Walter Isaacson: The Stuff Of Great Innovators
Former CNN head and noted biographer Walter Isaacson captured my attention from the moment he walked on the IBM Impact 2012 stage and announced his next book would be a history of the computer age.
Then, Isaacson launched into an explanation of what attributes great innovators shared throughout history — Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs.
Though Isaacson’s keynote at times seemed like an uncoordinated symphony, the words of wisdom and insight, and keen observations into the lives of his subjects, made his talk both compelling and inspirational.
Isaacson paid homage in his opening comments to IBM’s 100-year history of innovation and contributions to the information age, but it was his most recent biographical subject, Steve Jobs, that he let serve as the channel behind the magic of an unwavering and driven innovator.
“Don’t be afraid,” Isaacson said in describing Jobs at his persuasive best. “You can do it.”
Whatever it might be really depended on the situation and circumstance — once, it was Jobs convincing Steve Wozniak to write some game code in four days. Another time, it was convincing Corning CEO Wendell Weeks that he could manufacture his “guerrilla glass — which, at that point, had never actually been manufactured — in time to support the first iPhones.
Jobs, of course, was an exemplar of the great American creation myth, but behind the mythology there were lots of life lessons learned, particularly in childhood, another universal Isaacson observed about his innovators.
“The most important thing is not making a great product,” Jobs explained to Isaacson in one of his nearly 40 interviews, “but rather a company that will continue to make great products.”
Jobs and Wozniak started their empire in their parents’ garage, and went on to change the world and, over the course of his life, Jobs’ changed multiple industries: personal computing, the music business, digital animation…the list goes on.
Childhood curiosities, Isaacson observed, shared by Franklin and Einstein.
That was another unique characteristic that they all shared: The curiousity and persistence to try and solve problems and look for new ways of thinking up until their last breaths.
Smart people are generally a dime a dozen, explained Isaacson, but the innovative people, the imaginative people — they’re the ones who change the world.
But they also shared an ability to quickly get to the heart of the problem, and to encourage others to find their way to simplicity.
Isaacson quotes Einstein this time, but he just as well could have once again been referring to Steve Jobs:
“Any damned fool can make something complicated…it takes a genius to make it simple.”
Perfect case in point, the “on/off” switch for the iPod, which was in one of the original early designs, but which Jobs pointed out was unnecessary when he reviewed a prototype with his designers.
“You don’t need an on/off switch,” he explained. “When you quit using the iPod it just powers down.”
And so it was.
Isaacson shared another revealing anecdote, this time about Benjamin Franklin’s participation in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and, later, the collaboration on the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.
The original Declaration read: “We hold these truths to be sacred,” but Franklin, sensitive to the divine implications of such a phrase, and sensitive to the need for church/state clarity, suggested a re-wording: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
And so it was.
Yet years later, benefiting both from experience and having developed a sense of humility along the way, Franklin was more accommodating and facilitated a critical discussion centering on the inequities of power between the big states and little states in the nascent U.S. Union.
His urging to compromise led to the genius that became the U.S. House and Senate, where one body was proportional to the population, and the other was equitable regardless of state size. When a lady later asked him what he had “given them,” Franklin explained “A Republic, madam…if you can keep it.”
Yet despite all of their incredible accomplishments and breakthrough innovations, each of these giant men were, in the end, just that, men, people, humans — filled with the same kind of self-doubts and wonderment at the universe as all the rest of us.
Isaacson reminded us when Jobs returned to the helm of Apple in 1997 that he green-lighted a new ad campaign from Chiat/Day that celebrated the spirt of the great innovators. The slogan went like this:
“People who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
He was. And he did. Einstein was. And he did. Franklin was, and he did.
Each in their own unique way, but with underneath each a connecting thread of a drive towards perfection, an insatiable amount of unsated curiosity, and always looking for a way forward.
Isaacson closed his talk with a beautiful and reminiscent story of Jobs, who knew he was nearing his last days on earth. He asked Jobs, with all his Zen Buddhism training, what he felt spiritually, and did he feel there was something larger in this world than the moments we spend on this spinning globe?
Jobs explained that he liked to think so, that our spirits live on, and all that accumulated spiritual wisdom somehow benefits us moving forward.
But then, after a pause, he explained that at other times, he felt that death is just like one of those on-off switches.
Like the ones he didn’t want included on the iPod.
BLOGGER’S NOTE: I had occasion to interview Walter Isaacson on the key themes behind his keynote just after he was finished speaking. Among other things, I questioned him about his early work in digital media at Time’s Pathfinder group in 1994-1995, the impact of the Internet on the global economy, his work with the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe on the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and his perspective on the renaissance New Orleans is currently enjoying. Stay tuned to the Turbo blog for more on this far-ranging and compelling Q&A.