Capturing Steve Jobs

First aired on Q (23/11/11)

It's challenging enough to be tasked with writing the first authorized biography of one of the most respected (and reviled) entrepreneurs the world has ever known. But what if you had to write this book knowing your subject would be the late Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, a man known for his domineering approach to business and his control issues as much as his creativity and genius.

steve-jobs.jpgFor journalist and Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson, it was an opportunity he couldn't pass up though funnily enough, he had already turned down the chance to write about the Apple boss once.

Isaacson told Q host Jian Ghomeshi during a recent interview that Jobs approached him in 2004 to write the first authorized biography. Isaacson, who has penned books about great minds like Ben Franklin and Albert Einstein, thought it was a little presumptuous and turned him down. After all, this was before the iPhone and iPad became game-changers in the smartphone and computer industries.

"You got a long career ahead," Isaacson remembers telling Jobs.

However, by early 2009, it had become apparent to Isaacson how ill Jobs had become. The Apple founder was diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer in 2003 and had been treating it with a variety of alternative medicine treatments before undergoing surgery in an attempt to remove the tumour. Isaacson recognized that Jobs was losing his health battle and jumped at the chance this time, recognizing the cultural and economic impact his company has had.

"I actually think he's about as transforming as anybody of our time, he's up there with Edison or Walt Disney or Ford," Isaacson said.

The writer gained unprecedented access to Jobs, interviewing the California-born computer whiz more than 40 times, as well as talking to his family, co-workers and rivals. The result is a candid portrait of Jobs, from his upbringing as an adopted child to his embrace of 1970s hippie culture to the creation of Apple.

But did Jobs, a notorious control freak, seek to influence how his story was portrayed in the book?

"He asked for [no control] and that always confused me because he is so controlling," Isaacson said. "He said he wouldn't even read the book before it came out. He said he wanted it to be independent and very honest, and he said, 'I just don't want it to feel like an in-house book.'"

The only time Jobs's famous temper did flare over the project was when he saw the design of a proposed cover, which featured an Apple logo. Jobs thought it was "gimmicky" and refused to continue participating unless he was able to help re-design it. Of course, Isaacson relented.

Over the course of the two years Isaacson interviewed Jobs, he saw the many sides of him from the details-obsessed, relentless perfectionist to the family man to the creative spirit behind one of the most successful tech companies of the past few decades. From the day he started working on this book, he aimed to capture the complexity of the man.

"A lot of people pick whichever side of Steve they want to see. He's either the genius or the petulant kid who is kind of tough on people. What I try to do in the book, as any narrative would do, as any biography where you look at the arc of somebody's life, is to show how the petulance, the perfectionism, were woven together. As he gets older, as he creates this most valuable company, it's partly because he's driven by this artistic drive, and it's not just that he's trying to be tough on people or that he's just a genius."


Steve Jobs

by Walter Isaacson

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From the publisher:

"Based on more than forty interviews with Jobs conducted over two years — as well as interviews with more than a hundred family members, friends, adversaries, competitors, and colleagues — Walter Isaacson has written a riveting story of the roller-coaster life and searingly intense personality of a creative entrepreneur whose passion for perfection and ferocious drive revolutionized six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing."

Read more at Simon & Schuster.

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