Recent Read: “Searching for Steve Jobs: Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes, and the Dangers of the Origin Story”

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I just finished readingAlexander Mallery’s paper on “protective ignorance” in Stanford Intersect. It’s an interesting take on the Elizabeth Holmes/Steve Jobs connection and how it may have shielded her and her company from scrutiny. Some highlights:

 

Holmes, thus, did not just copy the Jobs story—she improved upon it. Jobs dropped out of Reed College (Isaacson, 2011). Holmes dropped out of Stanford. Jobs was quirky because he smoked weed. Holmes was quirky because she read Moby-Dick at age nine (Auletta, 2014). Jobs made better computers. Holmes wanted to save people’s lives. Holmes became, not just Jobs’ mimic, but his even greater successor.

Protective ignorance is an unconscious form of ignorance. No reporters actively chose to mislead the public to protect Holmes’ image. Indeed, once it became clear that Holmes was not, in fact, the next Steve Jobs, those who had praised her turned, almost in unison, to condemn her, Mallery, Searching for Steve Jobs Intersect, V 10 ol 10, No 3 (2017) as I have discussed earlier. Protective ignorance is instead subtler, stealthier, more inadvertent. It creeps in in Auletta’s hasty, unexpanded admissions of Theranos’ lack of data. It sidles into Parloff’s extraordinarily brief mention of Holmes’ unwillingness to publish. They both dismiss it as Jobsian secrecy, of course—but their choice to decline further investigation, however rational, still exhibits protective ignorance. It is a more palatable story—not just to the writers’ audiences—but also to the writers themselves, for the purpose of Holmes’ secrecy to be as pure as her motivations for starting her company.

I would thus recommend only a slight modification to the current approach to profiling and publicizing up-and-coming companies: that every discussion of their numerous merits mention at least one of their flaws. Such a mention would still allow rising entrepreneurs to leverage the power of the existing cultural capital but would break the perfection of the image. By reading about founders’ weaknesses, not just their brilliance, the public might come to see them not as mythical reincarnations of prior innovators, but as fellow humans.

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