RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
When Apple creator Steve Jobs died earlier this month, there was a rush to discover more about this brilliant and guarded man who left behind some of the world's most iconic products. Only one man could offer real insight. Over the course of 40 interviews, biographer Walter Isaacson had unique access to Steve Jobs. Among the revelations in his new book, the influence of Jobs' adoptive father Paul, which offers an early clue to his son Steve's obsessive attention to design and detail.
WALTER ISAACSON: He put a little workbench in the garage and he said, Steve, this is now your workbench. And one of the most important things he taught Steve was it's important to be a great craftsman even for the parts unseen. When they were building a fence, he said you have to make the back of the fence that people won't see look just as beautiful as the front, just like a great carpenter would make the back of chest of drawers, use a good piece of wood, even though nobody will see that piece of wood - it faces the wall. Even though others won't see it, you will know it's there and that will make you more proud of your design.
MONTAGNE: There is another aspect of Steve Jobs' personality that goes way back, which is that he was adopted and it had two opposite effects on him.
ISAACSON: Well, he goes across the street when he's about six or seven years old. The girl across the street, he talks about being adopted, and she says, ooh, does that mean your parents didn't want you? Steve remembers going, lightning bolts went off in my head, I was crying, I went back to my house and talked to my parents - his adoptive parents, but he always called them his real parents. And they said, no, no, no, Steve. It wasn't as if you were abandoned. We specially picked you out. You were chosen. So I think you have three jangling feelings that come out of that, one of which is being abandoned and whether that affects you, but also being special, being chosen, and as Jobs told me when he talked about it, also feeling slightly apart, slightly independent.
MONTAGNE: Let's talk about a thread through this entire book. It seems like everybody brings it up, including Steve Jobs' wife. His reality distortion field - explain what that is.
ISAACSON: It was invented, the term, by two engineers at the original Macintosh team, which is Steve will say something like this piece of software needs to be written by the end of the week, and they say, no, no, it'll take three months. And he says, no, in reality it has to be done by the end of this week and it will be done. And then it would happen, just like in the old days when he first was hanging with Steve Wozniak. He said we got to do Breakout - you know, this new game they were developing at Atari - in four days. And Wozniak said his reality distortion field made you believe you could do things that were impossible, and it worked for him 90, 95 percent of the time.
MONTAGNE: Although demanding is one thing, but the sort of way that you described Steve Jobs walking into a room and calling people idiots right to their face and worse.
ISAACSON: He would say this is a dumb idea. This stinks. In the original Macintosh team, they gave an award to the person who each year stood up to Steve Jobs the best. And the interesting thing is those who stood up to him the best, who pushed back, who said no and who won these awards, he was sort of amused by this award. He knew about it, and those people ended up getting promoted.
MONTAGNE: Steve Jobs, if he's anything at all, he's a man of contradictions. He became a Buddhist and he was a vegetarian and many things he did would suggest a man who was calm. And in fact, Buddhism didn't offer him peace, piece of mind.
ISAACSON: Well, he never had a lack of intensity. He always was passionate. But what he does is he combines, in a way that Silicon Valley did in the early 1970s, the ethos of the counterculture with the entrepreneurial ethos. And before then people thought of computers as sort of tools of the power structure. But he's able to merge the contradictions that seem inherent between, you know, the hippie flower power culture and then the microprocessor power culture of the electronic geeks.
MONTAGNE: Someone as iconic in a way certainly as Steve Jobs is Bill Gates. What did he think about Bill Gates when it came to being creative or aesthetic?
ISAACSON: These are what I call in the book the binary star systems of the digital age, like two stars whose gravitational pull is so strong that their orbits are linked. And to say that they loved each other would be wrong; to say that they hated or disliked each other would be wrong. It was one of those complex digital age relationships where there is both a rivalry and a respect and they realize how interrelated they are. One of the things, though, that Bill Gates felt about Steve Jobs - correctly - was that he was not a great technologist. He correctly said, you know, Steve Jobs doesn't code. He's not an engineer. On the other hand, Jobs felt - also correctly - that Bill Gates did not have intuitive taste. He didn't have a passion for the aesthetics or the design. And so that desire for perfection and control is ingrained in the Steve Jobs character, but also that sense of openness, licensing it out, let different people try different things with your software - that's ingrained in the Bill Gates' character. And the good thing is, both methods contribute greatly to the growth of the digital age.
MONTAGNE: Well, when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, his first instinct was to keep that a secret and revert back in a way to his longstanding – his earliest hippie instincts, to treat it in an alternative way.
ISAACSON: He tried alternative treatments, and so for a few months he thought I don't want my body opened. I don't want to be violated. I want to see if there are alternative methods. But he does have the operation nine months later. I think - or I know, since he told me - he regrets waiting so long. And we'll never know whether he would have caught the cancer. But let's remember, he lives for another seven years, and seven astonishingly productive years. That magical thinking actually works, and he beats back the cancer, stays one step ahead of it, for quite a long time, long enough to create, you know, great iPods and the iPad and the iPhone.
MONTAGNE: You were there talking to him in those last few months, and you described an afternoon where he speaks to you about God.
ISAACSON: We're sitting in his backyard and it's a sunny day and he was not in the best of health at the time. But, you know, he reflected on whether or not there was an afterlife. And he said, you know, I'm kind of 50-50 on believing in God. But I want to believe that something endures, that your wisdom that you accumulate somehow is able to endure after you die. And then he pauses and he says maybe that's just wishful thinking. Maybe it's just like an on-off switch, and it goes click, you're off, you're gone, it's over. And then he paused for a moment and he said, maybe that's why I didn't like to put on-off switches on Apple devices.
MONTAGNE: Walter Isaacson, thank you very much for joining us.
ISAACSON: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Walter Isaacson's new biography is called simply "Steve Jobs."