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Jobs’ Biographer Draws Overflow Crowd

January 17, 2012

Walter IsaacsonSteve Jobs transformed six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, cell phones, tablet computing and digital publishing. He even created stores that are the most profitable per-square-foot retailers in the world—upsetting the business pundits’ predictions of failure. But, according to biographer Walter Isaacson, Jobs’ story is not one that should serve as a model for how to manage and grow a business. Instead, it’s an account of a brilliant, complex and sometimes despicable character whose products and personality both sprang from the same drive for perfection.

Isaacson spoke at the Darla Moore School of Business as part of the school’s Wells Fargo Lecture series the night before he participated in the Liberty Fellowship Summit.  This much anticipated talk drew an overflow crowd that included Darla Moore; former USC professor and current Wofford president Dr. Bernie Dunlap, who is also a member of Isaacson’s Aspen Institute; Charles Bierbauer, who was a colleague of Isaacson’s at CNN and is now the dean of the University’s School of Journalism; other local luminaries and fortunate students.

Isaacson mesmerized the audience with his insights and stories from 40 interviews with Jobs and 100 interviews with people who knew the man. Isaacson ultimately grew to like Jobs, but at first found him petulant and arrogant. They met in 1984 when Jobs was launching the Macintosh computer. At the time, Isaacson was managing editor of Time Magazine, and Jobs immediately asked him why the magazine hadn’t chosen Jobs for Man of the Year. Isaacson was astounded.

Isaacson went on to write acclaimed biographies of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. Jobs asked the author why he didn’t write a biography about him next. Isaacson was amused, and suggested that perhaps Jobs should come back and ask him again in 30 years. 

But Jobs, who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, didn’t have that kind of time. Jobs kept his illness a secret, so his wife called Isaacson and said, “You should write the biography now.”

In spite of Jobs’ addiction to control, he gave Isaacson free reign to write his biography, including both the good and the bad. For Jobs, the perfect biography would be one that was truthful.

Isaacson said, “What set Steve apart was that he had one foot in the humanities and one foot in the sciences. He wasn’t just smart. He was imaginative and innovative.”  Isaacson suggested that the lesson business people could get from Jobs’ life is to look for what is meaningful and drives your passion, and to let that be your guide.

Jobs was a perfectionist, which led him to develop great products but made him a terrible manager. Isaacson told the story of how Jobs might have first learned the value of perfectionism.

Jobs’ adopted father was an auto mechanic who loved to refurbish cars. He taught Jobs to appreciate the parts that were unseen. One day, when they were building a fence together, the young Jobs asked his father why they were spending so much time making the back of the fence look nice when no one will ever see it. His father replied that yes, no one will see it, but you will know it is there.

“What set Steve apart was that he had one foot in the humanities and one foot in the sciences. He wasn’t just smart. He was imaginative and innovative.” 

This lesson deeply ingrained, Jobs later demanded that his engineers redesign a circuit board in an early Macintosh computer so that the board would be beautiful, even if no one ever saw it. After the board was redesigned to his tastes, he made all 22 engineers sign it, telling them that great artists always sign their work.

“Jobs was a really tough boss,” Isaacson said. “You were either a hero or a bozo. Everything was either perfect, or it stank. That was his way of looking at things.” Jobs also had what people close to him called his “reality distortion field,” where his charisma and persuasiveness would seem to distort reality itself. Ultimately, his personality led to his 12-year-exile from Apple, during which time he started Pixar and NeXT. He was brought back in when Apple was struggling to create a new operating system.

Watch VideoIsaacson described Jobs’ relationship with his friend and rival, Bill Gates, saying they were like binary star systems that orbited each other for 30 years. Their personalities were reflected in their products. Jobs was controlling and perfectionistic, and he created a process and products that relied on an end-to-end integration. His hands-on involvement extended from the chips inside to the number of windows and the color of gray used in Apple stores. Gates, on the other hand, wanted an open model that invited the sometimes messy and problematic contributions of others.  Isaacson described Gates as a gracious man.

Near the end of Jobs’ life, Gates called and wanted to meet with Jobs. Isaacson said that Jobs’ reaction was, “He just thinks I’m sick and wants to make amends.” But they met anyway, and talked for four hours. They agreed that computers had changed everything except education.

Gates conceded that Jobs end-to-end concept worked, and Jobs told Gates that his open system worked, too. Isaacson wanted to end the book on that note, but the story didn’t end there. As usual, things got more complicated. After his meeting with Jobs, Gates told Isaacson that the reason Jobs’ integrated system worked is because Jobs’ passion and artistic sensibilities were behind it, and Isaacson, thinking Jobs would find this to be a compliment, told him about Gates’ comment.

Jobs said, “What an a------. Anybody could make it work. All Gates did was make a crappy product.” 

Due to the large crowd, the lecture was streamed into overflow rooms and can be viewed here:  Watch video

Written by Anne Creed

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