Inspirational Reads

Steve Jobs By Walter Isaacson

STEVE JOBS: THE EXCLUSIVE BIOGRAPHY

By Walter Isaacson
We do not need to be told that Steve Jobs was a genius. That fact is spelt out clearly in his legacy of brilliant and beautiful innovations, devices, systems, concepts and a company that, ten years after his death, still towers over the world of information technology. What we do want to know is how such genius could arise in a difficult adopted child from a chaotic background. If any book can offer answers, it is this one: written by a professor of history at Tulane that had been CEO of the Aspen Institute, chair of CNN and editor of Time, and the author of a series of bestselling biographies of some of the world’s greatest geniuses.

 “It’s your book” said Steve Jobs when he chose Walter Isaacson to write this definitive biography, “I won’t even read it.” Here was a man, notorious for his need to control, apparently giving a stranger unfettered permission to expose his disturbed background and turbulent career. Jobs did, with some initial reluctance, live up to that promise by encouraging even his harshest critics – past colleagues that he had fired, abused or abandoned – to be interviewed by Isaacson.

The result is an extraordinarily rich and textured account of a very complex and unpredictable character. On the one hand he could exemplify the serenity of his Buddhist beliefs – a quality evident in the techno-Zen minimalism of his creations and preferred lifestyle. On the other hand his colleagues could see him as a swearing, vindictive Rasputin figure who stole others’ ideas, told lies and could treat family and lovers appallingly.

His public image was a lot less complicated: he was known as a God-like figure that created the most innovative computer company in the 1970s and raised it from the dead twenty years later. He was a techno-guru before adoring disciples. We read that, when the iPhone was first released, Jobs visited his local Apple store and was hailed “as if Moses had walked in to buy a Bible”. On the launch of the iPad it was said: “The last time there was this much excitement about a tablet, it had some commandments written on it.”

It is indeed good for humanity to have the example and inspiration of idols and saviours. But it is also vital to understand the bigger picture, one that reveals the human beneath the myth as this book does so successfully. If the Great and the Good were truly God-like, then what hope could there be for the rest of us ordinary mortals? This book is not a hagiography, but rather a realistic exploration of the contradictions that can deliver greatness, provided that they are not denied.

Jobs claimed to be above the allure of greedy materialism, and yet he created gadgets that inspired the whole world with the lust to possess them. He embraced a creed of silent mindful awareness, and yet he destroyed that inner peace with a smart phone connecting us into the whole chaos of existence. But can there be any value in transcending materialism if you have never experienced the lust to possess? What is the value of achieving one-ness if you have never lived multiplicity? If someone who begins his life in revolt against capitalism ends up as CEO of the world’s richest company, does that make him a hypocrite or a boundary-shattering genius? We need books like this to help answer such questions.

We also learn that Jobs’ final wish was for everyone at his funeral to be given a copy of The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda – a book that he adored and re-read every year. How much of the man’s deeper nature can be found by reading this book, and why did he think it was so important for the next generation of business leaders to read it?

The Business Innovation Leaders Forum interviewed Nalanie Harilela Chellaram and Shaman Chellaram – two members of the famous Harilela business family that are also known for their experience bridging modern business and spiritual insights. The interview asks why this autobiography was so influential and what it meant for Jobs. This podcast will be released though the Business Innovation Leaders Forum this January.

And for this Book of the Month we are also offering the option to include The Autobiography of a Yogi as a bonus for those wanting to dig deeper into the mind of Steve Jobs.

Cukier

FRAMERS: HUMAN ADVANTAGE IN AN AGE OF TECHNOLOGY AND TURMOIL

By Kenneth Cukier, Victor Mayer-Schoenberger and Francis de Vericourt
The authors of the bestselling Big Data show how humans have a unique cognitive ability to innovate mental models that allow us to spot patterns, make predictions and grasp new situations. While computers and AI are proving their superiority at reasoning, this ability to “frame” is unique to humans, and an essential skill for the 21st century.

The technique of “re-framing” personal problems became popular in the 1970s. Basically it required one to take a step back from confrontation in order to gain a wider, more inclusive perspective and a fresh approach to the problem. For example: an inventor totally obsessed by failure to raise money could reframe the question “how can I finance my project?” into “how can I further my project?”. With that a whole panoply of alternative solutions – such as canvassing support from friends – would open up. These authors have “re-framed” framing, and brought it up to date to address bigger than personal issues: “from pandemics to populism, AI to ISIS, wealth inequity to climate change”.

The book begins by making an important distinction at a time when too many fear that AI is a growing threat. They quote a headline from The Financial Times: “AI Discovers Antibiotics to Treat Drug-Resistant Diseases”. They point out that AI has long been applied to the problem as a rapid way to search molecules close to existing antibiotics in order to find new varieties – a process that actually made it easier for bacteria to adapt. What this team did was to extend the search to more than a hundred million molecules with any antimicrobial properties. In this way they discovered “halicin”, the superdrug against superbugs.

Yes, AI had discovered the drug, but only because humans could frame its search in a truly innovative way – an example of how humans, unlike computers, can innovate mental models and then apply the analytical skills of AI to explore those models. This is an important message at a time when many are losing confidence in human cognitive abilities and turning to irrational alternatives.

We use mental models all the time, often without being aware of them. The problem is that the lack of awareness can cause people to be trapped in a particular model – as when Nokia dominated mobile phone sales in 2008 when the model was to make each generation smaller and cheaper. Then Apple introduced the larger and more expensive iPhone, and stole the market. Looking back: the telephone was first seen as a way to listen to music remotely, while the phonograph would be a way to send audio memos to distant offices. It was only when the roles were reversed that both technologies took off.

The wealth of such examples in this book is especially valuable. It is easy to describe a simple principle like framing and make it seem trite and forgettable. But with so many case studies, most readers will find something close to their own innovative challenges and find inspiration.

As this book shows: what matters is not what frames are, but the way they can liberate and empower us when understood and used properly.

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