WALTER ISAACSON INTERVIEW: STEVE JOBS WEIGHED ALL THE OPTIONS FOR HIS CANCER TREATMENT
By Leander Kahney
Cult of Mac
Oct 24 2011
Earlier today I got a chance to talk to Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs’
authorized biographer. Isaacson’s 620-page book hits bookstands today.
He spoke while preparing to check out of his hotel in New York, where
he’s conducting a whirlwind media tour for the book, which promises
to be one of the biggest hits of the year.
In our interview, Isaacson revealed that Jobs was actually a lot more
active in his cancer treatment than previous reports have suggested.
He also thinks Apple will be OK without Jobs because he spent a decade
building a great team and an institution infused with his DNA. And
that the man, like the company he built, was an intriguiging mix of
the arts and sciences.
Leander Kahney: It’s an astonishing piece of work. I’m amazed.
Walter Isaacson: You know more about this than anybody.
LK: I didn’t know so much. He was so private.
WI: He was private but he also wanted his story told.
LK: I read that you were pretty skeptical initially – or reluctant.
WI: When he first talked to me in 2004 I thought he was a young enough
guy, I’ll do it in 20 or 30 years when he retires. I didn’t realize
that he was sick. In fact, it wasn’t until 2009 that we started
LK: He knew then that he had cancer, right?
WI: He was about to be operated on, yes.
LK: But he didn’t tell you that, he kept it quiet?
WI: I don’t think he told a lot of people until he had his operation.
LK: How was the experience of the last two years?
WI: It was intense. He was more intense and more emotional and more
open than I expected. We spent a lot of time just in conversation
walking and talking. The essence of him I think is the ability to
tie a great emotional intensity to a kind of rational technological
LK: Did you like him?
WI: Yes. I liked him when I first met him in 1984 and I sort of liked
him but was rather charmed by his intensity.
LK: Right. A lot of people talk about his charisma. But that’s
different to getting to like somebody. So you got to like him. Did
he scream at you?
WI: He got mad at me when he saw a proposed design for the cover
about eight months ago. He expressed himself in a full and frank
manner when we were on the phone. He told me a variety of words that
he thought of the proposed cover. Then he said that he would really
only go forward if he had some input into the cover design and I spent
about two seconds thinking about that and said sure. He’s got the best
design eye in the world so I was quite happy for him to have input and
mentioned it in the introduction to the book so that everybody knows.
LK: This was the only input he’s had in the book?
WI: Right. He told me he didn’t want to read it in advance and he
said that there would be a lot in there that he wouldn’t like but he
didn’t want it to feel like an in-house book.
LK: How do you feel about it? How do you think it turned out?
WI: I think that it has a narrative arc to it of a person who is both
rebellious and part of a counterculture, but who can connect to being
sensible and scientific and businesslike. To me, that’s the essence
of his life. It’s connecting these two opposing strands. That of the
counter-culture and poetry and that of processors.
LK: It sort of parallels the very essence of Apple too.
WI: He told me at the very beginning in 2009 that Edwin Land (of
Polaroid) had once told him that standing at the intersection of
humanities and technology was a great place to be. I think that made
a deep impression on Steve and it turned out to be a theme that became
part of the book.
LK: One of the biggest revelations from the book was his delayed
WI: Yeah. That fits into the theme in a way because it wasn’t just
as if he was trying counterculture cures, or whatever you want to
call it – a New Age way of treating it.
He was doing that but at the same time he starts soliciting the
best scientific advice, including targeted therapies and stuff at
the frontiers of DNA sequencing. So it’s sort of both sides of his
personality become engaged and eventually they connect.
Now, it took him longer. When he decides to have the operation after
people are telling him to and he’s absorbed the information. I think he
would have preferred, once he knew he was going to have the operation,
I think he thought he should have done it sooner. But that’s only in
retrospect, I’m sure.
LK: So he was actually more proactive? He was looking at all the
different options – alternative as well as traditional?
WI: Right. And I don’t make it incredibly clear in the book but I do
talk about all the DNA sequencing and frontline scientific approach.
So you have that connection even with his cancer situation – the
connection of that New Age rebel who resists conventional authority
and the rigorous believer in technology and science. And in the end,
the science wins out and he does all sorts of therapies that keep him
alive wonderfully for seven years, during which he brings out iPods
and iPhones and iPads. And he kept on, as he put it, being one little
lily pad in front of the cancer for many, many years.
LK: I was struck that he always obsessed with death. He almost had
a Freudian Thanatos syndrome.
WI: Yes, a lot of people wrote about it and talked about it. He talked
about life being an arc and that were all going to die. I also think
that it comes from his Buddhist training that life is a journey and
that the journey is the reward.
