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.”
Jobs way of ‘inspiring’ people to achieve has become a mantra for some, however, Isaacson feels that some are missing the point somewhat. “People have written about this book being a guide for managers. People tell me, ‘I’m like Steve! I push people to perfection. But you don’t need to push people to be like Steve, you need know how to be a genius at creating things, not just driving people crazy.”
Isaacson clarified the point again later: “If you are going to do that truly understand what Steve’s magic was. It wasn’t just barking. It’s easy to be a jerk”.
Regarding those who think they can learn management technique from the book, Isaacson points out that: “The book shows that there a number of sides to Steve, this is not Steve Jobs the saint packaged for your emulation, he wasn’t a philanthropist, he wasn’t concerned about working conditions in China, and that’s why the book shows the multiple sides of Steve and why people shouldn’t just read it and say this is a recipe for success.”
“There are all sorts of lessons from Steve, but I’ll leave you with the one which I think is also the most important. Almost everybody who has spoke in this room from Kepler to Newton has used the phrase: Nature loves simplicity. It’s absolutely clear why nature would love simplicity. Einstein said: ‘Any damn fool can make a problem more complex, it takes a genius to make it more simple.’ Well Steve believed that simplicity was the ultimate sophistication (which is Leonardo Da Vinci line). That simplicity is part of the beauty of a product. That was his way of connecting engineering to beauty. So that everything worked in a magical, simple way. It was almost spiritual for him.”
Isaacson noted that Jobs may have got the idea that things needed to be simple from working on games at Atari, because: “They had to be simple enough that stoned freshmen could play them,” he joked. To illustrate Jobs’ quest for simplicity, Isaacson used the example of Jobs questioning the validity of the on-off button on the iPod, and how eventually the team realised: “You don’t need an on/off button”.
The on-off button story is pertinent, as all who have finished reading the book will know, as Jobs used the analogy when describing what might happen after he died. “We were talking about spirituality and god and the sense that life is a journey, a spiritual journey. So I said: ‘Do you believe in an afterlife, do you believe that there’s a god?’ and he said: ‘I’d love to believe that there is more to this world than what you can see. That there’s sort of a spirit that’s larger than me and that when you die your spirit actually lives on and that your accumulated experiential wisdom survives’. But then he said: ‘There are days when I’m depressed and I think maybe it’s just like an on and off switch, you know, click, and you’re gone.’ And then he gave me that little smile he had and said: ‘Maybe that’s why I didn’t like to put an on/off switch on products’.”
The second half of the lecture was a discussion between Isaacson and Roger Highfield of the Science Museum Group. Highfield quizzed Isaacson about Jobs personality and specific elements of the biography. Highfield began by highlighting that the biography creates the picture of Jobs as a bully, getting his girlfriend pregnant and denying the child is his, parking in handicapped spaces, he screams at people. Isaacson cut in to point out that this description sounds just like Einstein, “Who also had an illegitimate child that he didn’t take responsibility for, and was not great to subordinates”.
Highfield then questioned why Isaacson said he “liked” Jobs. “Like is the most namby-pamby word. It doesn’t even begin to explain the emotion you feel”.
“He could be totally charming when he wanted to be, but he was not relaxed. He was the most intense, most emotional person, and I think that I found myself emotionally awed by him. Emotionally inspired by him. But if I could use a hundred adjectives the word ‘like’ is so namby-pamby…”
Isaacson described how the members of the original Mac team met after Jobs died and as the evening drew to a close they discussed whether they ‘liked’ Jobs. In each case they said: “No, But…” with a variety of reasons why they admired him. Isaacson said he felt the same about ‘liking’ Jobs: “No, but I wouldn’t have given up for the moment the chance to be in his presence”.
Granting freedom and being a control freek
Discussing Jobs’ decision to grant Isaacson complete freedom to write the biography, unchecked, despite being such a “control freak” (as Isaacson put it), Isaacson explained: “He said: ‘Nobody in history will care about this book if it looks like I commissioned it, read it and approved it. When people say I was a jerk or whatever, we’ll it’ll just say I was brutally honest. I want you to write a book that’s honest. And I tried to.”
However, there was one area where Jobs did exert control – the cover. “He said to me, ‘nobody is going to read your damn book, but they’re all going to look at it!’” It was regarding the cover that Jobs attacked Isaacson on one occasion. Jobs had got hold of an early proof of a potential cover and he didn’t like it so he called Isaacson and yelled at him down the phone, accusing Isaacson of having “no taste”. This is where Jobs insisted on having input on the cover. “So he designed what looks like an Apple product”.
