Steve Jobs and the Impossibility of Parents

Steve Jobs felt abandoned by his parents - but which ones?

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs repeatedly brings up Jobs’s sense that his birth parents abandoned him by putting him up for adoption, as an explanation for his bad behavior towards others: setting people up to believe they’re close friends or even revered mentors and father figures to him, only to suddenly and coldly abandon them when their usefulness to him has ended.

This explanation - that the central trauma of Jobs’s life was a sense of abandonment by his birth parents - doesn’t quite fit. Other of Job’s famously bad behaviors are is not explained by this: the quickness with which he would categorize people into “geniuses” and “bozos,” or their accomplishments into “amazing” or “shit,” and the fury with which he would berate those in the second half of the division. In addition, Jobs was adamant that his adoptive parents always made him feel special, making a point to tell him that they had picked him out, chosen him.

One passage from early in the book stuck out to me, and I think it helps resolve this puzzle. Jobs told Isaacson a story about how, when he was a kid and becoming interested in technology, a friend showed him something his father - who had been teaching him how to make things, about electronics, etc. - wasn’t able to account for. A big part of Jobs’s relationship with his father had been his father teaching him how to make things, and how things worked. In that moment, Jobs says, he began to realize that he was smarter than his parents, and as soon as he noticed this thought, felt a deep sense of shame. Anyone who knows anything about the character of Steve Jobs will be unsurprised to find out that shame was an emotion he rarely experienced. I don’t have a copy of the book handy, but would be unsurprised if this is the only time the word shame is used to describe Jobs’s state.

The central trauma of Steve Jobs’s life was that he felt abandoned by his adoptive parents, when he realized that they were not as smart as him. His father couldn’t be his mentor anymore. No one was above him.

This explains why Jobs would not just yell but cry when he felt that the people working for him hadn’t been thinking at an adequate level. This explains why, despite Jobs’s famous leaps to extreme judgment, the moment someone treated him like a peer, asserted their own expertise confidently with a reasoned argument, he’d calm down, shut up, and listen. One Apple employee told a story of having Jobs look at his work and angrily declare “this is shit” - but the employee responded saying, “actually, it’s the best way,” and explained the tradeoffs he’d made and why. Jobs said “OK, that makes sense” and moved on. That Apple employee had demonstrated that in the way that mattered, he wasn’t going to abandon Jobs: he’d think about his work instead of abdicating responsibility and deferring to Jobs’s intellect.

Love in a world with no people

Attachment theory, or a simplified version of it, has become popular among my friends as a way to explain the flaws in people’s relationships. The short version is that people are able to trust others to care about them, only to the extent to which they were able as infants to trust their parents to provide unconditional care. If they perceived this care as contingent or unreliable, they either become clingy and dependent and constantly seek more signs of affection, or avoidant either because they’re afraid of getting hurt or have convinced themselves that they can’t afford to need others.

When I see attempts to assign me an attachment style, either via internet quizzes or other people psychologizing me directly, there’s an additional assumption made: that if I don’t believe I can trust or rely on others, it’s either because I think that I’m unworthy or because I think that they’re unwilling or malicious. I think the Steve Jobs story demonstrates an important gap in this interpretation: you can genuinely believe at a deep level that the people you might rely on are well-intentioned towards you, but inadequate to care for you in the way you need.

In Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Harry proposes a similar identification of the central trauma of his life, the reason he is always on guard against potential threats and does not trust adults:

"And how do you explain your observations, Professor McGonagall?"

"I don't know," she said. "But it's possible that something could have happened to you that you don't remember."

Fury rose up again in Harry. That sounded all too much like what he'd read in the newspaper stories of shattered families. "Suppressed memory is a load of pseudoscience! People do not repress traumatic memories, they remember them all too well for the rest of their lives!"

"No, Mr. Potter. There is a Charm called Obliviation."

Harry froze in place. "A spell that erases memories?"

The older witch nodded. "But not all the effects of the experience, if you see what I'm saying, Mr. Potter."

A chill went down Harry's spine. That hypothesis... could not be easily refuted. "But my parents couldn't do that!"

"Indeed not," said Professor McGonagall. "It would have taken someone from the wizarding world. There's... no way to be certain, I'm afraid."

Harry's rationalist skills began to boot up again. "[W]ould you mind if I offered an alternative explanation?"

"Please do."

