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Steve Jobs Biography Examines How Rule-Breaker Tied ‘Artistry to Engineering’

October 28, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Author Walter Isaacson tells the story of Apple's late co-founder in a new biography simply titled "Steve Jobs." Jeffrey Brown and Isaacson discuss Jobs' personality, legacy and how his love of the arts shaped his views on innovation.

JEFFREY BROWN: When Steve Jobs died earlier this month of pancreatic cancer, he was lionized as one of the era’s greatest innovators, a man of enormous influence who co-founded Apple in his 20s, and whose products and designs revolutionized personal computing, cell phones, the music business, film animation, tablet computing, digital publishing and more.

The story of the man himself is now told in a new biography titled simply “Steve Jobs.” Its author is Walter Isaacson, longtime journalist and author of previous biographies on Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, and joins me now.

Welcome to you.

WALTER ISAACSON, “Steve Jobs”: Good to be here again.

JEFFREY BROWN: You write at the end — I’m going to start at the end of the book, because it’s kind of interesting to go to what — the thing you say near the end.

WALTER ISAACSON: Most people never get there.


JEFFREY BROWN: You say: “Was he smart? No, not exceptionally. Instead, he was a genius.”

Now, what does that mean?

WALTER ISAACSON: That means that he could connect creativity to problems. He wasn’t just an analytic thinker.

He told me that when he came back from India, where he went as a dropout from college to seek enlightenment, he learned the power of intuition. And I think that genius comes not just from having great mental processing power. It comes from being able to, as Steve Jobs’ ad said, think different. And so that intuition, where you can make these creative, imaginative leaps. That was his particular strength, was tying that artistry to engineering.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you go back to the story to see where all this came from, he was adopted, right? And there’s — a number of people tell you about how that somehow shaped his character, the sense of abandonment. He, though, said to you — he insisted, no. He felt special.


Yes, he said his parents, the people that adopted him, his real parents, said, you were chosen, you were special. And he looked at himself that way. But he also looked upon his life as a journey and that journey was always to find himself, seek enlightenment, understand how he fit in.

And I think he felt he didn’t fit in, in the normal way because he was put in a place where he wasn’t born, and he felt, OK, I have to sort of be part of that journey. He always loved to use the maxim that Buddhist phrase of the journey is the reward.

And I think that notion of being a seeker, somebody who never felt totally fulfilled, but was always passionate about the search, that comes from the background, probably.

JEFFREY BROWN: But he studied Zen, but didn’t have a Zen calm, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: He sought, but he — and he had this feeling of being special, but it had a negative side, too. I don’t have to play by the rules. I can get around people. And he was mean to people.


Not playing by the rules, not seeing things conventionally, that’s the heart of who he is, and he does it in small ways of everyday rebellion just almost to assert who he is, like not putting a license plate on his car. But he also does it in other ways, which is to say, no, we’re going to do the impossible. And he makes people do that.

Yes, the arc of the narrative of the book is a guy who can be pretty rough and mean on people, but, by the end, by the end of his career, he has proven that they can do the impossible, and he has gathered probably the most loyal team of eight players of any business in America.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what explains that?

WALTER ISAACSON: Well, he was inspiring.

JEFFREY BROWN: He’s inspiring.


JEFFREY BROWN: And you describe a certain — there’s a charisma.

WALTER ISAACSON: Not only a charisma, but if you are tough on people and you say brutal honesty is the price of admission to this room, and then you push them through your magical thinking to do things they thought were impossible, that creates a team loyalty.

And I think if you just look at, oh, he used to occasionally snap at people, I — that — this is the narrative of the book.


We talk so much about the enormous success and impact. But maybe take us to a moment that — where that wasn’t apparent, right? There was failure, when he was pushed out of his own company and things didn’t look very good for him.

WALTER ISAACSON: That’s certainly part of the narrative, which is he creates an insanely great machine, as he calls it, the Macintosh.

It’s not — it doesn’t do all that well by 1985 in the marketplace. And his personality and that of the much smoother John Sculley, who is a very polite, gentle soul, clash, and in the end, he gets ousted from the company he creates. It’s almost like a Shakespearian drama.

