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Reading the Steve Jobs Biography with the Wolvog (Part One)

I was not planning to read the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson at all.  I mean, yes, perhaps, at some way distant future date if it became available on Overdrive, but certainly not now in the middle of all the hoopla about the book.

The twins and I were early to meet Josh for tapas so we ducked into the library to see if they had the soundtrack to Evita (all part of their much dreaded musical theater education — dreaded both by them as well as Josh, especially when I pop Chess into the CD player).  And there, positioned right by the door, staring at us as we entered from a display case was Steve Jobs’s piercing stare.

The Wolvog immediately let out a breath and quietly said, “Steeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeve.”

Which sort of decided it then and there.

We are reading it together, by which I mean that I am reading it after he goes to bed at night and then telling him stories in the morning.  Relaying Jobs’s stench from his lack of bathing coupled with his fruitarian diet, and stories about the Woz (which often strike me as a better personality match for my son; they both have the same sweet temperament, wondrous view of the world, and a fondness for dogs), and all the kismet moments that shaped the computer industry.  Discussion about adoption plays heavily in the first 100 pages of the book due to both his own adoption as well as the daughter he had with Chrisann Brennan.

I thought I would place my thoughts here.  The Wolvog and I are reading it together, but if you want to hear the story, you can figuratively read it with me too.


As we walked around the library holding the copy of the biography, people kept saying to us, “you are so lucky!  That just got put out ten minutes ago.”  It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.  The librarian finally finished logging the new book into their system, she set it on the shelf, and I walked in at that moment.

I’ve never really had people comment on the luck of our library borrowing choices, but as I carried that book, I felt like I had a spotlight shining on me.  It actually made me feel fairly uncomfortable; maybe not the first time someone said it, but certainly by the third time.

So it was interesting that one of the first ideas covered in the book is the idea of being special.  The concept of specialness, and do people enjoy feeling as if they’re set apart; even when the apartness comes from something such as intelligence or luck.

While other people in the book hypothesized about how Steve Jobs’s birth and adoption shaped his personality, Steve Jobs himself dismissed their theories.  And frankly, I’m going to go with Steve Jobs — the adoptee — on this one and believe him (I know other people are second-guessing him, which seems sort of strange for one person to say that they understand more about the other person’s life than the person who lived it).  He didn’t feel the adoption itself shaped him at all, but rather being told by his parents that he was special, that he was chosen, that he was waited for and loved beyond belief — that is what he felt played a bigger role in how he saw his place in the world.

In the book, Isaacson writes,

Jobs dismissed this.  “There’s some notion that because I was abandoned, I worked very hard so I could do well and make my parents wish they had me back, or some such nonsense, but that’s ridiculous,” he insisted.  “Knowing I was adopted may have made me feel more independent, but I have never felt abandoned.  I’ve always felt special.  My parents made me feel special” (page 5).

The book continues to talk for many many many more pages about how that concept of believing he was special affected how he interacted with others, how he believed in himself, and how he convinced others that the impossible was possible.

At the same time, I have read on plenty of donor-conceived and adoptee blogs (and I’m sure, in the future, IVF-conceived childrens’ blogs) that being told you are special can be damaging.  That it can make a person feel apart, and not in the good way that Jobs describes where he feels more loved, more cherished than other children.  Apartness can sometimes simply feel alienating.

I can sense from the twins that uniqueness has both a push-me-pull-you effect: they love being twins and different from all the singletons, but they don’t like being different from all the singletons.  They like to hear stories about their preterm birth and the NICU days, but they don’t want their friends to know about it or see pictures of them from that time period.  They don’t really know yet that children are conceived in other ways than in a fertility clinic (oh, this is the fantastic side effect of having non-sexually conceived children.  You can tell them how they were made without ever having to mention sex), but they have been told countless times how much they were wanted, how hard we wished for them, how long we waited for them, and how much they are loved.  There has not been a day of their life that has passed without the two of us uttering the words, “I love you” to them.  We tell them they are brilliant and funny — we tell them that they are great writers and artists and computer programmers.