LK: The Buddhism thing. I don’t really recall him talking about it
at all. Was he really a Buddhist? Did he really believe?
WI: He felt he got a lot from his Buddhist training. He told me – and
it’s in the book – he had gone on a quest for enlightenment to India
and he comes back with the Zen Buddhist appreciation for intuition
and experiential, he calls it, and wisdom. And he says not everything
can be done analytically. This intuitive experiential wisdom that he
learned to appreciate – and, if I might say, that too fits into the
arc of the narrative that I was describing of there being two parts
of Steve’s personality and he’s able to connect the ethereal part to
the analytical part.
LK: What about the spiritual part? Believing in life after death,
WI: At the very end of my book I have him talk about that, sitting
in his garden. It’s the last page of my book. He said he’s 50/50.
Sometimes he believes there’s an afterlife and we all live on and the
experiences we have live on. And sometimes he thinks it’s a switch,
when you die, ‘click,’ you’re gone.
I think he felt that. He kept telling me, ‘It’s the great mystery.’
And for somebody like him, he could appreciate the mystery instead
of just trying to know the answer. The journey is the reward.
LK: How do you think Apple is going to do without him?
WI: I think that his goal was not just to create great products but
to create a great company that had this connection between creativity
and technology infused into its DNA. He felt that’s why he had to be
rough on people at times, to create a team that would have a company
that would last for generations. That’s why he was so interested in
designing the new headquarters because he believed it would be an
enduring expression of that. I think that he has a pretty amazing
team. People say that he was hard to work with but the proof is in
the pudding and people actually remain loyal to him and he created a
team of A players and they stay fanatically loyal to him. For all the
talk – including in my book of him being hard to work with – you also
have to look at what was the outcome. You have a team in there now
that ranges from Tim Cook to Jony Ive: from totally focused engineers
to very artistic people. And I think that Apple is the company most
likely to be around in generations from now, like Disney.
LK: Andy Herzfeld at the end of the book had a very interesting quote
that he felt that Steve was sometimes unnecessarily mean.
WI: Steve answered that to me by saying, ‘There’s probably a more
velvet-gloved way to have done things. We all talk in code but that’s
not who I am. I’m just some middle class kid from California. And we
have rip-roaring arguments at Apple where we can each tell each other
that you’re full of shit and to me that creates the best team. And
it makes sure you don’t get the bozo explosion where there’s too many
mediocre people there.’
I think that there was probably a more velvet-gloved way to do things.
But people who wear velvet gloves don’t often make a dent in the
LK: Yes there’s definitely truth to that but there’s also the
experience with Daniel Kottke, his good friend, and how he didn’t
have any early shares in Apple.
WI: I talked about that on 60 minutes last night. I don’t know how to
say this politely but you have to make certain cut-offs. This is the
two sides of Steve, which is the old rebel side but also the rigorous
business side. And you have to say: “At this level people get stock
options.” But then you can’t go and randomly say, ‘But this kid was
in college with me and in the garage and I love him so let’s give
Eventually Kottke did get options too. But Steve has a very emotional
impact on people, so when he acts in a very rational way it can
LK: I see, okay.
WI: Also, you have to judge people. You have to judge if these people
are valuable to the future of the company.
LK: It always seems the company first.
WI: I think his passion for perfection drove him to care intensely
about having only the best players at Apple. ‘A Players’ like to work
with A players and that was his goal at Apple.
LK: And did he very much achieve this in your opinion?
WI: Absolutely. I mean look, and maybe I’m part of the reality
distortion field, but home run after home run. People said the iPod
is not going to work. Then the iPhone, the iPad. Each one of these
digital hub devices becomes a home-run out of the blue.
Likewise, ten movies in a row (at Pixar) are home runs. So you have
to look at the result.
How many home runs does any other company have in a row? One or two
or three? But not this many. And so you know, this is the company
that will be remembered a generation from now.
LK: Do you think Pixar is a good example of why Apple will be okay
WI: Yes, once again it’s a company that stands at the intersection
of the liberal arts and technology. And once again he has created a
great headquarters for it and he also nurtured a great team. Pixar
is doing just fine and Apple is doing just fine.
LK: Well, better than just fine. Could I just ask you just one question
that the readers asked? They asked about his Armenian heritage. Did
he speak Armenian?
WI:-No. His mother was a refugee from Armenia. Clara Jobs was an
Armenian refugee but her parents came over and as far as I know Steve
never spoke any Armenian.
LK: What was his favorite App? Did he have one?
WI: He told me that he loved the newspaper apps because he really
hoped the iPad would be able to save the business of journalism just
as the iPod helped music.
LK: Great. Many thanks for your time.