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CityLit LIVE Blog #5 Walter Isaacson

By Katrina Stevens

Walter Isaacson, a Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar, former managing editor of Time Magazine and Chairman and CEO of CNN, now President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, is perhaps most famously known for writing the biography of Steve Jobs.

Working closely with Jobs caused Isaacson to recognize that biographers rarely have the opportunity to truly know their subjects, to spend time with their subjects the way he did. The project made him rethink his work as a biographer and the importance of capturing “the first draft of history.”

When Steve Jobs first asked Isaacson to write his biography, he didn’t realize that Jobs was ill. He felt Jobs was a bit audacious, to say the least, to place himself in the same category as Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein (subjects of Isaacson’s other books), especially given the early stage of his career.  Through continued conversations with Jobs, Isaacson came to understand his health situation and secured a promise from Jobs that he would not micromanage the project. In fact, Jobs agreed not to read the book until it was published. Isaacson did share that despite the promise to allow an unbiased account of his life, Jobs did suggest several thematic strands of interpreting his life. Unfortunately, Jobs didn’t have a chance to read the book before he died. Isaacson did read the last 6 pages to him aloud–the parts that were Jobs’ own words.  Jobs just nodded.

Isaacson stated clearly that his intent was not to defend Jobs who was clearly a genius but most definitely not a saint.  His singular focus often trampled other visions and prevented him from caring about issues outside his own personal vision. While sometimes Jobs was a major jerk, he also engendered fierce loyalty.

Still, Jobs transformed multiple industries—the home computer, the music business, the film industry. He reinvented the creation myth at large of the Silicon Valley garage startup; he gets kicked out of his own company and then is brought back, both times bringing the company to a force in the world. Isaacson saw Steve Jobs’ impatience and petulance were attached to his passion for a product.  His mantra of wanting to make great products not great profits often delayed projects about a month—just to make sure each was perfect, beautiful and ready.

Perhaps most fascinating was the connection Isaacson made between the intersection of counterculture and electronic culture.  Jobs believed that creativity would occur at the intersection of humanities-types and science-types.  Gates was recognized as a better coder and programmer, but he didn’t have that counterculture feel that Steve brought.  The time that others see as Jobs’ lost years possibly fed the success of Jobs and his company.  His time spent in ashrams in India and experimenting at Pixar taught him lessons that ultimately shaped Apple when Jobs returned. In the end, Jobs wanted his company to remain at the intersection of technology and the humanities.

Isaacson ended with sharing what he saw as the hardest thing we do in life and hardest to learn: knowing when to stay true to your passions and when to find common ground and compromise. Steve Jobs, as we all do, wrestled with this tension to the end of his short, impressive life.

Katrina Stevens blogs all things education, technology, the arts, and Baltimore. She supervises literacy for the Baltimore County Public Schools. Katrina is also the co-founder of LessonCast Learning, a Baltimore-based education technology company that provides blended professional development. She was also recently awarded the national Apple Broadway League for her work with the Hippodrome Foundation. Katrina blogs regularly at

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