Steve Jobs biographer, Walter Isaacson delivered a lecture at the Royal Institution in London on Wednesday evening. He spoke about his reasons for agreeing to write the biography, his feelings about Jobs and Jobs personalty traits, as well as his thoughts about the new management at Apple, and Jobs anger at Google.
The venue was pertinent. The lecture theatre had once been the dissecting theatre of the Royal Institution, so symbolic because Isaacson was there to “dissect a life” but also because so many of the characters Isaacson had written about had passed through the very room. Having written biographies of both Franklin and Einstein, the significance of the room did not escape Isaacson's notice. (Continues below...)
The room was full of people who wanted to hear about Isaacson's time with Apple's late-CEO Steve Jobs, and even in relation to Jobs the room was significant, with Jobs having spoken often about being at the intersection of science and the liberal arts. As Isaacson put it: “The history of the creativity and beauty of science comes from Joseph Banks, Joseph Priestly and everyone else who stood here in this room.”
Isaacson began his lecture talking about how Jobs first approached him about writing the biography. There were a number of reasons why he didn't initially jump at the chance to write it, as anyone who has read the book will know. First, the reaction of Henry Kissinger to his biography had “such an unnerving effect on me that I decided I was going to do historical people”, explained Isaacson. The other reason, which drew laughter from the audience, was: “Ok Steve. Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein...” As he outlines in the book, and as he described on stage, he was surprised that Jobs felt he should sit alongside these characters, and he also thought perhaps in thirty years time it might be more appropriate. But what he later learned was that Jobs called him the day after he had been diagnosed with cancer. “Then I realised, here was a guy, this is a person of the great innovation story writ large. The person who starts a company in his parents garage and turns it into the most valuable company on Earth.
“Secondly, he is somebody who is a great restoration tale writ large. Kicked out of his own company in 1985, and yet 12 years later they have to call him back because the company is near bankruptcy, and he rescues the company and makes it into the most valuable company on Earth,” Isaacson said.
Isaacson went on to explain that he wanted to do what biographers always try to do: “Show how the personality is connected to what the person does, to the product, to the business, to the science. Whether it's Einstein's rebellious, questioning everything, personality... So this notion of 'thinking differently' impressed me about Steve Jobs. His petulant personality. You read the first half of my book and you think, 'Wow! He's kind of a jerk”, and then you realise by the end the book that it's connected to something larger. To a genius. To a passion, not just to drive people crazy, but a passion for perfection and a passion for product.”
“That to me was one of the first lessons of Steve Jobs. Which is in this day and age, when everyone has a passion for making profits, this person had a passion for making the greatest product, and he said that the profits will follow. He said that at almost every company at a certain point the marketing people, the Steve Ballmer, are running the joint, and they put profits ahead of the product. He was always concerned about the perfection of a product, even the parts unseen. To him that was the mark of a true artist,” said Isaacson.
“The notion that the team at Apple were artists creating something is the key theme, in my mind, in Steve Jobs' life. But also into what we should do in the 21st century in the digital revolution which is simply connecting beauty to technology. Loving both art and engineering, the notion of the liberal arts and the humanities, and the sciences going hand in hand.” Isaacson went on to explain the relevance of Jobs interest in the intersection of the liberal arts and the sciences, based on a saying of Edwin Land the inventor of Polaroid. “In his first long conversation with me, Jobs said 'that was the theme of my life'. I think it turned out the be the valid thing in his life.”
The Reality Distortion Field
The other thing that came from Jobs' passion for product was what they sometimes refer to as his Reality Distortion Field. “Some people say 'that's just another way of saying he manipulated and lied to people'. But no, it's a way of saying that his passion could drive people not only crazy, not only drive them to distraction, but drive them to do things they thought were impossible.” Isaacson gave a number of examples of this: Getting Wozniak to design the Breakout game in four nights; getting Corning to deliver Gorilla Glass mere months before the iPhone launch. “He had a way of staring unblinking at people. He had perfected it. It was part of his reality distortion field.”