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January 31, 2024 46 mins

Are innovators always difficult to work with? What kind of person can create disruptive change? Walter Isaacson is a student of history with a focus on geniuses, from Albert Einstein to Leonardo da Vinci. The former Time magazine editor followed Elon Musk for three years to report that best-selling biography, as he did with Steve Jobs before him. Martha talks to Isaacson about watching genius up close, and the common threads among the people who are drawn to change the world.  

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
There are six words that I have inscribed above my computer,
which I just mentioned a moment ago, which is let
me tell you a story.

Speaker 2 (00:14):
Walter Isaacson is the prolific, profound biographer of geniuses past
and present. He has written about Ben Franklin, Henry Kissinger,
Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, Jennifer Duadna, and
Elon Musk, and all of his works have become the

definitive stories of these leaders. Walter was the editor of
Time Magazine, the CEO of CNN, and then the Espen Institute. Today,
he co hosts the show a Mampur and Company, hosts
a podcast, and teaches at Tulaine. Walter joins me today
at the CDM Studios in New York City. Welcome Walter.

It's so nice to see you.

Speaker 1 (00:59):
Again after all these years. We go way back, Mark,
that's so nice of you to have me.

Speaker 2 (01:03):
Can you remember when we first met?

Speaker 3 (01:05):
I think we met in the Hamptons.

Speaker 1 (01:08):
It must have been well, let's not say how many
years ago, but we met.

Speaker 2 (01:12):
I don't mind talking about years, because that's all part
of history. Yes, right, yeah, we met probably at mort
Zuckerman's house, or at one of those other fancy lunches
that used to occur weekly in the Hamptons. I kind
of miss those days.

Speaker 1 (01:27):
I was a very young reporter for Time Magazine, and
I was from Louisiana, and boy, it was a different
world for me. All of a sudden, you know, I'm
with a bunch of journalists and We're having lunch in
these grand houses with interesting people.

Speaker 2 (01:40):
And every weekend there was another interesting group of people
showing up. Well, you're the biographer of our generation. What
attracts you to the subjects that you have written about?

Speaker 1 (01:50):
You and I worked together in some ways at Time
Incorporated when you did Marthas do It Living and we
had the ghost of Henry Lewis in the building he
had founded Time Magis and he said, always tell the
story of our time through the people who make it.
And so when I was at Time Magazine, and then
when I ran Time, I tried to put a person
on the cover every week, and so you could tell

the story you mentioned James Watson, I remember, you know,
doing covers on the people who were discovering the structures
of DNA, doing many things, and so it was I
think LUs was once asked, are you creating personality journalism.
He said, no, that's the way we tell history through people.
That's the way the Bible does it. So I began

to want to be able to write biography as a
way to give people a glimpse into everything from science
to music to art.

Speaker 2 (02:42):
Well Ben Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, Jennifer Duardner, Elon Musk,
Steve Jobs.

Speaker 3 (02:48):
What are the.

Speaker 2 (02:48):
Common traits between the people that you've profiled.

Speaker 1 (02:52):
I think that they're very, very creative. You know, people
say you write about smart people. Well, no, you and
I know from how many years in the business that
smart people are a dime a dozen. They don't always
amount to much. What matters is being creative, being imaginative,
being able to think out of the box. So whether
it's Leonardo da Vinci coming from this small village to

the town of Florence and really helping to create a
renaissance in both engineering and art because he thought different
all the way to Elon Musk, these are people who
are disruptors and that makes them disruptive, which sometimes is
not very pretty sight, but it also makes him push,
as Steve Jobs say, they push the human race forward.

Speaker 2 (03:35):
You started with historical figures. First of all, I think
Henry Kissinger, Ben Franklin.

Speaker 1 (03:40):
You have to remember when I did Henry Kissinger, he
was still very much active.

Speaker 2 (03:46):
Was he still in office?

Speaker 1 (03:47):
No, he wasn't in office. He had left being Secretary
of State. This was in the early eighties, but he
was still very much a player on the scene, as
he was until his death.

Speaker 3 (03:59):
You know, a few months ago.

Speaker 2 (04:00):
Do you know where I met him? I sat on
the REVL on board with Henry Kissinger, right what he
did a lot of boards. What was he doing on
that board?

Speaker 3 (04:09):
You know, he.

Speaker 1 (04:10):
Loved being a player, being in power, and he I
assume had a consulting contract to with Kissinger associates, and
you know he wanted to always be a player.

Speaker 3 (04:23):
Yeah, it's interesting in celebrity.

Speaker 1 (04:25):
What you and I have watched over the years, there's
a concept like there is in physics of half life, like, okay,
somebody was secretary of State, how many years will it
be before he's half as famous? Well, Kissinger's half life
was very, very long, like fifty years. He was still
almost as famous as he was when he was in office.

Speaker 2 (04:45):
And in great a man as a raconteur, as a storyteller,
as a groff voice. I remember trying. The first thing
I said to him when I sat when I joined
the board was what are you doing here? You know,
what do you know about women's makeup? For God's see?
It was very odd.