But the real failure and success comes in the period people don’t know much about, when he’s running NeXT Computers, and he’s indulging all of his artistic instincts. He wants the angle to be exactly 90 degrees, even though it’s harder to mold a machine like that. He wants it to be a perfect cube. He wants it to have the greatest logo. So he indulges every artistic instinct, and he hasn’t yet learned, how do you tie art to sort of engineering and common sense so that he can make a product that can work in the marketplace?

So it’s kind of a glorious market failure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, use — that word failure, was there a moment where he sensed he might fail, where he feared failure?

WALTER ISAACSON: I think that he was upset because he was running Pixar and NeXT, and both were hemorrhaging money.

Now, what he ends up doing is creating a great operating system at NeXT that Apple then has to buy, because once he has left Apple, the people running the firm after a while can’t even create a new operating system. So they end up having to buy NeXT for the UNIX-based kernel of the operating system, and they get Steve back.

Likewise, Pixar, it’s computers were a little bit overdeveloped, the rendering computers that make 3-D graphics, but there was a guy there who was making beautiful animated shorts to show how the machines worked. Steve loved that artistry, and eventually Pixar becomes an animated digital movie company.

JEFFREY BROWN: Famous for this sense, the commitment, a maniacal sense of design, right?

WALTER ISAACSON: Oh, absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet what you describe here — and it’s even — you sort of see it on the cover here — this sense of almost designing himself, I mean, studying his own stare, for example.

Did you come to think of him that way?

WALTER ISAACSON: Yes. He loved to be the maestro at product presentations. He invented many, many things, but one of the things he invented was this amazing unveiling of products, where the heavens part and the lights shine down and the choir sings hallelujah, and suddenly there’s an iPod in his pocket or a Macintosh speaking on stage.

And that was part of his showmanship. But the showmanship was able to connect products to us emotionally, just as the design of the product was. So I think it was all part and parcel of his success.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think there is a sense — I mean, after all, we’re talking about products, right? Is there a sense of — a danger, in a sense, of over glorifying the man? I mean, I was thinking, you wrote a biography of Einstein.


JEFFREY BROWN: Theory of relativity.


JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the iPod is not the theory of relativity.


And Steve is a genius, but not in the same quantum orbit as Einstein.


WALTER ISAACSON: And, yes, if we’re so much making fetishes of our little iPods and iPhones, it’s probably not the best thing.

But it’s a lot better than making heroes out of people creating complex financial instruments that are causing the housing market to collapse or Greece to default. At least he’s creating products that combined art and technology to make something that we really want and are useful. And having 1,000 songs in your pocket, that’s not the worst thing in the world, you know? It’s kind of nice.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about your — I want to ask you about your experiences as a biographer in this case that we mentioned in Einstein.

You have written books about people — well, several of them, at least, were long dead. Here, you were working with a man who was in the process of dying before your eyes. Did that change how you worked, what you wrote?

WALTER ISAACSON: Yes. Well, yes.

I actually — because I was caught up in his magical thinking and his optimism, I thought he was going to stay a step ahead of the cancer. I mean, he always had new drugs. Every time the cancer sort of mutated around a particular drug he was using, they would find a new targeted therapy.

And so, in our last long meeting together, he said: “I won’t read the book right away because I know there will be parts I won’t like, and I don’t want to get mad at you, but I will read it in a year.”

So, I was actually writing a book not only of somebody who was wrestling with possible death, but also somebody I thought might be reading the book a year from now. So it was emotionally draining, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, the intersection of the humanities and the sciences, you mentioned that earlier, but that’s one that grabbed me.

WALTER ISAACSON: Edwin Land, when he was starting out, the guy who started Polaroid, said the place to stand is the intersection of the humanities and technology.

JEFFREY BROWN: We tend to have a binary…

WALTER ISAACSON: And we do in this day and age, which is why I like writing about Ben Franklin and Einstein, because these are people who combined a love of science and a love of the humanities. This is what you get in Steve Jobs as well.

And that sort of explains to me a whole lot of it, that part of his mind that was artistic and poetic and that part of his mind that was a businessman and an engineer. In many people, that doesn’t come together, especially in a lot of great technologists. They don’t have the feel for art, but Steve did.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Walter Isaacson’s new book is called “Steve Jobs.”

Thanks so much.

WALTER ISAACSON: Thanks. Thanks for having me.