“But he did not want to control the book. He said he didn’t even want to read it. The very last time I was with Steve, I was sitting on the side of his bed, he was very ill, and he looked up at me and said: ‘There’ll be things in this book that I don’t like.’ And I said: ‘Yeah! There will be’ And he said: ‘Fine, don’t worry, I’m not going to read it.’ And then he said: ‘I won’t read it for another six months, or a year.’ Now with the Reality Distortion Field, my first reaction is: great, he’s going to be alive in a year. He’s not going to die. He’ll be alive when this book comes out. It took me another hour to realise he won’t be alive.”
Personality traits and defects
Isaacson used a story about Benjamin Franklin to describe one of Jobs’ personality traits, or rather lack of. Benjamin Franklin had 12 great virtues he wanted to have as a great man, and one day someone said he was missing a virtue: humanity, and Franklin said ‘I was never very good at the virtue of humility, but I can fake it very well’. “Steve did not even try to fake it!” Isaacson joked.
Regarding whether Jobs had a personality defect Isaacson refused to comment, saying that he is no psychiatrist, but he did suggest that Jobs certainly did not have Aspergers syndrome, as some have suggested, claiming: ‘he could not emotionally relate’. “Steve was not only not that way, he was at the other extreme. He could know instantly every emotional feeling you had. Every vulnerability you had. He would cry, he would feel things. So he was intensely emotional. And I think that every time he does a product, he’s pouring the emotion into it. Even when he is doing the box for the iPad, he is saying, it’s emotional, it should be emotional when you open the box.”
“When he died and there was that outpouring of emotion I think it’s because he was able to emotionally connect with people.”
As for the management team at Apple, Highfield asks if Isaacson they will be relieved now that Jobs is gone. Isaacson points out that everyone on the original Macintosh team said they wouldn’t have given up the chance to be with him. “And as he said to me: ‘If I were really an arse hole, people wouldn’t have stayed around. 14 years I’ve been back at Apple and it’s been an incredibly loyal team of the very best, like Jony Ive, Tim Cook, Phil Schiller, Scott Forstall, Eddy Cue. These people could all have got other jobs running companies. But nobody left.’”
“Was he great to every single person he worked with, no he was not the sweetest boss, but he had the most loyal team that wouldn’t have left him for the world. All these sweet bosses you hear about, like Hewlett Packard, people are fleeing like crazy when they get a job! But with Steve they stuck with him.”
Discussing the admiration Tim Cook has received since taking over as CEO (apparently he has a 97 per cent approval rating from Apple’s workforce, according to a survey conducted by job search site Glassdoor.com), Isaacson joked that Steve Jobs would never win a popularity competition.
“There is no one person who can replicate Steve Jobs, but there is a great team that he left behind. There is Jony Ive who is the great designer and visionary artist, Tim Cook is great. I think it’s a team that will serve Apple well.”
Highfield goes on to criticise some elements of Apple and Jobs, the lack of philanthropy, concerns about working conditions in China, the green issues. In response Isaacson suggests we should give Tim Cook credit: “Steve never went to China, he wouldn’t focus on the working conditions at Foxconn, he focused on what he wanted to do. Tim Cook goes there, talks to them, says change your ways. So the good thing about Tim Cook is he doesn’t wake up every morning and say: ‘What would Steve have done’.”
Regarding Google, and going thermoneuclear
To explain the significance of the current dispute with Google, Isaacson told the story of how Microsoft stole Apple’s graphical user interface back in the 1980s. Apple believed in the closed system, where you control the hardware to go with the software. Bill Gates takes the graphical user interface and that infuriates Steve. But what really infuriates him is he then licenses it out promiscuously, to Dell and Compac, and IBM, and all these other companies. Microsoft ended up being dominant.”
“Jobs does the integrated system again, iPod, iPad, and it works, but what happens? Google rips it off. It’s almost copied verbatim by Android. And then they licence it around promiscuously. And then Android starts surpassing Apple in market share, and this totally infuriated him. As he said, it wasn’t a matter of money. He said: ‘You can’t pay me off, I’m here to destroy you’.
“Tim Cook will settle that lawsuit”, Isaacson added.
Decisions about Cancer
Why did Jobs put off the cancer treatment was the final question of Highfield. In response Isaacson suggested: “There was always, throughout his life, two sides to Steve’s personality. Jobs the misfit, counterculture rebel, romantic, hippy, vegan, I’m going to go to India and find my spiritual past. And the geeky scientific, techy, hard nosed business side. He decides he can treat it with spiritual healing and then goes on diets and everything else, but he also has his own genetic code sequenced fully, and has the DNA of the cancer sequenced. He has molecular targeted therapy done. The problem was it took a few months when it should have taken a few days for him to achieve the synthesis that the scientific approach should be the more dominant approach.