Does a genius get a pass on being a jerk?

“Don’t be afraid; you can do it.”

That was what Steve Jobs would say, as he unleashed his unnerving stare, to Apple staffers whom he’d just asked to do the impossible.

So reported Walter Isaacson, Jobs’ biographer, in a speech last week at a Leadership Philadelphia event. Jobs could get people to do more than they thought they could, better than they thought they could, in less time than they thought possible. That was a key to his world-bending successes.

So was Jobs’ ability to link business pragmatism with an empowering passion for beauty. This linkage enabled Jobs to, in his own words, “make a dent in the universe.”

He was a genius. He was also, as Isaacson’s book vividly shows, a pretty lousy human being.

He was a bully, a raging egotist. He exalted rudeness and poor personal hygiene into life principles. He treated abysmally so many of the people who helped him succeed: family members, partners, staffers.

His life story raises two questions that haunt me:

Is there some intimate, even necessary, connection between making a real dent in the universe and being selfish and arrogant?

And, if so, does it matter? Does watershed achievement flat-out excuse rotten personal behavior?

This question also came up not long ago around the film The Social Network, which depicts Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a deceitful, disloyal little jerk.

Older people tended to react as I did, that the Zuckerberg of the film was an inexcusable creature. Young people I talked would respond: Who cares? He invented Facebook!

I know many of my own heroes of creativity seriously lacked moral fiber. My favorite painter, Caravaggio, killed a man. My favorite poet, T.S. Eliot, was an appalling anti-Semite.

Long ago, in college, I was trained in the school of literary criticism that insists the work speaks for itself; the writer’s biography is irrelevant.

And yet, and yet – I don’t agree. Arrogance may often accompany achievement, but they are not inevitable co-travelers. One can be great and good, or at least struggling to be good. Another of Isaacson’s book subjects, our own Ben Franklin, put a huge dent in the universe while being mostly genial and kind. Wily and promiscuous, true, but kind more often than not.

I’ll take a Ben Franklin over Steve Jobs any day.

What about you?

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