LAS VEGAS: IBM kicked off its Impact conference in Vegas on Monday in a rather unusual way. Out was the corporate video, showing a corny round-up of all the firm’s achievements over the past 12 months followed by a stilted executive speech; in was a talk by Walter Isaacson, chairman of policy studies organisation the Aspen Institute, and more famously known as Steve Jobs’ biographer, on the lessons Jobs' legacy can teach on innovation and creativity.
Isaacson introduced his subject with a typical example of Jobs’ humility.
“Steve called me after I’d done my books on [Benjamin] Franklin and [Albert] Einstein and said ‘Why don’t you do me next?’, Isaacson said. However, Isaacson went on to explain that this was a fair comparison based on the passion and creativity these individuals had.
One of the anecdotes Isaacson gave about Jobs was back when the Apple former chief executive was a child and was helping his father build a fence. Jobs’ father said to him they had to make the back of the fence just as beautiful as the front. When Jobs questioned this, pointing out that nobody would ever see the back, his dad responded: ‘You will know’. Jobs said this was one of the most important lessons of his life.
Isaacson also told delegates that Jobs’ favourite phrase was, ‘Don't be afraid, you can do it’, which he’d use to encourage anyone from Steve Wozniak to Corning’s chief executive to do what he wanted them to do – in this case, speed up some coding or design Gorilla Glass respectively - and meet his exacting standards.
The passion that Jobs had for his products was matched by that of Einstein, Isaacson said.
“For Einstein, it started at about age seven, when his father gave him a compass. Einstein marvelled that nothing was touching the needle, but it kept twitching,” Isaacson explained.
“[In response to the rule that] time marches along second by second, irrespective of how we observe it, Einstein said, ‘How do we know?’ He came up with the idea that time is relevant as he thought different.”
Jobs and Einstein were also similar in continuing to think differently on their deathbeds.
Einstein was still trying to figure out a unified field theory days before his death, working out why the compass needle twitched and pointed North. During the process of writing his biography, Isaacson said he went to view the six or seven pages Einstein wrote about this: “He wrote line after line of maths equation, even when he was dying in hospital. Eventually the hand writing gets shaky and dribbles off.”
Jobs was similarly driven to the end. Isaacson said that last summer, when it became clear that Jobs was having real trouble in his battle with cancer, he talked about the legacy of great products and worried over whether 100 years from now, Apple would still be seen as an innovator, as a handful of firms like IBM and Disney have managed to do.
Isaacson asked Jobs at the time whether he still felt spiritual.
“Yeah I like to believe that there’s something more to what we do here,” Jobs said.
“But then sometimes when I’m depressed, I think maybe death is like an on/off switch, click and you’re gone. Maybe that’s why I didn’t like big on/off switches on Apple devices.”
Isaacson finished by reminding the Impact audience that the lesson of any great innovator is “you’re part of something bigger. Every single one of the people I wrote about, they felt they were part of something bigger.”
The next project for Isaacson is a book about computing history, and he noted that the IBM name keeps cropping up. No doubt Jobs and his legacy at Apple will feature heavily also.
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