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Steve Jobs Biographer: Apple Founder Was Driven By Simplicity, Mystical Thinking, And Occasional LSD Use

Walter Isaacson talks with Fast Company about the method and philosophy that made Steve Jobs better than his competitors at innovation, products, and design. Bill Gates would "be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger," Jobs said.

"His whole life is a combination of mystical enlightenment thinking with hardcore rational thought," Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs' biographer, tells Fast Company. "He has an intuition for connecting artistry with technology and that allows you to make imaginative leaps." Jobs leveraged a combination of both the humanities and sciences to fold highly sophisticated products into intensely simple designs.

In essence, Steve Jobs, the book, is an extroardinary tale of the excruciating obsessiveness behind simplicity. The motivation for every product detail, as Isaacson tells it—from rounded corners on desktops to the open architecture of Apple retail stores—springs from an initially mundane-seeming episode of Jobs's life, from auditing calligraphy classes at Stanford to studying the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture of his boyhood suburb. Jobs applied these life lessons with a famously controlling, strong-armed approach, obsessing over the tiniest details and lambasting his closest competitors for their oversights, which appear as gossip-worthy quotes peppered through the biography—a biography that comes loaded with as much buzz and curiosity as the next iPhone. 

Isaacson tells Fast Company what he learned about innovation and simplicity from the master of new product launches.

Intuition

"I’m one of the few people who understands how producing technology requires intuition and creativity, and how producing something artistic takes real discipline," Jobs told Isaacson. But his intuition was not inherited. "He called it experiential wisdom," says Isaacson, who writes that Jobs's believed that everything from his Buddhist training to his recreational use of LSD contributed to this sixth sense. These experiences "form certain patterns and values that you have to be attuned to," Jobs believed. 

"[Bill Gates would] be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger," Jobs once said, in one of his more memorable quotes from the book.

Isaacson says that these intuition-powered decisions "might mean he wouldn't be able to explain why you needed a handle on top of the desktop iMac or why you needed the certain curve you did on the bottom of the iPad, but he trusted his artistic intuition as much as he trusted rational thinking."

Clearly, though, Jobs didn't think teachers should hand out exams on acid-laced Scantrons, so what lessons where there for the rest of us who didn't have time to visit an ashram? "The insight is not just to nurture the science, math and engineering side of your self, but also the creative side," Isaacson says.

Simple Sophistication

"He truly believed that simplicity was a virtue," says Isaacson. Indeed, a statement often attributed to Leonardo De Vinci adorned the early Mac manual: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

"Jobs spent days agonizing over just how rounded the corners should be," writes Issacson about Jobs's obsessions over the Apple II, one of many perfectionist tendencies that would irk his colleagues into sustained brooding and often lead them to quit.

But he inspired those who weathered his tirades and searing criticism.

During his micromanagement of the iPod creation, Isaacson writes,

"If he couldn’t figure out how to navigate to something, or if it took more than three clicks, he would be brutal. "There would be times when we'd rack our brains on a user interface problem, and think we'd considered every option, and he would go, 'Did you think of this?'" said [Apple Engineer, Tony] Fadell. "And then we’d all go, 'Holy shit.' He’d redefine the problem or approach, and our little problem would go away."

Rigid Control, Sort Of

"Steve's genius is that he knows how to make things simple, and that sometimes requires controlling everything," long-time partner Steve Wozniak is quoted as saying. Jobs's control would manifest itself in Apple's notorious fights with Google over Android's open app store and his refusal to license the Mac operating system to other hardware developers, like Windows does.

"Bill Gates said to me at the end that Steve's closed system worked. But, it only worked when you had a maestro like Steve orchestrating it," recalls Isaacson.

As leader of Apple, the sense of control was both a mix of dictatorial control and an open-minded exchange of ideas—if employees could match Jobs's wit. "It works both ways," Isaacson recalls Jobs explaining to him, "I can tell people in a meeting that they're full of shit, but they can bark back at me and tell me I'm full of shit. And then we have the most rip-roaring arguments and that's why we work together well."

For example, Isaacson, notes, Jobs did not want the iPod to work on Windows. "They argued about it for months—rip roaring arguments. And, you know what, Steve conceded."

Isaacson argues that collaboration is essential at Apple because all of the products are so interconnected, a modification to something as simple as a screw would affect multiple devisions at the company. "At Apple there was sort of the deep collaboration, because there were no divisions and because the engineers and the marketers and the designers had to work together from the very beginning."

Despite awards and promotions given for standing up to Jobs, Isaacson admits, "Obviously, Steve's tastes were commanding at all times," which gives some context to this famous interview (below) he had with Walt Mossberg.

"The Magic of Technology"

"Unlike most kids who grew up in Eichler homes, Jobs knew what they were and why they were so wonderful. He liked the notion of simple and clean modernism produced for the masses," writes Isaacson, regarding the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired homes of Jobs's boyhood suburb.

"Eichler did a great thing," said Jobs. "I love it when you can bring really great design and simple capability to something that doesn’t cost much," noting that this philosophy was the "original vision for Apple."

Jobs's vision for products were driven by his ultra-ambitious beliefs in what technology for the masses could achieve, as described by Isaacson in a telling example of when Jobs wanted to motivate an engineer to decrease the Macintosh boot time.

"If it could save a person’s life, would you find a way to shave ten seconds off the boot time?" [Jobs] asked. Jobs went to a whiteboard and showed that if there were five million people using the Mac, and it took ten seconds extra to turn it on every day, that added up to 300 million or so hours per year that people would save, which was the equivalent of at least 100 lifetimes saved per year." [Engineer, Larry Kenyon] was suitably impressed, and a few weeks later he came back and it booted up twenty-eight seconds faster," [Bill] Atkinson recalled. "Steve had a way of motivating by looking at the bigger picture."

"He believed that technology was individually empowering," says Isaacon. "For him, that was the theme of the 1984 ad, that the the personal computer was not big brother, it would individually empower you. That, for him, was the magic of technology."  

The biography was clearly a work of great effort: roughly three years of work, more than 40 interviews with Jobs himself, and many more with friends, colleagues, and adversaries. Isaacson had to leave his own conference, the Aspen Institute Washington Ideas Forum, the day Jobs passed away, ironically excusing himself from an interview with Henry Kissinger, the subject of one of Isaacson's previous biographies.

Appropriately enough, in 2004, Jobs asked Isaacson to write his biography, presciently arguing that, "he would make a good subject." Isaacson politely dismissed the request, only to accept the offer five years later, finally seeing an extraordinary story in the making. One more time, Jobs got his way because he was right.

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[Top image: Patrice Gilbert; homepage image: acaben]