NEW YORK (AP) — Steve Jobs told Walter Isaacson he wanted him to write his biography because he’s good at getting people to talk. Jobs, it turns out, didn’t need much prodding, secretive as he was about both his private life and the company he founded.
“I just listened,” said Isaacson, whose book, “Steve Jobs” (Simon & Schuster) went on sale Monday. Jobs, who died Oct. 5 at the age of 56 after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer, was a man full of deep contradictions, a product of 1960s counterculture who went on to found what is now the world’s most valuable technology company, Apple Inc.
In an interview with the Associated Press Wednesday, Isaacson said Jobs was a compelling storyteller with “fascinating stories.” Sometimes, the author would hear him tell those tales two or three times, often with slight variations. But through more than 40 conversations with Jobs, as well as interviews with his family, close friends, co-workers and rivals, Isaacson painted a rich portrait of a complex, sometimes conflicting figure.
Isaacson began work on the book in 2009 after Jobs’ wife, Laurene Powell told him that if he was “ever going to do a book on Steve, you’d better do it now.” It was just after Jobs had taken his second medical leave as CEO of Apple, in January of that year. His third leave, which began in January, would be his final one.
“He was not sick through much of this process,” Isaacson said, when asked about what it was like to be working on the book and speaking with Jobs’ family while he was ill.
“We took long walks,” he said. “Every evening, he would have dinner around the kitchen table with his wife and kids. He didn’t go out socializing or to black-tie dinners. He didn’t travel much. Even though he was focused on his work, he was always home for dinner.”
Those who see Jobs as the iconic CEO first might be surprised to read about his devotion to his family. It wasn’t always evident. As a young man, Jobs denied paternity of his first daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, for years after Lisa was born in 1978. The two later reconciled.
Isaacson said he was most surprised by the intensity of Jobs’ emotions.
“Sometimes I’d look up and there would be tears running down his cheek,” Isaacson said.
Jobs told him he was always moved by “artistic purity.” Sometimes, it was the design of a product, or even the creation of an advertisement that would move him to tears. Other times, it happened as he talked about a person who meant a lot to him. For his 20th wedding anniversary with Powell, Jobs wrote her a letter that he read to Isaacson from his iPhone. By the end, Isaacson said, he was crying uncontrollably.
“Years passed, kids came, good times, hard times, but never bad times,” Jobs wrote in the note. “Our love and respect has endured and grown.”
Those around Jobs referred to his ability to influence the perception of those around him as his “reality distortion field.” Though on the surface it sounds similar, this was far more complex than someone who is lying or deluding himself. As Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak puts it in the book: “You realize that it can’t be true, but he somehow makes it true.”
The “reality distortion field” was Jobs’ way of getting people to do what they thought was impossible, Isaacson said. Like how he’d tell an engineer working on the Macintosh that he could save 10 seconds on the time the computer needed to boot up if he just wrote better code.
“And the guy would say ‘no you can’t,'” Isaacson said.
Jobs then asked the engineer if he could do it if it would save a life. And so the engineer did, he wrote better code and he shaved not 10 but 28 seconds off the Macintosh’s boot-up time.
While writing the book, Isaacson said he came to understand the connection between Jobs’ temperamental behavior and his artistic passion.
“I have a strong emotional respect for Steve,” he said. “And it helped me put in perspective…the tales of him being hard on people. Because I knew it was all in the context of getting people to do the impossible. Which he did.”
Isaacson didn’t spend time shadowing Jobs, though he did spend an afternoon at the design studio of Jony Ive, the chief designer at Apple who worked on the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. It was Ive who came up with the idea of making the first iPod, including its headphones, pure white. In the afternoons, Isaacson said Jobs would walk around Ive’s studio and touch all the new prototypes that were laid out there.
“He was a very tactile person,” Isaacson said. “He loved to fondle the prototypes.”
Isaacson spent a long afternoon in that studio and doing so “realized what a serene experience it was. Quiet, with new-age jazz playing softly. The leaves from the trees outside casting dancing silhouette shadows on the tinted windows. And even small products like power adapters being lined up for inspections.”
Can Apple continue to thrive without Jobs?
“Yeah, I think that his great creation was not any one product but a company in which creativity was connected to great engineering,” Isaacson said. “And that will survive at least while the current people who trained under Steve are there.”