A finicky Steve Jobs picked Walter Isaacson to write the authorized biography, setting him loose among his friends, lovers, rivals and enemies in Silicon Valley.
“Steve Jobs” is based on 40 interviews over two years with the Apple Inc. (AAPL) co-founder, plus 100 others who came into the orbit of the bratty visionary whose seductive products changed the way people experience technology.
After stints as Time magazine’s managing editor and Chairman and CEO of CNN, Isaacson now heads up the Aspen Institute. He’s also written biographies of Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger.
We spoke at Bloomberg world headquarters in New York.
Lundborg: When Steve asked you to write his bio, what was your first thought?
Isaacson: It was more casual -- he wove it into a conversation, saying “Maybe you’d like to do a biography of me.”
I said, “You’re young. In 20, 30 years when you retire, maybe so.” But it kept coming up over the next few years.
Lundborg: What finally made you get down to work?
Isaacson: It wasn’t until 2009 that his wife, who was very instrumental in putting this together, said, “If you’re going to do Steve, you really ought to do it now.”
That was right after he had the liver transplant and his health problems were public.
I didn’t realize when he first called me that he was sick, and she told me it was actually right before he’d had his first cancer surgery.
Lundborg: Why did he choose you?
Isaacson: I asked him that. He told me that as a journalist, I could get people to talk.
That seemed odd, because I was going to have to interview people he’d fired, people he was tough on, and he wasn’t going to like that.
Lundborg: So what happened when you got started?
Isaacson: Initially, it would filter back that he was not happy with some people I was interviewing, but after a while, he changed dramatically. He started encouraging even ex- girlfriends, ex-employees and rivals all to talk to me.
Lundborg: Did he read anything you wrote?
Isaacson: No. I kept asking him, and he said repeatedly, “I don’t want to read it before it comes out, because it will be like an in-house book.”
He said to me at our last meeting a few weeks before he died, “I won’t read it right now -- I’ll read it sometime in the next year.” And he had such a powerful, magical way of thinking, I was thrilled at the thought he was going to be alive in a year.
Lundborg: But he did judge the book by the cover and want to redo it?
Isaacson: He hated the design the publisher had done to put in the catalogue. He got pretty angry at me, and said he didn’t want to cooperate anymore because it really was ugly.
Lundborg: Jobs was famous for having a “reality distortion field,” plus he was known to lie from time to time. Did you ever get the sense he was spinning you?
Isaacson: He could bend reality in his own mind and other people’s. I don’t know that he ever intentionally lied.
Lundborg: What was the toughest part of writing the book?
Isaacson: How to navigate when four different people told me the same anecdote in four different versions and none would be intentionally lying.
Lundborg: You point out that he was not a great engineer and not a great manager, either, so what accounts for his success?
Isaacson: He was not a very good manager during the first term at Apple. When he came back, he was still rough, but he developed the most loyal team in Silicon Valley. He was so inspiring, he not only got the best team, but they stuck with him.
As for engineering, he knew enough to push engineers to go beyond what they thought was possible.
Lundborg: So, why was he so mean?
Isaacson: He wanted an atmosphere where he could be brutally honest with people and they could be brutally honest with him.
He said there’s probably a gentler way of doing it, but if you want the top players, that’s just the price of admission for being in the room.
Cried a Lot
Lundborg: I was surprised by the amount of weeping he did.
Isaacson: He was very sentimental, romantic, emotional, and that’s a key to who he was. It was that emotionalism connected to a passion for perfection that caused him to be so driven.
Lundborg: Will the company last?
Isaacson: Apple, not the iPad, not the Macintosh, is his most important creation.
He felt Apple would be part of the history of Silicon Valley a generation from now and would always have within its DNA the ability to connect creativity and technology.
Lundborg: When he came back to save Apple, he immediately identified the basic problem as the lack of sex in the products.
Isaacson: There was no sex, no romance, no emotion, and that was true of the computer industry.
Without Steve Jobs, you would have well-designed computers, probably open and not integrated, but they wouldn’t have sex appeal, they wouldn’t have romance.
They wouldn’t be this beautifully curated user experience akin to the Zen gardens he loved so much in Japan.
(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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