Steve Jobs, who shaped the way we consume entertainment, communicate with one another, read, and organize our schedules, could be considered a perfectionist. His biographer, Walter Isaacson, states that his “passion for perfection and ferocious drive revolutionized six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing” (Isaacson, 2011, p. xx–xxi). Without Job’s perfectionist traits, would he have accomplished as much as he did and have been as successful?

Jobs had intense strivings and did not settle for anything less than the ideals he had envisioned. For instance, Jobs forced the designers of the Mac operating system to redo the title bars at the top of the windows approximately 20 times until he was satisfied (Isaacson, 2011). His high ideals likely led to the sleek products to which our society has become extremely attached and covetous. Research indicates that there may be certain components of perfectionism that are adaptive (Stoeber & Otto, 2006). Perfectionist strivings are related to higher levels of conscientiousness, endurance, and active coping, which appear to be qualities Jobs possessed. With all of the positive achievements Jobs made ostensibly related to his perfectionism, were there negative ramifications?

Isaacson’s biography suggests that Jobs spent time attempting to search for inner peace. Daniel Kottke, an early Apple employee and Jobs’s friend, reported that Jobs “could not achieve inner calm” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 47). Perhaps Jobs experienced a lack of inner peace as a result of his perfectionist strivings. How did he respond when not meeting his goals? Did he feel distressed and unhappy? Jobs rarely discussed such personal responses, so we may never know the answers to these questions.

Although speculative, perfectionism may have led Jobs to make decisions that shortened his life. When diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he initially denied the recommended treatment and opted to postpone surgery, veering toward more holistic remedies (Isaacson, 2011). Nine months later he did decide to undergo surgery; however, by that time, his cancer had spread. He later regretted not obtaining the surgery. Did issues with control and overinvestment in his rigid ideals about what he could achieve on his own hamper his capacity to follow medical recommendations? Did an active coping style associated with positive strivings affect his capacity to take a more passive role letting medical doctors steer his treatment? The answers remain unclear.

Other negative ramifications from Jobs’s perfectionism appear to be in social realms. In addition to having extremely high ideals for himself and what he produced, he held others to exceptionally harsh standards as well. His eulogy given by his sister notes that he went through 67 nurses before he found 3 whom he liked (New York Times, 10/30/2011). He was extremely difficult to work with and devaluing toward others, referring to his former fellow employees at Atari as “dumb shits” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 42). Andy Hertzfield, a member of the team that developed the first Apple Macintosh computer, stated “the one question I’d truly love Steve to answer is, ‘Why are you sometimes so mean?’” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 564). At the same time, Jobs was respected, and many people were quite fond of him.

Overall, Jobs appeared to have elements of self- and other-oriented perfectionism. In some ways his perfectionism likely led to great innovations. His high perfectionist strivings and goals led him to refine his work until he achieved elegant products. However, his need for control and his active coping style in situations he couldn’t control, such as his medical issues, may have not been adaptive. In addition, his hostility associated with other-oriented perfectionism may have led to strained relationships. His lack of inner peace may have been associated with concerns over mistakes, which research illustrates is associated with negative aspects of perfectionism.

Excerpted from Dr. Brustein's book, Perfectionism: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals. For more from Dr. Brustein, check out his upcoming webinar: Therapy with Perfectionist People: When Being Good is not Enough.