Steve Jobs And The Indeterminacy Of Success

Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography is a tremendous narrative but doesn’t offer a ton in the way of efforts at analysis. This is probably for the best, since it lets the rest of us talk about it at great length. But to me, one of the most astounding things about Jobs’ life is something Isaacson barely mentions — he made most of his money making animated feature films.

If you’d heard about two different people, one of them a rich guy who investment a few million dollars in Pixar in the mid-to-late ’80s and handled the big picture dealmaking with Disney without playing a substantial role in the company’s movies and the other Steve Jobs who brought us the Apple II, the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, you’d think it was ridiculous that the Pixar angel investor made more money than the genius consumer electronics designer. This would probably count as an example of how weird it is that the economy seems to do more to reward people who just shuffle money around than people who invent and create stuff. The fact that they’re actually the same guy makes the life story more interesting, but doesn’t actually change the main point. Inventing successful products is lucrative. Spearheading a successful corporate turnaround is lucrative. But in strict financial terms, it really doesn’t compare to well-timed investment decisions. And yet we all know that the ratio of skill-to-luck involved in industrial design is much higher than in investment timing.