"Children aren't meant to be too much smarter than their parents," Harry said. "Or too much saner, maybe - my father could probably outsmart me if he was, you know, actually trying, instead of using his adult intelligence mainly to come up with new reasons not to change his mind -" Harry stopped. "I'm too smart, Professor. I've got nothing to say to normal children. Adults don't respect me enough to really talk to me. And frankly, even if they did, they wouldn't sound as smart as Richard Feynman, so I might as well read something Richard Feynman wrote instead. I'm isolated, Professor McGonagall. I've been isolated my whole life. Maybe that has some of the same effects as being locked in a cellar. And I'm too intelligent to look up to my parents the way that children are designed to do. My parents love me, but they don't feel obliged to respond to reason, and sometimes I feel like they're the children - children who won't listen and have absolute authority over my whole existence. I try not to be too bitter about it, but I also try to be honest with myself, so, yes, I'm bitter. And I also have an anger management problem, but I'm working on it. That's all."

"That's all?"

Harry nodded firmly. "That's all. Surely, Professor McGonagall, even in magical Britain, the normal explanation is always worth considering?"

Jobs was not Obliviated as far as I know, but he was unwilling to perceive the source of his sense of abandonment, because it would have felt disloyal. Because he was ashamed of the feeling. So he pretended to himself and others that he felt abandoned by his birth parents instead; it was permissible to do this because he did not feel he owed loyalty to them.

Love based on recognition

I don’t know exactly what my infancy was like, but for a long time I have felt as though love doesn’t really make me feel like I can rely on someone unless they could pick my soul out of a lineup, unless it’s love on account of understanding who I am and loving that. The only kind of personal love that registers as unconditional love of me is love that’s conditional on the object of the love being me. I don’t have the subjective experience of feeling loved unless I feel like, if my external identity were erased but my soul were intact, or they developed amnesia about me, I’d be confident they’d still recognize me as someone to love. I think this is because love that’s not conditional on that feels like it’s not really directed at me in the important sense. It feels tenuous in a kind of bizarre counterfactual sense: in the alternative possible worlds where I don’t have this particular history with these particular people, their love for me doesn’t persist.

The obvious problem with this is that it’s not really a possible kind of love for parents to feel towards their infants. It’s not the kind of love someone can receive unconditionally from birth. It’s the kind of love that can only unfold over time as first one becomes a person, and then one becomes known by others.

Connection without guarantees

A few months ago, I realized that my binary view of these things was inadequate and leading me to make inappropriately strong judgments. But as long as I didn’t have a more nuanced model to replace it, my emotional patterns were going to stay the same - I was going to be looking for the evidence that would let me decide whether I was talking to a full person or a human chatbot, whether someone comprehended my soul fully or couldn’t see me at all, whether someone cared about me agentically, with a sense of object permanence, even over gaps in time and space, or was just trying to execute social scripts or express their feelings in the moment.

I didn’t see how to fix this directly, but I may have found an indirect solution: I took the pressure off by taking responsibility for myself. Once, after a particularly difficult hour doing exposure therapy to overcome my vasovagal response, I lay down on my bed, exhausted, and felt discouraged. I wished there were someone around whose judgment I trusted, who knew me well, who could tell me that I was being brave, that I was doing the right thing, that it was hard now but it would be worth it. A few weeks later, I thought to ask - why can’t I just tell myself those things? I posed the question to myself and did belief reporting on it.

Because I don’t trust my own judgment.

Why not?

Because I don’t have rational beliefs about the world.

What would I have to change in order to reliably make good use of the evidence?

I’d have to accept the possibility that my highest goals for friendship may never be achieved.

And if I accept this, I’ll be able to accept my own validation about things?


I was surprised by this response, but I decided to make a firm resolution to accept this fact about the world, and see what happened. Afterwards, I haven’t had any similar episodes where I felt like I needed someone else to validate me for doing the right thing.

I’ve also been able to evaluate other people in a more nuanced way. I can see that some of my friends appear able to perceive important parts of my soul, even if they can’t see the whole thing. Some people wish me well strongly enough to take initiative on my behalf under some circumstances, beyond where their social scripts would lead them, even if they don’t reliably do this in all the domains I wish they did.

This feels lonelier in some way, but I think that’s mostly giving up on the anticipation of an impossible - or at least, impossible for now - sort of closeness. In practice I think it’s actually let me connect with people with more understanding, and more often and more deeply than before.

8 thoughts on “Steve Jobs and the Impossibility of Parents

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