Despite his tendency to “infuriate,” Steve Jobs’ emotional and spiritual intensity are what made his family and closest colleagues love him, according to Walter Isaacson in an interview with the Washington Post’s Sally Quinn.
Sally Quinn: You said in [a recent] interview that you liked Steve Jobs.
Walter Isaacson: I don’t think it was just a question of liking him. I admired him, respected him, and found him unbelievably compelling even though he’s not your usual role model. I mean, he wasn’t the sweetest person I’ve ever met. But he was certainly the most interesting and, in some ways, mesmerizing person I’ve met.
SQ: If Jobs hadn’t been successful, would people still admire him?
WI: I tried to make it all come together in the book, which is the passionate perfectionism that causes him to be hard-driving and not put up with things that he considered mediocre. It’s what led him to create great products, but also to gather around him a loyal and talented team. So, to say that you can separate that passion for perfection and that demanding nature from the fact that he kept driving them like crazy to make the iPod perfect, is wrong. His personality is integrated into his success just like Apple products have the software and the hardware integrated with one another.
SQ: You’ve written books on Franklin, Einstein, and Steve Jobs. None of them were what you would call overtly religious, but they were all spiritual. Are you driven to that kind of person?
WI: I do think it’s important, if you’re going to be very creative, to be a seeker. And Steve Jobs believed his whole life that he was on a journey, a journey for enlightenment. And he said you’re never going to achieve all the answers, or perfect enlightenment, but that the journey is the reward. Just being the seeker, somebody whose open to spiritual enlightenment, is in itself the important thing and it’s the reward for being a seeker in this world. Steve was not conventionally religious because he was very unsure. He said, “I’ll never know the answer. It’s the great mystery.” But he at least knew it was a great mystery instead of dismissing the whole notion of a quest.
SQ: How would you compare him and his spirituality to that of Einstein and Franklin?
WI: I think Steve Jobs was more on a quest for enlightenment. When he was young, when he was 13, he looked at a cover of Life Magazine that had two starving children. And he had been going to the Lutheran Sunday school of his parents. And he brought it to the pastor and he said, “does God know about this?” And the pastor said, “Steve I know you don’t understand, but God knows everything.” And Steve said, “Well I don’t want to have anything to do with that God.” And he didn’t go back to church. But he felt that there was a great mystery and there were many, many doors that could lead you on the quest for seeking enlightenment about the great mystery. And that different religions were just different doors to the same quest for enlightenment. He was not religious in the sense that he thought his own particular door, or his own particular path, or his own particular quest was the right one. He was religious in the sense that he thought it was a great mystery, and event though we’ll never know the answer, we still continue on the journey.
SQ: What would you call him if you had to give him a label?
WI: I would call him a seeker.
SQ: Would he use that word?
WI: I think he felt he was on a journey. A journey that was in some ways a quest for enlightenment, that he did feel there were truly enlightened beings. He engaged in Zen Buddhist training and a quest of his own to India, as he sought enlightenment. Off and on throughout his life, his Buddhist training influenced his understanding of enlightenment and our purpose in this world. I don’t think he would consider himself a practicing Buddhist at all points in his life. But I do think he would say that Buddhism influenced his appreciation for the journey that we all are embarked upon.
SQ: When he had that experienced when he was 13, did he give up in believing in God or he just decide that God was not good?
WI: Oh, I think that he gave up on going to church and of conventional worshipping of a personal God who directs everything in life. But he didn’t give up the notion that there is a mystery about what more there might be, and – and that one should always be open to whatever enlightenment can come from such a quest.
SQ: He seemed to be inconsistent in his quest.
WI: And who have you ever met who wasn’t? (Laughs)
SQ: But he would go through periods when he was really into and then he would sort of back off and not be that involved.
WI: Well, I think that when it came to his Buddhism, when he was young it was an important part of defining his journey. Then – I don’t think that at all times in his life was he equally a practitioner. But I think that it probably informed his sensibility and his appreciation of life’s journey throughout his life. I think, like almost every everybody else in this world, he didn’t feel the same thing every year, and he didn’t practice the same way every year.
SQ: He did talk about meaning – at Stanford – and at one point he said I look in the mirror and think about, am I doing what I want to be doing today. And if I’m not doing it for a couple of days then I begin to think I’m not doing the right thing.
WI: Right, I think that came from his sense that he had particular passions and he wasn’t going to abandon those passions to play by other people’s expectations or rules.
SQ: That conversation you had with him in the garden where he said, “I’m about 50-50 on believing in God. For most of my life I’ve felt that there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.” You say that he was hoping that there would be an afterlife. What do you think about that? What do you think he believed?
WI: I think he believed what he told me, which is, he didn’t know. It was a great mystery. And the mystery, sometimes he felt there was more, sometimes he felt, maybe there wasn’t more. He said that all religions are just doors that try to help you on a path of enlightenment about the great mystery. But he didn’t pretend to have any answers, and that’s why he called it the great mystery.
SQ: You said he began to think about it more toward the end of his life, and actually talk about it more.
WI: I think, he said to me that he’s always thought it was a great mystery, but at the end of his life he began thinking about what happens to all the wisdom that you accumulate. But I don’t think he felt that he had gotten the answer.
SQ: Mona Simpson’s eulogy. I’m sure you’ve been asked about this a million times. In his last words [Oh Wow, Oh Wow, Oh Wow] what was he talking about?
WI: The good thing about Steve is, he appreciated the great mystery. And I have no clue as to what he really meant by that, and I think it just allows us to appreciate the fact that some things are a great mystery. I could not begin to speculate what he might have been thinking when he said.
SQ: Does it surprise you?
WI: No. Everything about Steve has a certain beauty and intensity to it. And I came to respect and even be inspired by the emotional intensities of his life. And when it came to what he was thinking at the end, it would be horribly presumptuous of me to believe that I could explain his final thoughts.
SQ: It’s a great mystery; it must make you curious as a reporter. (Laughs)
WI: The great thing is that he appreciated the great mystery and I think he helped all of us appreciate the beauty, as well as the mystery of life.