Because all those things are true, and I don’t think there are real benefits from withholding effusiveness.  Which is not to say that there can’t be damage from that effusiveness, but I don’t think the opposite is true — I don’t think there are actual benefits from not complimenting your child.

Which is along way of asking how does one know which way it will go?  For Steve Jobs, he says that hearing all his life that he was special and wanted and chosen gave him the confidence to plow ahead, charting his own course rather than taking the familiar road of a standard engineering path.  I might not have my iPad if Clara and Paul Jobs hadn’t conveyed that idea to their son.  And at the same time, for so many children, they have the opposite reaction.  They talk about the burden of specialness.  The apartness that comes from feeling the weight of their parent’s love, especially when they were brought into a family after a long wait or in a unique manner.

And without knowing how it will go, how do we know how loudly to turn on the message?  Do we whisper it?  Say it in a normal tone of voice?  Scream it like Clara and Paul Jobs?  Not say it at all?  How do we know when we also hear that volume counts — that the amount we say things can shift a life in one direction or another?


1 Lacie { 11.14.11 at 11:36 am }

I loved this post. It is so absolutely perfect for my life’s journey right now. I don’t really know if there is a right way to relay the message of how special a child is. I know that it is wrong to not to acknowledge it. I plan on saying it loud and often. I plan on singing songs and telling stories of how special from day one, as often as the words will come. I will let him take the lead and hopefully I will know when and if he is feeling singled out. I can clearly remember my dad telling me when I was in middle school that I was the prettiest girl in the world when clearly I was chubby with pimples and had hair that turned brittle and orange from too much Sun-in. He told me all of the time. I can remember one time when my mom said it. I always felt like he loved me more. As an adult, I know this isn’t true. But it shaped how I thought about how my parents felt about me. You can’t tell a kid that the are too loved, too beautiful or too special.

2 Tigger { 11.14.11 at 12:22 pm }

I think…base it on the child’s reaction. Try it how you feel it might go, and then watch to see what will happen. Ask them how they feel, once they are old enough to tell you. I…didn’t realize until I left home just how sheltered I had been, or that I was the center of my parents’ world. I wish they hadn’t sheltered me so much, because hitting the real world at full sheltered speed ended up with a lot of shattering and re-building. I didn’t KNOW that drugs, alcohol abuse, violence, people of color other than white or Mexican, LGBT existed outside of movies or “big cities” like LA/NY/SF. I moved from a town of 600 people to a city of 15K, and a year and a half later to a city of 100K. It was eye-opening, to say the least, and I had a lot of learning to do. I hope that growing up in this city will teach my son tolerance and acceptance, and while I will shelter him a bit, I hope that I am not as sheltering as my own parents.

3 Tiara { 11.14.11 at 12:26 pm }

Very thought provoking post…I am determined to make my daughter feel normal in her uniqueness & also have her feel special in who she is not how she came to be…it’s a fine line.

4 Pam { 11.14.11 at 1:24 pm }

Great post. Now I want to read the book. I found the snippets of his speeches that were played on the radio after his death interesting, especially the story about when he was being put up for adoption. I guess this will be DHs gift this Christmas. Oh, and how can Josh not like Chess? The kids I can understand. I loved the music in that show. And having just seen the production that was brought to Toronto from the UK, I loved it! It so…80’s! Fantastic!

5 KH99 { 11.14.11 at 2:09 pm }

Your post is perfectly timed. Yesterday I was playing with Daniel outside, and picked him up and swung him around and he just grinned. Spontaneously, I told him, “You are such a gift.” And he is. After all we went through to have him, how can I not make sure he knows how special he is?

