One on One: Walter Isaacson, Biographer of Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson is the author of “Steve Jobs,” the best-selling biography published last month. The following is an edited version of the interview.

When did you first meet Steve Jobs?
I’ve known Steve off and on since 1984. I was at Time magazine and he came to our offices to show us the original Macintosh. He was talking about these icons on the screen with a passion that these icons were going to change the universe. At the time, he was furious at a story Time had done, so I saw his petulant side too.

Would you have agreed to write the biography of Mr. Jobs if he was still alive today?
I don’t know. I really thought he’d still be alive when the book came out. He had me totally convinced that he was going to stay one step ahead of the cancer. He told me three months ago that he had this new treatment and he would outrun the cancer one more time.

When he discusses his future, what were the next products he was planning?
He had three things that he wanted to reinvent: the television, textbooks and photography. He really wanted to take these on. I didn’t go into details about these products in the book because it was implicitly Apple’s creations and it’s not fair to the company to reveal these details. But, he did talk about the television. He told me he’d “licked it” and once said, “There’s no reason you should have all these complicated remote controls.”

You previously wrote a biography of Albert Einstein. Was Mr. Jobs in that league of thinkers?
I think that Einstein was in a different orbit. Steve was equal to Walt Disney or Pablo Picasso. Disney was probably the closest to Steve. The real genius of these men was that they were able to create an emotional connection with their products. Bob Dylan does the same with music; Picasso with art. It’s a real genius to tie art, emotion and technology together.

People say Mr. Jobs was a jerk. Was he?
The theme of the book is that the intensity and passion that is reflected in his personality is part and parcel of Steve. It was what made him able to change things; to invent things; to make amazing products. He could be perceived as a jerk because he was brutally honest with people. But his petulance was connected to his perfectionism. If he were truly a jerk, he wouldn’t have built a team at Apple that was more loyal than any other top executives in America.

So it was his passion that drove his petulance?
Absolutely. It wasn’t just churlishness. It was his passion for being truly driven to make a great company and great products. He was deeply emotionally aware of everything around him.

Mr. Isaacson said he was not concerned his name would always be linked to Mr. Jobs.Shannon Stapleton/ReutersMr. Isaacson said he was not concerned his name would always be linked to Mr. Jobs.

 

Did he try to control what you wrote in the book?
I anticipated that, but he didn’t. He kept surprising me by insisting that he wanted no control over the book and by being remarkably open and honest about everything. I honestly kept waiting for him to kill the book but the more we talked and the more I wrote, he kept getting more and more open, and more and more emotional. He encouraged me to talk to everyone, even his adversaries.

Why do you think Mr. Jobs didn’t give his money to philanthropy?
That’s the one thing about him I don’t know much about. He remained very private about what he did philanthropically. I asked him about it, but he chose not to discuss it. Laurene, his wife, was has been very active in the education reform movement, but I never knew the details of their giving.

After writing the book, what was your main takeaway of who Steve Jobs was?

He had a lot of contradictions in his personality. Connecting a counterculture, rebel, misfit sensibility with a business-like, engineering sensibility is part of what made him contradictory, but what also made him amazing. He approached all aspects of his life with these contradictions: his cancer, the products he made, his personal life.

Can he be replaced at Apple?
He can’t be replaced by one person, but two people can replace him. Tim Cook is the business side of Steve’s brain. He’s meticulous, scientific and business-like. Jony Ive is the artistic, emotional, romantic side of Steve. The two of them together are an incredible team that will hold together very well.

Can Apple continue a streak of good products without Mr. Jobs’s leadership?

Steve had the power of magical thinking. It included being able to invent the future by “thinking different,” and he shared that with Jony Ive, who was a real partner and soulmate to Steve. Between Tim’s business sense and Jony’s design, I have no doubt that the company will continue to make amazing products.

So what’s next for you now that the book is done?
I’m going back to my real job. I’ve returned to work at the Aspen Institute; I’ve been here for eight years. I’m also involved in Teach for America.

Do you worry that your name will always be linked to Steve Jobs?
No. That will pass. I have a varied life. Steve was just one of many biographies I have written.

Did you publish the book early because you knew Mr. Jobs was going to die?
The book was done in June. I talked to my publishers and we couldn’t quite figure out when to publish it. There was no hard-and-fast publication date so we decided to set a date when Steve stepped down as C.E.O. in August. The end of the book was different then: it was him leaving Apple. Of course, later, the end had to be changed.

Are you happy with the end result of the book?
I’ve been pleased. It has been received well. Of course, the sales of the books are not about me, they are about Steve. He gave me an enormous amount of material, and the book kind of just wrote itself.

Do you want to share one last thing about Mr. Jobs?

The main thing is this: his petulance was not just some isolated thing. It was part of his passion for perfection. I think he truly knew that by being demanding, he was being inspiring. He created incredibly loyal teams. He convinced people that they could do the impossible. They would walk through walls for him. As a result, Apple continually made great products. Everything he did was a resolution between the misfit and the businessman, the romantic and the rational. These ended up tying together in every case. The two sides, and the fact that he is able to join them, made an amazing product: Steve Jobs.

The original interview might be found here.

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