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Getting caught up in the passion of Steve Jobs
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Kai Ryssdal: The night Steve Jobs died, we had a big meeting. Trying to figure out what to say, how to cover it. But also, trying to figure out how Jobs went from being CEO of the world’s best-known technology company to something closer to a saint.
Which is when somebody mentioned this clip from “The Simpsons.”
“The Simpsons” clip: Attention Mapple Universe, prepare for a live announcement from Mapple founder and chief imaginative officer Steve Mobs. Steve Mobs! He’s a genius. He’s like a god who knows what we want!
Not too far off, right?
So that’s where I started with Walter Isaacson — who as you’ve probably heard by now — wrote the new Steve Jobs biography.
Walter Isaacson: Well it is pretty amazing that around the world, it was an outpouring that’s usually reserved for rock stars or princesses. There’s such an emotional connection with Apple and Apple products and with him. I think one reason may be not his greatness as a technologist, or even his greatness as a business leader — it’s his greatness as a designer and artist who tried to connect art with technology.
Steve Jobs: This is iMac. The whole thing is translucent, you can see into it. It’s so cool. We’ve got the coolest mouse on the planet right here. You’ve got to see one of these things in person.
That to me is what gets people emotional, is the poetry. I don’t want to wax too much on about it, I mean, it’ll sound like somebody, you know, who’s fallen head over heels. But I did get captivated by that ability of Steve Jobs to intuitively — he knows how to make something emotionally connective and be beautiful.
Ryssdal: The other part of him, though, that comes out in this book — and we should say at the outset, you pulled no punches even though this was an authorized biography — is that he was, in your words, bratty; he was obstinate; he was profane; he was kind of a bully and not a nice guy.
Isaacson: Well he was definitely a bit bratty at times, that’s for sure. But that’s the price of admission for being in the room. He said, ‘I don’t know how to do it any other way. Maybe I could have worn velvet gloves. But that’s not me; I’m a middle-class kid from California, and I demanded perfection.’ And on the very first machines they made, especially the original Macintosh in the early 1980s, Steve stops at one point and says, ‘The circuit board isn’t neat enough.’ The engineer said, ‘But you can’t even open the Macintosh; nobody will see it.’ And Steve said, ‘But you will know. And I will know.’ He made him sign the inside cover of the Macintosh because he just wanted people to have that passion for artistry.
Jobs: That’s what a lot of customers pay us to do — is to try to make the best products we can. If we succeed, they’ll buy them.
Ryssdal: This book has what you might call an unusual introduction. It’s called ‘How this book came to be,’ and you relate how Jobs called you and wanted you to write a biography of him. This is in 2004, when, unbeknownst to you, he was just diagnosed with cancer. And you say, ‘He invited me out, we took a walk, and he said, write my bio.’ And you said ‘no, because I’m doing other things and you’ve got a long time left to live.’ And then you say in the book, half-jokingly, you wondered whether he thought he was the successor to the people that you’ve written other biographies about — Einstein, Benjamin Franklin. Do you think he saw himself as that transformative?
Isaacson: No. I think he saw himself up with the great people who had created companies in Silicon Valley, including Hewlett and Packard and others. I think he could even see himself as an Edison or a Disney, somebody who connected creativity with great technology. But I think even Steve Jobs’ most ardent fanboys wouldn’t put him in the exact quantum orbit as Albert Einstein when it comes to relativity theory.
Ryssdal: Entirely apart from being a biographer and having to maintain a detached eye, what’d you think of him, just as a guy, a man?
Isaacson: When I first met him in 1984, he was actually petulant back then. It was a Time magazine meeting and he expressed dismay at an article in Time that he thought had been too rough on him. But even then, I liked him. And not only did I like him, I kind of got caught up by him. I mean, the passion is just a force of nature. And perhaps some will criticize it, that I got a little bit caught up in that magical thinking of him. But you can’t be totally objective when you’re spending that much time with a person.
Ryssdal: Walter, thanks a lot.
Isaacson: Hey Kai, great to be with you.
Jobs: People say you have to have a lot of passion for what you’re doing, and it’s totally true. And the reason is because it’s so hard, that if you don’t, any rational person would give up. If you don’t love it, you’re going to fail.