We know innovation when we see it. But where does it come from? According to acclaimed author Walter Isaacson, who has studied some of the world’s foremost thinkers, innovation emerges at the intersection of knowledge and creativity.
Isaacson, author of the only authorized biography of Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs and himself a world-renowned business mind as former head of Time Magazine and CNN, is currently chairman and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit educational and policy studies organization.
During his IASA Conference keynote address at Monday morning’s opening general session, Isaacson shared stories and insights about Jobs, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Kissinger and others he has written about who “have made that mental leap from having a foundation of knowledge to truly being imaginative.“
Along the way, he hopes to inspire attendees by showing them how they can become a valuable thinker, not just someone with a lot of facts, and add real value to their enterprises. He also provided some serious tips on how to apply imagination and think out of the box.
The Nolan Company is sponsoring Isaacson’s keynote address, along with a drawing for copies of his book, Steve Jobs. Books are available for sale at the IASA booth in the Exhibit Hall immediately following the general session, where Isaacson will be available to sign books.
“When you look at Steve Jobs — other people created computers, but he was able to make sure they were beautiful. He even cared about the parts you can’t see,” Isaacson observed in a preconference interview. For example, when Apple was about to deliver the first Macintosh computer, he delayed shipment until the circuit board inside matched the aesthetics of the outside. Jobs’ “Zen Buddhist training, his trips to gardens in Japan and his love of calligraphy all caused him to realize that beauty matters, both innate beauty and environmental beauty.”
Jobs, according to Isaacson, applied his imagination to create deceptively simple, elegant, beautifully packaged products like the iPod that totally changed the way we listen to and buy music. “Whether a Pixar movie or a Mac book, I was always awed by his ability to apply beauty and imagination to technology,” he says .
Isaacson himself espouses balance in life, along with the value of learning good lessons about creativity from extraordinary people, but not emulating them in every way.
In what he describes as a “warts and all portrait” of Jobs that shows where the innovator’s well-known management style often got in the way of things, Isaacson points out that Jobs still “started his company in his parents’ garage and turned it into the most valuable company in the history of the world.
“Steve was a rough individual and was mean to people at times, but he drove them to do things that they didn’t think they could do,” Isaacson observes.
Could a kinder, gentler Steve Jobs have transformed the personal computer industry, the publishing industry and retailing as he did? “You have to judge someone by the outcome,” Isaacson says. “He formed the greatest team of executives in Silicon Valley and they were fiercely loyal to him. He had a truly loving family with whom he spent a lot of time at the end and they deeply cared about him. When you judge someone’s personality, you have to step back a bit. He wasn’t a saint, but he was successful,” says Isaacson.
In writing Jobs’ biography, Isaacson says he “wanted to get out of the way of a fascinating story. Others would come along later and analyze his life and style and management techniques, but I had access to him and wanted to let him tell the story.” Still, he interviewed more than 100 people whose lives intersected with Jobs’ to bring a broader, fuller perspective to readers.
Isaacson himself seems to relish his life as a biographer and head of a major think tank. “After 25 years of being in the high-pressure news business,” he says, “it’s time to step back and reflect.” The former head of CNN says he is uncomfortable with the 24-hour news cycle where “everyone is reporting every hour speculation and unverified theories. I think it’s important for all of us to know how to step back a bit, form calmer judgments and not feel the need to keep up with an hourly news cycle.”
He also is a firm believer in the power of the biography to enlighten.Isaacson related that he came across a memo written by Henry Kissinger while trying to arrange a peace treaty between Israel’s Golda Meir and Egypt’s Anwar el-Sadat in mid-1970s that read: “When I was a professor at Harvard, I used to think history was determined by great forces, but now that I see it up close, I see what a difference individuals make.”
That’s a lesson to learn, if not to emulate.