p.s. In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t actually own a Mac, although I do have an iPad and I did learn how to program computers using AppleBasic on an Apple II in 1981. I’m deeply grateful to Steve Jobs’ innovative user-centered designs for the role they played in making the whole computer industry upgrade their own interface designs just to keep pace.