Steve Jobs' Biographer Isaacson Shares Tales of Apple Founder's Genius

Walter Isaacson, chief executive of the Aspen Institute, kicked off the Ringling College Library Association Town Hall lecture series.

Who knows, one day the 1,400-student campus of Ringling College of Art and Design could produce the next Steve Jobs.

"Ringling College to be at the intersection of creativity and technology," said biographer Walter Isaacson inside the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall Tuesday morning. "It's there to be there where art and design to intersect."

Walter Isaacson, chief executive of the Aspen Institute, former chairman and chief executive of CNN and editor of TIME may be known to the masses more for writing the only authorized biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Isaacson touched on what made Jobs tick and ticked off, and the common thread that the great innovators he wrote about shared.

"This notion that creativity needs to be connected to everything we do and love," he said.

His talk kicked off the Ringling College Library Association Town Hall lecture series. Dr. Robert Gates is the next speaker set for Feb. 5. Also scheduled are Dr. Benjamin Carson (Feb. 27), Capt. Mark Kelly (March 11) and Tom Brokaw (April 8).

The Ringling College Library Association supports the current Ringling College library and has actively fund-raised for a new library, and has pledged $2 million in the past year, according to the association's Board President Merry Williams.

Jobs was all about creativity and beauty and the arts and the sciences, Isaacson said.

Isaacson first met Jobs while writing for TIME magazine in 1984 when the Apple founder tried to get some press coverage for his Macintosh computer. Since Isaacson was one of the few who used a computer back then, the editors summoned him to meet with Jobs.

Jobs gushed over the curves and the casing of the Macintosh, the graphics on the screen.

"He said, 'The one thing that I have understood that no other computer maker—no other person in electronics—understands is that beauty matters,'" Isaacson said. "Creativity matters."

Yet, Jobs had a maddening genius to him, too.

"He looked at us and told us that Newsweek was a far better magazine," he said. "He even used a four-letter word that begins with S to describe our magazine."

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TIME named the computer as the object of the year and Jobs said he should have been Man of the Year.

"When I became editor of TIME magazine then head of CNN, he was often my best friend for two days a year when he had a new product coming out," Isaacson cracked.

It wasn't until Jobs took one of his famous "walking meetings" with Isaacson when the media expert headed up the Aspen Institute, which studies policy and public issues and tries to engage conversations to provide nonpartisan compromises to some of the toughest issues that our society faces.

Jobs insisted that Isaacson would write his next biography about him. After all, Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein, and then Steve Jobs seemed like a logical progression, no?

"I could tell your arrogance hasn't abated since 1984," he joked.

Isaacson initially wanted to wait, but Jobs' wife insisted to do the biography now because he was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Through research and interviews, Isaacson had a true behind-the-scenes look at what made Jobs a relentless creative genius, even obsessing about what the circuit board looks like, which prompted a delayed shipment of the first Macs.

He pressured Steve Wozniak to code the game Breakout in four days instead of three weeks at Atari, and using an intimidating technique that was almost sci-fi liked called Reality Distortion. How did it work?

"Steve just stared at him. He learned to stare without blinking, and Woz said, 'He just stared at me and said 'don't be afraid. You can do it.'"

It worked. He stayed up and completed the game in four nights.

Telling an engineer to shave 10 seconds off the boot-up time? "Don't be afraid. You can do it." The engineer shaved 28 seconds off.

Fast forward to the age of the iPhone. The first generation iPhone was ready to go, but Jobs didn't want a plastic face, but instead a "silky, tough, smooth piece of glass," Isaacson.

The Chinese plants didn't cut it, so he was told to give glass maker Corning a call in New York, Isaacson said. He calls the switchboard, asks to speak to the CEO, and was told that they'll have to take a message.

"Steve slams down the phone and says 'typical East Coast bull," Isaacson said. 

The story made it back to Corning's CEO Wendell Weeks, who calls Apple's switchboard, asking for Jobs. Weeks had to fax in a request.

Jobs liked Weeks' ability to match him, and set up a meeting, he said.

Weeks told Jobs how they never actually produced he glass yet, but had the formula, he said. Jobs said that's the glass he needs, get it ready for the phones in September because they're being shipped in October, he said.

"Window Weeks shook his head and said, 'This guy just sat right across from me without blinking,'" Isaacson said. "This is 30 years, almost to the day, that he had done it to Wozniak at the night at Atari. And Weeks said, 'He stared at me and he kept saying 'Don't be afraid. You can do it.'"

Every iPhone and iPad has that glass made in America by Corning because of Jobs' strategy.

Jobs could come across as a jerk, but it's about his passion for his product, Isaacson said.

In the creation of the original iPod, he wanted folks to get to a song within three clicks, Isaacson said.

Scrolling wheel with a center click button—great. The original one also featured a menu button, a forward and backward button and a play/pause button around the wheel.

Oh, but there was an on/off button. 

"The machine should know to power itself down when you quit using it, and after awhile, power itself up after using it again," Isaacson said, paraphrasing Jobs.

When Jobs faced the end of his life, the Apple founder contemplated the after-life, God and his meaning of existence in one of his interviews with Isaacson. 

"It's sort of 50-50. There are times I really believe that when you die, there's a spirit that lives on. That all your accumulated wisdom somehow stays in existence—lives on," Jobs told Isaacson. "But of course, sometimes I just dispair and think, well, who knows, maybe it's like an on/off switch. You die and click—you're gone."

Jobs then looked back at Isaacson with a half-smile resembling the old Mac logo, he said.

"Maybe that's why I didn't like putting on and off switches on Apple devices," Jobs said.


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