At the same time, he’s a normal 2-year-old and I need to rein in some of that “specialness.” A friend forwarded me a recent post from NYT’s Motherlode blog on how to praise children so that they don’t grow up feeling entitled and, well, special. Instead of saying, “You’re so smart!” you say, “I can tell you worked really hard at that.” I’m not sure how I feel about that. Are comments like that really the reason a child grows up feeling entitled? If Jobs’ parents had said, “you are a hard worker, Steve” or some comment that downplayed how very much wanted he was, would we have the wonderful devices we have?

6 Heather { 11.14.11 at 2:30 pm }

my hubby ordered the book and it has just arrived 🙂 at some point I will read it!

7 sunflowerchilde (Stacey) { 11.14.11 at 3:06 pm }

I don’t think any of this has much to do with being told how special, etc., you are, but rather how your parents behave. My mother CONSTANTLY told me how special, smart, beautiful, etc., I was, and I believe it made me pretty self-conscious, but the real problem, in my opinion, was that she focused her entire life on her three children. She had no hobbies, no job, nothing besides us. It was suffocating. And it meant that we constantly had to watch what we said and did so we wouldn’t hurt her feelings. She micromanaged, controlled, and manipulated (and still does to this day) because we were her little mini-me’s, and she ruled our lives with guilt, despite how much she constantly told us she loved us.

Also, HOW you tell someone something matters, too. My mother was always saying “I love you so much, I would die if anything happened to you”. She didn’t want us to travel or do anything remotely dangerous for fear she would lose us, which really stunted our growth. Safety was more important than independence. She told us horrible stories of kids getting molested, kidnapped, just to scare us from ever talking to strangers.

I don’t mean to ramble, but my point is that I believe the underlying intention and the way in which a person is made to feel special and/or loved affects the person more than the fact that they are told these things.

8 {sue} { 11.14.11 at 5:16 pm }

Excellent food for thought. One of my kids survived something we were told she wouldn’t. And while I think about that every single day, I also appreciate now what a miracle any healthy child is. But I feel like I struggle to communicate that to my kids equally. That one child works much harder to accomplish every little thing and has to deal with much more than the others do. I try to celebrate every little victory for each kid, but to me, it seems like it comes out unequally. I worry every day that I’m not doing a good enough job making each of them feel that specialness.

9 a { 11.14.11 at 8:28 pm }

I told my daughter that she was perfect the other day, and we had to have a long discussion of what that meant. She’s an interesting character, and I tell her that too. But she’s also stubborn and she completely refuses to listen at any time. She hears about that too. I guess the method around here is love + honesty + encouragement + reality. I’m not sure how it will work out, but my girl has a lot of confidence right now (until she doesn’t, but that’s momentary usually)

10 Lori Lavender Luz { 11.14.11 at 11:47 pm }

Thank you for this. I, too, have wondered about the special vs different, especially as it pertains to an adopted person. I didn’t realize that Jobs had addressed this in his biography.

Regarding your questions, I think this is where you tune in to your child with your heart, even as you research your child’s situation with your head.

Wow. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Time for me to review my approach with each of my children, which has been more on the not-special side.

11 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 11.15.11 at 1:04 am }

I was raised to believe that I was the most special person in the world — but not to let on. “You’re smarter than every kid in your class, but act like the other kids are smart too so that you don’t hurt their feelings.” “Nobody is has as many talents as you do.” When I got to college and was considering a math major and talking to upperclass female majors, I’d never before heard the idea (which most of them had grown up fighting) that girls weren’t as good at math, or at anything else, because the message I’d always gotten is that I was awesome at everything (even when I wasn’t).

Knowing now that IF played a role with my parents, it’s hard to know how much of the specialness came from being wanted extra, how much was being their daughter, and how much was actually about me.

DH received very different messages from his parents but ended up with the same core belief: “I’m smarter than everyone else, but I just don’t tell them that.”

We both really value acting humble, but we also believe in acknowledging a person’s true gifts. We were saying yesterday how truly special both of our children are — not just because we love our children, and certainly not just because they’re twins, and not because they’re unusually adorable, but because they each really, truly are remarkable and amazing in all sorts of ways. And I suppose that holding that belief is the first step in raising happy children, because many parents don’t actually feel like their child is the most amazing person in the world, and certainly many children don’t get treated like they are amazing.

