Did Steve Jobs have OCD?
"For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through." -- Steve Jobs, as quoted in the Economist.
Journalists routinely pepper their copy with everyday terms that sometime have deeper meaning in a medical setting. Today, I'd like to consider the term "obsessive," as it has been applied to Steve Jobs in articles about him since he died last week.
A search of the Nexis news database turned up the word "obsessive" in connection with a Steve Jobs-related article a total of 68 times in the past week.
Numerous news reports have noted Mr. Jobs' "obsessive" attention to detail and perfection in the products he brought to life. Indeed, when you get past the tribute articles and dig deeper into Mr. Jobs' past, you find stories of him being tyrannical and harsh as a leader, paying exacting attention to details that he undoubtedly paid other top executives to monitor. But the vision of Mr. Jobs that we seem to get is of someone who just can't help but be involved in every single minute step of the process of product development and marketing.
So, I ask: Did Steve Jobs have obsessive-compulsive disorder? A search via Google today didn't turn up much, except for an OCD blogger taking on the topic (sort-of). Type into Google News "Steve Jobs" and "obsessive" and you find articles where journalists and bloggers used the term to describe him, i.e. "obsessive visionary."
What is obsessive-compulsive disorder? Many people's frame of reference about OCD is really informed by compulsive behaviors. Checking the lights, checking the door locks, checking the stove knobs, walking on sidewalks a certain way -- the behaviors that an OCD sufferer HAS to do. If not, they risk overturning their entire daily routine.
But not many really consider the "O" in OCD -- the obsessive thinking, the repetitive thinking, the attention to detail. The inability to not think about something for long stretches of time -- even if you just don't want to think about it any longer.
Or, to note the phrase Mr. Jobs uses himself, the inability to sleep well at night when thinking about something to no end. There are many, many people in this world who sleep very well at night without obsessing about the supposedly minor details that Mr. Jobs apparently did. So why did he?
Here's the NIH's definition of OCD. Sufferers with severe OCD often have a real hard time functioning in daily life. But as with many types of medical diagnoses, there's often a spectrum of behavior and functionality.
Look -- I never met Steve Jobs and I'm not trying to commit an armchair diagnosis here. I don't have a medical degree. People keep referring to his "obsessive" behavior as a leader and innovator, and I think the question is worth pursuing. What makes "genius"? What are the qualities of a true innovator? Does obsessiveness play a role?
My hope is that the official biography of Steve Jobs, due out later this month, really gets to the heart of Mr. Jobs' psychological state. If not, author Walter Isaacson will have missed a huge opportunity to inform us about the inner workings of the inner mind of Steve Jobs.
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