Walter Isaacson on Steve Jobs’s Reality Distortion Field

The author of the just-published Steve Jobs biography recalls the challenges of breaking through Jobs’s reality distortion field to get at the truth

Very often, in writing this book, different people would tell me different versions of the same tale. It was like Rashomon. It even happened with Steve himself. He would tell me the same story three or four times, and each time it would be a little different. Nobody was lying or spinning. It’s just that Steve had such a strong force field that it seemed to almost distort the perceptions around him.

At one point, Steve told me that he was not invited to his daughter’s Harvard graduation, so I put in the book that he didn’t go. It turns out that he and the whole family went. I know I made some mistakes, just because people’s memories are so different. I’m sure that was also the case with Einstein or Ben Franklin, whom I also wrote about. But it’s not like I had seven people to interview about the flying-the-kite scene.

When there are multiple versions of a story, you really have three ways to go. You can pick the most sensational version. You can try to balance things in your gut to get to what you think is the honest truth. Or you can err on the side of kindness. I tried to be honest in each case—that’s what Steve’s wife, Laurene Powell, told me to do. But when in doubt, I erred on the side of kindness.

More generally, I made an effort to leave out things that weren’t relevant to the main narrative themes of the book, namely that there were two sides to Steve Jobs: the romantic, poetic, countercultural rebel on one side, and the serious businessperson on the other.

For instance, he pursued alternative therapies and medicine for the cancer. But at the same time he was also looking at the latest scientific therapies and genetic sequencing. And you have to keep that in balance. The fact that he had a serious illness makes you want to look at the basic historic realities as opposed to just a string of fun anecdotes.

There were, likewise, lots of examples of him being rough on people. But you have to judge those anecdotes by the fact that even people who stood up to him remained awesomely loyal. You have to ask yourself, How does this fit into the ultimate reality of the book?

That was the choice I made for each and every paragraph in the book. — As told to Julian Sancton          

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