Walter Isaacson on Steve Jobs: Not ‘Exceptionally’ Smart, But a ‘Genius’


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Walter Isaacson included an interesting phrase at the end of his biography of Steve Jobs. He wrote, “Was he smart? No, not exceptionally. Instead, he was a genius.”

“His genius was the ability to connect poetry to technology. That art and technology thing. I mean Bill Gates has astonishing mental processing power. But he didn’t have that sort of feel for design and art,” Isaacson told me on “GMA.”   “How do you connect artistry to technology and that comes, whether it was the cancer or his personal life or his professional life, from sort of having that new age alternative, beautiful side to him, the poetic side, and the technology side,” he said.   The book entitled “Steve Jobs”, out today, was based on more than 40 interviews with the man who reinvented the tech business. Jobs, who was 56 when he died, told Isaacson he wanted “the truth out.”   Having no editorial control, Jobs said weeks before his death that he wouldn’t read the book until 6 months or more after it was published.   “He said ‘Are there going to be things I don’t like in this book?’  I said ‘yeah. He said “That’s good, I’m not going to read it for another year,’” Isaacson told me.   In his final days Jobs was surrounded by his wife, four children and close friends.  Isaacson spoke about the close bond Jobs had with his kids, but it wasn’t always that way. He had a daughter, Lisa, earlier in life and originally denied paternity only to reconcile years later.   “You know the arc of his life is that way, it is sort of the– at first how he deals with something and then reconciles and by the time at the end this past month, they are all around him, all four of his children,” Isaacson said.   But Jobs never reconciled with his biological father who gave Jobs up for adoption when he was a baby. Jobs and his biological sister, Mona Simpson, tracked down their father running a coffee shop in Sacramento, only to realize that Jobs had already met the man, Isaacson said.   “[Their father] starts talking about the great restaurants he used to run including one in Silicon Valley and he said ‘Everybody used to eat there, even Steve Jobs,’” Isaacson explained.   “And Steve had told Mona ‘Don’t tell him about me.’  And so she had to bite her tongue and couldn’t say ‘Steve Jobs is your son.’ She just looked a bit shocked and [the father] said ‘Yeah, he was a great tipper,’” Isaacson said on “GMA.”   But Jobs did not want to reconcile. Isaacson believes this was in part due to his “intense emotions and loyalties.”   “His real family, and that includes his adoptive parents, who he calls his real parents, and really taught him everything. They were just great people. And then of course his four children. There’s an extreme bond there, but if you’re not part of the strong bond, somebody like his biological father, he had no desire to see him,” Isaacson said.   The author pulled no punches in this book, describing Jobs as a charismatic and inspiring leader but also as a man who could be very tough, even mean.   Jobs told Isaacson that he and his team at Apple could “have a rip roaring fight and that brutal honesty” in meetings, telling Isaacson that he didn’t know how to have a “velvet glove” touch.   Some of his Apple colleagues said that Jobs suffered from a “reality distortion field” – where he believed he could bend facts to his will.   “That magical thinking worked 95, 99 percent of the time. He could have Steve Wozniak, his early partner, create a circuit board in four days that would normally take four months because of that ‘reality distortion field,’” Isaacson said. “But when he gets cancer, you know, it’s that tension with him between sort of the alternative, hippie-ish…. And this scientific technology guy. That’s a tension in his life, whether it’s cancer or whether it’s his personal life or whether it’s his professional life.”   That “reality distortion field” could have played a role in his cancer treatment. Isaacson explained how Jobs wrestled with his 2003 cancer diagnosis, taking him 9 months to agree to surgery only after he experimented with herbal remedies and various other treatments.   “Once he decided to get the surgery, he said ‘I should have gotten it earlier.’ I mean it took him a few months before he decided to get the surgery. He was just searching, he was always on the search including when it came to his cancer,” he said.   Watch the interview here: