Innovation Biographer Walter Isaacson Reveals 5 Important Traits of Successful Innovators

by: David Ricketts

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“When I first started working with Steve Jobs, I had done the biography of Ben Franklin and the biography of Einstein. And I got a call from him, and he said, “Do me next.” And my first reaction was, ‘Yeah, okay. Franklin, Einstein, you, you arrogant little—.’ I said, “I’ll wait 30 years until you retire, and then maybe we’ll do it then.” And then I got a call from his wife who said, “If you’re going to do Steve, you’ve got to do him now.” And I said, “Well, I didn’t know he’d been diagnosed with cancer.” She said, “Yeah. He’s been keeping it a secret, but he feels the biography should be written.” And I realized that this would be a chance for somebody like myself to get really up close to a true innovator, somebody who had changed dozens of fields starting with the personal computer, then the cell phone, the publishing industry, the notion of retail stores, the music industry—both the way we buy music and consume music—and even digital animation in movies.” 

That biography was eventually written by Walter Isaacson and officially published on October 24, 2011, just 19 days after Steve Jobs died at 56, of pancreatic cancer. The book is part of a collection of biographies about successful innovators, including Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, and an upcoming book on Jennifer Doudna, who discovered the use of CRISPR technology to edit the human gene. 

After having held positions at the Aspen Institute, CNN, and Time, Walter is currently a University Professor of History at Tulane University. He is fascinated by successful innovators and what fuels them—what traits they possess that give them the ability to imagine—and create—the world of tomorrow. Although many people use words such as passion, focus, curiosity, and persistence to describe what makes innovators great, Walter gives us a deeper look into what it really means to be an innovator.

Innovators Blend Science/Technology and Art

creative people image

Walter attended Harvard in 1974 and eventually went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar where he studied philosophy, politics, and economics. As he reflects upon his classmates, he notes “There were so many smart people in my class, and most of them didn’t amount to anything. The people who really amounted to something were the creative people, the people who were imaginative and innovative, and that came from crossing disciplines.” From his work, Walter has found that the ability to connect the arts and sciences is a key trait of successful innovators.

For example, one might think of Steve Jobs as a ‘tech’ guy, but Walter learned that the importance of design, beauty, and aesthetics was instilled in Jobs at an early age.

“When we started working together, he made me take walks with him in the neighborhood where he grew up. There was a fence around the back of his house, and he said, “When my dad and I were building this fence I was only six years old, but my dad told me we had to make the back of this fence as beautiful as the front of the fence. And Steve had said, “Why? Nobody’s ever going to see it; nobody’s ever going to know.” And his father said, “Yes, but you will know.” He said, “If you really have a passion for a product, whatever you’re making, even if it’s a chest of drawers that’s going up against the wall, you put a really nice piece of wood in the back.” 

The blend of art and technology in Steve’s work can be seen as far back as the original Macintosh computer. As he told Walter, when he saw the machine he loved it…but when he looked at the circuit board, he was dissatisfied because it was not beautiful. After explaining the story of the fence to his team of engineers, they decided to hold up shipping for about three months so they could arrange the chips in a beautiful line. When it was done, “Steve made every single one of them, all 29 engineers on the Mac team, sign their name on a whiteboard, and then he put ‘Stephen P. Jobs’ all in lower-case right in the middle, the way he signed his name. And they engraved it on the inside of the Macintosh case, because, he said, ‘Real artists sign their work.’”

As Walter contemplates it, this blending of art and technology is what made Steve Jobs and Apple stand out from the competition. “Bill Gates is actually, in many ways, much smarter than Steve Jobs, but he doesn’t care about the intersection of art and technology. While Steve was taking calligraphy and dance and music at Reed College, Bill took only applied math when he was at Harvard. And when he came to make a music player, unlike Steve who made the iPod, Bill Gates made the Zune, which looks like it had been designed in Uzbekistan by people who lived in a basement, because he didn’t have the passion for music or the passion for beauty.”

Innovators Understand Collaboration

“We, biographers like myself, have a dirty little secret, which is that we distort history a little bit,” says Walter. “We make it seem like some guy, or some gal goes to a garage and they have a lightbulb moment and innovation happens. I am sure you’ve learned this in class; I’m sure you’ve seen it around you. That’s not the way innovation works.”

For his book The Innovators:  How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Walter explored the history of the most important modern technological advances, including the computer and the internet. “The three greatest inventions of the digital era—the  microchip, the computer, the internet—you don’t really know who invented any of them because they were all invented by teams in a very collaborative way.”

For example, he explains that although the Mark I computer at Harvard is credited to Howard Aiken, it was actually developed by an entire team of computer scientists. “It was built by a whole bunch of people from IBM and from Harvard,” says Walter. “They also had six great women mathematicians to do the programming because, back then, you know, the boys with their toys thought the hardware was the important thing and delegated the software. They didn’t realize that the people who wrote the software—such as COBOL or whatever—that would be much more important than the hardware. And so Grace Copper led the team that created the operating system software for the Mark I.”

“Innovation works in a collaborative fashion by getting a great team,” remarks Walter, and this sentiment was not lost on Steve Jobs either. When Walter asked him what the best thing was that he ever made, Jobs replied, “Making a product—a good product—is hard, but making a team that can collaborate and continues to make good products, that’s the really difficult thing. The best I ever did at Apple was put together the team at Apple, from Jony Ive to Phil Schiller—the type of people who can continue to put together great products.”

Innovators Are Motivated by Pure Curiosity

pure curiosity male

One of the main traits of successful innovators is curiosity, but as Walter explains “It’s pure curiosity. It is a curiosity about the most basic things.” This pure and basic curiosity was demonstrated time and time again in most of the innovators Walter has studied, especially Leonardo da Vinci. 

