Why Steve Jobs couldn’t train writers

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Reading time: About 2.5 minutes

Even if (like me) you were a fan of Steve Jobs, you wouldn’t have wanted him to be your writing coach…

I admit it. I’m a Machead. I love my iMac and my iPhone and my iPad. I find them reliable, beautiful and incredibly easy to use.

My obsession with things Mac led me to read the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson last week.  I had heard Jobs was a tough boss and had even remembered the story about him, in hospital, ripping off an oxygen mask because he didn’t like the design of it. (True.) But I had no idea how unhinged he was.

Jobs’ employees invented a term to describe their boss’s attitude. They called it a “reality distortion field,” a phrase that comes from Star Trek. Jobs regularly demanded the impossible in deadlines and design features and was so intractable that his staff usually figured out a way to meet his orders. Then he’d take credit for it.

Jobs had a binary view of the world and his employees. They and their ideas were either shit (his term) or genius. He screamed and yelled at them and cried. He lied. He almost certainly had narcissistic personality disorder and one or more eating disorders. His failure to deal with his cancer in a timely fashion (he knew about it for nine months before seeking medical treatment) likely led to his early demise.

Yet in addition to creating such utterly amazing products — the new iPad has already sold more than 3 million copies since it hit store shelves 12 days ago — he also launched a fantastically successful company. Apple shares are now worth more than $600.

Furthermore, he was no figurehead CEO. Instead, he drove his engineers and designers to make things simpler and easier to use. He was obsessed with not just the technology but also, all aspects of design, from colour, to weight, to font, to appearance. The computer on which I am writing this column was made to look like a sunflower, with an arching base supporting the “flower-head” of a screen.

His astonishing accomplishments have led me to wonder, briefly, whether you need to be a jerk in order to succeed. But while I can understand how “reality distortion” might be useful — unpleasant but useful — in product design, when it comes to writing, I think it’s just destructive.

Writers, especially beginning ones, need encouragement and support, not lashes with a whip, even if only a metaphorical one. In fact, I believe the whip we all received in school  (AKA: the red pencil or the threat of bad grades) was enough to make most of us hesitant and fearful of our ability to write. We’re convinced we’re no good at it and, eventually, we become no good.

When I was a Girl Guide, learning to build a fire in the wet and cold of the British Columbia coast, I remember one of our leaders telling us we needed to worship our fires. She used the verb deliberately, to illustrate the care and attention the fires needed.

When I coach writers, I shun the Steve Jobs yell-at-them-til-they-do-it-better philosophy and opt instead for the feed-them-plenty-of-dry-kindling approach.

I don’t tell you what I want; I find out what you want and then help you figure out how to achieve it.

I focus on what you do well, and teach you how to do more of that.

I identify your weak links and suggest ways to make them stronger.

My coaching is a gentle, compassionate, humane process and if you’d like to take part in it, I have spaces opening in my calendar soon. Have a look to see if it might suit you.

No reality distortion, I promise.