John Adams: Insanely great. Walter Isaacson on Steve Jobs

John Adams: Insanely great. Walter Isaacson on Steve Jobs

The John Adams Institute organized an evening with the biographer of Steve Jobs, the American journalist and writer Walter Isaacson. I was invited as moderator. It was an exciting event about one of the most remarkable and influential figures of our time, a man on the cusp of creativity and technology. Read my introduction below and watch the video here.

Let me warn you: this is going to be an evening full of superlatives.

We have two towering figures with us this evening. In book form we have Steve Jobs, a key figure of our time, who in one all-too-short lifespan revolutionized 6 industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet commuting and digital publishing. And you can could also add to that list: retail, with the striking Apple Stores.

We also have with us, but then live, Walter Isaacson, a renowned journalist and writer. Originally from New Orleans, he has had an impressive career at the Sunday Times of london, Time Magazine and CNN, and is now CEO of the Aspen Institute, , a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, DC. Somehow he also managed to write biographies of Kissinger, Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin.
Mr Isaacson is also chairman of the board of Teach for America, which recruits recent college graduates to teach in underserved communities, and vice-chair of Partners for a New Beginning, a public-private group that forges ties between the United States and the Muslim world.

Walter Isaacon had known Jobs since 1984, when he was at Time magazine, but it was not until twenty years later that Jobs called him to ask him to write his biography. Jobs, probably for the first AND last time in his life, agreed to relinquish control and not censor or even read Isaacson’s copy. They did meet more than 40 times, and Isaacson spoke with over 100 friends, colleagues, relatives and competitors. Isaacson was fascinated by ‘the creativity that can occur when a feel for both the humanities and the sciences combine in one strong personality.’ That was what interested him me in Franklin and Einstein, he said – but thee was one salient difference: Jobs was alive, and hovering in the background like the Deus ex Machina in his own biography!

The result is a truly compelling book. Reading it, I was continually amazed. By the obstreperousness of the main character, by his tenacity, his vision that allowed him to know what we as consumers wanted long before we did.
Jobs has been called ‘in equal parts insightful, vicious, and delusional’. His management style was the vicious part. Suppliers fucking dickless assholes, excuse my French > shirts emblazoned with ‘TEAM FDA. ‘Jobs was brilliant and brutal. It is still a moot point whether his way of riding roughshod over everyone, including his own A-players, as he called them, brought out the best in people or rather estranged them. When trying to convince a manager at pepsi-Cola to become CEO of Apple, he asked him; ‘Do you want to spend the rest of your life making sugared water or do you want to change the world?’ he was a master at pulling people into his ‘reality distortion field’ and getting them to do thinks they knew were impossible. He willed it to happen.

Isaacon has said: “Creating a great product isn’t the hard part. The hard part is creating a great company that will continue to create a great product that will be at the intersection of creativity and technology.”

I warned you about the superlatives. There’s the Apple flotation, which made the 25-year-old Jobs $256m in the days when that was a lot of money. There’s his turnaround of the company after he returned as CEO in 1997: in the previous fiscal year the company lost $1.04bn, but he returned it to profit in his first quarter. There’s the launch of the iTunes store: expected to sell a million songs in six months, it sold a million songs in six days.
Jobs wasn’t already right, although he didn’t like having that pointed out to him. He almost changed the name of the Apple Macintosh to the Apple Bicycle. He was also so intent on having everything in the production process look good that he had machines painted bright clan colors, even though he had been warned that that would cause them to malfunction. It did.

Ultimately, he tried to cure himself of cancer by adhering to his obsessive diets – and this time the mistake was fatal. I think we all remember the images that shot over the world of people in mourning at the passing of their deity. Now that he is gone, we are all curious to see how Apple will fare without its charismatic, impossible leader.

And… one more thing:
Now that we have STEVE JOBS the book, there is – of course – STEVE JOBS the movie in the making. Sony has bought the rights to Mr Isaacson’s biography, but there is also a new plan by director Joshua Michael Stern for a movie with Ashton Kutchner playing the leading role.

I am very happy that mr Isaacson is here with us this evening to tell us not only about Steve Jobs, but also, I hope, about the writing of the biography. It must have been a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.