“When you look at Leonardo’s notebooks, you see every week the list of questions he asked himself. Some of them are odd like, “Why do fish swim faster in water than birds can fly in the air when water is heavy?” Some are somewhat practical, like “Describe how light forms luster when it hits a shiny surface?” Others are just out of pure curiosity, like “Describe the tongue of a woodpecker.” That’s in his notebook when he’s 29 years old, “Describe the tongue of a woodpecker.” I don’t even know. I mean, why would you wake up one morning and say, I need to know what the tongue of a woodpecker looks like? How would you find out? I mean you have to get a woodpecker to open his mouth. It’s not easy, but that was pure curiosity.”

Questioning the mundane is a thread Walter has seen through his research on innovators. In fact, the simple question of “Why is the sky blue?” was found not only in da Vinci’s notebooks but also in those of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. 

Walter noticed this same pure curiosity when he was interviewing Jennifer Doudna for an upcoming biography, the Berkeley biochemist who discovered the use of CRISPR technology to edit the human gene. “I was just with her yesterday and asking her, “How did it all start?” And she said, “Well people just looking at bacteria and sequencing it and seeing all these weird sequences in the genes.” And I said, “Well what did they think they wanted to do with it?” She said “Nothing, we were just curious. We just wanted to know.” 

The good thing is that Walter says curiosity can be trained. For one, he says we can train ourselves to stop and ask questions. “I have trained myself to, especially after watching Leonardo da Vinci do it in his notebooks, just pause on every walk I take and to ask myself a question about mundane things we see every day, and we quit asking questions about… I’m almost late for anything because I walk across the yard and try to figure out my college biology, why the leaf is changing color and why another might not be changing color, why the ripples or whatever may be… That ‘woodpecker’s tongue’ curiosity has deeply started to affect me.” 

We can also encourage curiosity by putting ourselves out of our comfort zone on certain disciplines. “If you love Hamlet and can understand Hamlet, then you could understand calculus, but we don’t push ourselves sometimes into our different comfort zones. In life, you can always push yourself to say I’m going to learn something different.”

Innovators Push the Limits of Feasibility

Most people don’t achieve great things because they stop themselves at what they believe is ‘possible.’ Innovators, on the other hand, push those boundaries and end up achieving the unimaginable. In terms of Steve Jobs, this is often described as the “reality distortion field”—the ability to convince himself and others that almost anything is possible.

For example, Walter tells the story of a pre-Apple Steve Jobs, who was working at Atari and decided to make a game called Breakout with coworker Steve Wozniak. “Steve said to Wozniak, “You got to be able to code this by Friday because we have to go back to the apple farm.” They were working on an apple farm, hence the name of the company they create. And Woz said, “Hey Steve, you don’t know how to code very well. That’s ridiculous. I can’t do it by Friday. And Steve stares without blinking at Woz and says “Don’t be afraid. You can do it.” and he kept staring at Woz and saying that. Woz said he got so freaked out, he went back to the workbench, stayed up three nights in a row, and coded the game Breakout.”

Pushing the limits of feasibility (or ‘reality distortion field’) also helped the Apple team shave 36 seconds off the boot time of the original Mac, and convince the CEO of Corning that the company could deliver gorilla glass in time for an October shipment of the original iPhone. As Wendell Weeks, the CEO of Corning, recalls, “It was amazing. The guy just sat right in front of me and stared at me without blinking and said “Don’t’ be afraid. You can do it.” Weeks used the same tactic to convince his production plant manager to switch over to gorilla glass right away, and as a result, every piece of glass on every iPhone has been made by Corning. 

Of course, there is a fine line between pushing the limits of feasibility and setting unrealistic expectations. “Vision without execution is just hallucination, so you got to tie the two together,” says Walter. Knowledge gives you a check on feasibility, which is why Einstein’s knowledge of the laws of physics allowed him to come up with the theory of relativity, and Job’s knowledge of circuitry, physics and design allowed him to create Apple. 

“Sometimes you got to push the bounds of the impossible,” says Walter.  “You have to try when you’re young to do a project that you’re not sure you’re going to be able to succeed at. Your reach has got to exceed your grasp every now and then.”

Innovators Connect Their Passion to Something Larger

Everybody says innovation is about passion, but Walter explains that it’s something more than that. “It’s actually not about your silly little passion,” he says. “It’s about being able to connect your passion to something larger than yourself. By the end of the journey, you’ll say, “Oh I get it. Somehow or another, my passion connected to something a little bit larger.” 

Steve Jobs put it in a different way. In his discussions with Walter, he mused, “For most of my life, I thought life was like a river, and the cool thing about life is how much you get to take out of the river that people before you would put in, like great products, things they had made, ideas they had, knowledge they had discovered. If you’re lucky, you take a lot out of the river. But now that I’m dying, I realize that it’s not about how much you get to take out of the river. It’s what you got to put into the river.”

Walter says that connecting to something larger—adding to the river versus just taking from it—is what makes innovation so fulfilling. “I think being able to say ‘I invented something, something cool, some product that made our life a little bit better, and people are now using it,’…I can’t imagine a much bigger thrill than that, other than pure scientific discovery. 

Walter has contemplated this concept of connecting to something larger throughout his own career too. “I did not set out when I left this campus and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to go to Time magazine, and do this, that, or the other.’ Things just came along. But each step of the way, I kept pausing and saying ‘Am I doing this for me, or am I doing this because I’m connecting to something larger?”

Although Walter has connected to something larger throughout his journey, he says he is not an innovator himself. “I know that I’m not a great innovator. My role in life is to write about successful innovators, and those of us who do that don’t confuse ourselves with the people we write about.” That said, through researching and storytelling he has been able to add to the river—giving us detailed insight on what it takes to be an innovator, and what it takes to change the world.