It’s a bit like Harry Potter. “You’re magical, but don’t act like it among the Muggles.” Our basic message seems like it will be: You’re a superstar, but try to blend in. Along with these lessons in feigned humility combined with self-esteem boosting will come lessons on acceptance and tolerance, and on valuing traits like kindness over physical appearance, talents, intelligence, etc. That you become more special when you make others feel special.

12 PaleMother { 11.15.11 at 11:07 am }

I haven’t had a chance to read the other comments yet (I love reading other people’s answers to these things). But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this … as I try to figure out how to parent my children differently … dare I say, “better”? … than I was parented.

I am an only child, born after 8 years of marriage, in a generation when it was uncommon for people to only have one child, let alone later in marriage or life. My parents (particularly my mother) never planned to have just one. I was certainly loved, but it was always (and still is at times) a double-edged sword because the love (never a bad thing in itself) was entwined with something that was not love. It was a two-steps up, one-step back kind of thing. Not the worst situation, but not ideal either.

I think the difference between a “good” messages and “bad” messages in parenting (or any other relationship, for that matter) is not the volume or the frequency so much, but whether it ~empowers~ the person you say it to or whether it cripples them.

Just as the words, “Come here” can be either a welcoming invitation or a threatening one, depending on the tone and the intention, “I love you; you are special” can have subtexts that have nothing to do with what is good for the object of affection and longing.

Are you telling a child they are special because you ~believe~ in them and you want to empower them and set them free to have a great start in life? Or are they “special” because they fill a void ~in you~ and they serve your purposes/needs?

I think as long as parents understand the concept in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, the You Are Special message can never be too loud or too much:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

My personal experience is that good intentions in parenting are not enough. It’s how ~self-aware~ the parents are that makes the real diff in the quality of the messages a child receives. If the parents themselves are not empowered and grounded, they may love a child with all their hearts and appear to do all the right things for their family … but it will be very hard for them to produce kids that believe in themselves the way Steve Jobs was able to believe in the wilderness that he would not fail.

13 Kathy { 11.15.11 at 1:28 pm }

Interesting and thought provoking post. Thank you. I love that you are reading this book together or at least that you are reading it and sharing the highlights with your son. I don’t know if you believe in “signs” at all, but how ironic that it was available at the moment you guys entered the library and that I sent you that email yesterday (about Steve Jobs) and that you received it while at the Apple store. Hmm…

I do wonder and worry at times about how to help my children build their self worth and confidence. I want them to know they are special, but also want them not feel like they are better than others. This is especially tricky at times having a child who tested into (and attends) an elementary school with a gifted education curriculum. This is something I don’t talk about much on my blog now, but my delve into in the future, as being “gifted” is also considered a special need and makes our parenting experience unique and challenging (and extremely rewarding) in its own way.

Looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts on Steve’s biography. Thanks for sharing!

14 Deathstar { 11.17.11 at 11:58 am }

Can I cross link with this post? I’d like to use the quote from the book that you did. I’m writing a post about adoption guilt.

15 smiling scar { 12.11.11 at 3:30 am }

For me.. I think it is the difference between making a kid feel special and hinting that they are somehow better than other or need to live up to some sort of “betterness” or ‘greatness’.

special IS different.. but not necessarily better. Each person has talents and weaknesses and the magic is when people can see that in each other and match up so my weaknesses are helped by your talents and the reverse.

There is nothing better than a well said compliment noting a truly special thing because it communicates that you are known, and valued. Someone has loved you enough to really see you. And that, I think, is what makes it count. If kids learn from their parents, then perhaps a nice added benefit is they can start doing this for other people too.. not seeing just themselves as so special, but just seeing everyone around them that way too in a way that doesn’t undermine their own worth.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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