When I switched schools after the ninth grade, I had to say goodbye to my buddy Ian. There was no Facebook back then, no easy way to stay connected. You can imagine my surprise, then, when on the first day of 10th grade, Ian showed up at the new school too. Fate has intervened repeatedly since then. We've experienced weddings and funerals, highs and lows. We've lived close by and a continent apart. There's almost nothing we don't know about each other. In many ways, we know one another better than we know ourselves.
That's the kind of relationship Brent Schlender had with Steve Jobs. For decades, they shared confidences and experiences; Schlender as he rose from The Wall Street Journal to Fortune, Jobs as he launched Apple, left, and then triumphantly returned.
Much has been written about Jobs since his death last October. But no journalist knew him the way Schlender did. In recent months, Schlender has been poring over tapes he made of their conversations, some of which had never been transcribed, others of which lay forgotten at the bottom of old file drawers. He's been reflecting on his friend's legacy, sifting for the most important lessons.
The result, as seen in " 'I Just Knew in My Bones That This Was Going to Be Very Important,' " is a reconsideration of Jobs by the journalist who knew him best. Schlender's piece, buttressed with ample quotes from those tapes, suggests that a true appreciation and understanding of Jobs's growth process has been missing. (The iPad edition of this issue includes audio from these never-before-heard tapes.) In particular, Schlender is drawn to the period before Jobs's second run at Apple, and most specifically to his experiences with Pixar, as the critical maturation period in Jobs's outlook, philosophy, and management perspective. All the attributes that made the Jobs II era at Apple different—and more successful—than the Jobs I era, Schlender argues, find their roots in Pixar.
It is unusual for an outlet like Fast Company, which focuses so relentlessly on what is coming next, to look back—let alone look back 20 years—for insight. As I stressed in my February cover story on Generation Flux, nostalgia for the past is a dangerous tendency in times of rapid change like we are experiencing today. But gleaning lessons from an ahead-of-his-time leader is not the same thing as nostalgia. The many Apple-inspired ecosystems that are now driving our economy forward might not have come to be were it not for the lessons Jobs learned in the mid-1990s.
Not that everything Jobs believed back then has come to pass—nor have all his other predictions proved prescient, as the interview excerpts included alongside Schlender’s article illustrate (see "The Things Jobs Missed"). At the same time, the evolving nature of Jobs’s assessments, seen in their real-time vernacular, show just how important iterative thinking was to his success—and to the mind-set that is required in today’s flux-heavy world.
Get our iPad app to hear excerpts from "The Lost Steve Jobs Tapes", along with a special podcast with never-before-heard audio.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.