New biography shows genius, ‘gift,’ weakness of Steve Jobs

WASHINGTON — A new biography on the late Steve Jobs provides unprecedented access into the mind of one of the computer age’s most brilliant and unconventional thinkers.

Steve Jobs,” by journalist and Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson, paints a picture of the man who became one of the leading minds in computer technology by his mid-20s. Through a story that traces Jobs’ birth through death, Isaacson hopes the reader gets a sense of the importance Jobs placed on combining artistry with technology, and imagination with engineering.

“Steve Jobs’ great strength was bringing together the ideas and intellect of truly great, talented people,” Isaacson told WTOP afternoon anchor Shawn Anderson, “and getting them to create products they’d never dreamed of.”

He wasn’t a team player, Isaacson said, but he was able to create very strong teams, and inspire the best ideas and sense of loyalty in them. The author credits this not only to Jobs’ brilliance, but also to his sense of honesty.

The ability to tell a colleague precisely what he thought was the “price of admission” for sitting with him in a brainstorming session.

Jobs’ uniqueness traces back to his childhood, Isaacson says, when he realized through discussions with his father that Jobs was smarter than him. His parents fostered the idea that young Jobs was special, and he used this sense of self-entitlement to succeed.

That “gift” let him “play by his own set of rules, to think of himself as chosen to do special things,” Isaacson says.

But Jobs can’t take credit for all of his successes. Isaacson points to the crucial partnerships he formed throughout his life as essential to his personal success, as well as to that of Apple: development partner Steve Wozniak possessed an unparalleled engineering mind, starkly contrasted against Jobs’ marketing instincts. A lifelong competition against Microsoft founder Bill Gates spurred the creation of many important technological developments. And the support from his marriage (which Isaacson calls a “perfect partnership”) and other members of his family proved essential to Jobs through his death.

“Even though he was not always a focused father…he ends up with a very loyal, loving family and a great marriage,” says Isaacson.

Jobs always had a strong sense of his own mortality, the author says, specifically referencing the address Jobs gave to a Stanford graduating class after surgeries for his cancer. “He spoke at Stanford to say how liberating it is to know that you’re going to die.”

Family and work became the two most important things for Jobs, who was never interested in other worldly excesses.

Jobs spent the remainder of his life continually striving to create better products. That overarching sense of integration — from development to hardware to software to product packaging — is also what inspired Jobs to grant Isaacson the in-depth access to write his book.

“(Jobs said), ‘I want it to be honest. I don’t want it to be an in-house book,'” said Isaacson.

Listen to the full interview at right.

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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