Speaker 1 (05:04):
Well, you know, the thing I learned about doing Henry Kissinger,
which you know continues to this day with an Elon Mosque,
is people can be brilliant, but they can also have
sometimes tragic flaws or they as I felt with doctor Kissinger,
he did not have a feel for the values that
are supposed to underpin our foreign policy. He had a

feel for power and realism, democracy not democracy, and human
rights and those things. And when I wrote about him,
he was very controversial. Half the people hated him. Half
the people, you know, thought he was the most brilliant,
wonderful person. And I tried to do a book that
showed the good and the bad. He was not particularly

happy with it. I think somebody asked him did he
like the book? And he said, well, I like the title.
But the same as Elon Musk. You know, they're very controversial,
and in our day and age, we try to put
people in binary categories. Their heroes or they're villains. We
have to have a hot tach and now sometimes humans
are complex. Shakespeare teaches us that, well, what about Ben Franklin,

What attry to you to Ben? You know, after I
did Henry Kissinger. One of his strengths was understanding balance
of power diplomacy, being a realist. He could balance China
off against Russia when he had the openings to both.
And I was looking for the roots of what you
would call real politique, you know, sort of European realism

and American foreign policy, and we don't have that many.
We have a lot of Woodrow Wilson's who make the
world safe for democracy and care about values, but we
don't have a lot of realists running foreign policy. And
one of the ones I went back and studied was
Benjamin Franklin, who, during the Revolution is in France and
he's playing a balance of power game with the Bourbon

pack nations meaning you know, France and Spain and the
Netherlands again and the English Alliance. And I realize that
he wasn't just some you know, doddering dude flying a
kite in the rain and saying a penny saved as
a penny earned. He was interested in everything. So I
decided Also I decided to do him next. But also

I will say, after dealing with Henry Kissinger, I said, Okay,
I need to do somebody.

Speaker 3 (07:21):
He's been dead for two hundred and fifty years.

Speaker 2 (07:24):
Well, it's such a brilliant biography. And Benjamin Franklin is
like a hero to so many of us.

Speaker 1 (07:30):
You know, Franklin was great because, as I said about
Kissinger and as I said about Elon Muskin, to some
extense Steve.

Speaker 3 (07:37):
Jobs, they are mixed bag.

Speaker 1 (07:39):
You take the good and the bad, and the ugly
and the wonderful altogether. Benjamin Franklin was just a nice guy.
He brought people together.

Speaker 2 (07:47):
But his accomplishments appeal to you.

Speaker 1 (07:50):
Well, my daughter, who I think you've met, Oh, yes,
said all biography is autobiography. I think Emerson said it
before she did, and said, what do you mean? Said, well,
when you're writing about ben Franklin, you're writing about yourself,
somebody who was an upwardly striving media person, you know,
ran a magazine in a print shop, but also was

interested in science and wanted to be involved in public affairs.
And yeah, I found Franklin to be an inspiration.

Speaker 2 (08:24):
Well, it's a very good book for anyone why it
should get into biography, modern biography.

Speaker 1 (08:31):
It's also a very good book for this day and age.
Not to tout it too much when people forget why
democracy matters. Yeah, and we're losing this sense that free speech,
freedom of religion, tolerance, tolerance.

Speaker 3 (08:44):
Yeah, good word.

Speaker 1 (08:46):
And you know, Benjamin Franklin during his lifetime, donated to
the building fund of each and.

Speaker 3 (08:50):
Every church built in Philadelphia.

Speaker 1 (08:52):
At one point they were building a new hall, so
called a new Hall, and he said, even if the
muffed eye of Constantinople were to send somebody here to
teach us about Mohammedism and the prophet Moham, we should
offer a pulpit. And then he in his death, bet
he's the largest individual contributor to the Macvasiel Synagogue, the
first synagogue built. So when he dies, all thirty five preachers, priests,

ministers of Philadelphia link arms with the Rabbi of the
Jews and march with him to the grave. That is
the type of democracy they were fighting for back then,
and we're still fighting for.

Speaker 2 (09:26):
And is under such siege right now, right with what's
going on here.

Speaker 1 (09:31):
Yeah, I mean, I would love to just republish parts
of my Ben Franklin book and say here is what
you need to remember about what our founders gave to us.

Speaker 2 (09:40):
Well, starting with Steve Jobs. With that biography, you move
deeply into the technology world. Why the shift?

Speaker 3 (09:49):
You know?

Speaker 1 (09:49):
When I was at Time Magazine, we used to pick
a Person of the Year, and we always tended to
the President of the United States, or the head of
China or Russia, or the head of the Federal Reserve.
And I realized that people doing technology and science were
changing our world in ways we'd remember fifty one hundred

years from now more than whoever was Secretary of State
at the time. And I look back at Time magazines
people of the year. We never did Filo Farnsworth were
inventing television. We never did even I think Watson and
Criek for the structure of DNA, And so I started

trying to get more scientists and technology.

Speaker 3 (10:34):
We did Andy.

Speaker 1 (10:34):
Grove one year's Person of the Year for bringing us
to the era of microchips.

Speaker 2 (10:38):
We did Intel, that's fe Intel.

Speaker 1 (10:41):
And doctor David Hoe for doing the AIDS vaccine, and
Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos for bringing us into the
world of online shopping. So other historians were writing about presidents.
I mean there were more books being done on Lincoln
and Jefferson in Washington at the time.

Speaker 3 (10:58):
I wanted to do books.

Speaker 1 (11:00):
Well, I could go out and report, because that's what
I was bringing to the party. Somebody can go out
to Silicon Valley and spend months there interviewing people, So
I wanted to do that with Steve Jobs.

Speaker 2 (11:15):
Well, when you read that Google just had its twentieth
anniversary twenty years only, then you realize that what you're
writing about is so new and so different and change
the world in ways that no one ever imagined twenty
five thirty years ago.

Speaker 1 (11:34):
Yeah, that was a free enormous three revolutions we've been
going through. One was Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and people
we all knew in the seventies who brought us into
the air of the personal computer revolution.

Speaker 3 (11:47):
Then we have the life sciences revolution.

Speaker 1 (11:49):
With the editing of the human genes and Jennifer Dawna
as we talked about. And now we're into a new
revolution with artificial intelligence, robotics, electric vehicles, stainable energy. And
that's why I did Elon Mossen.

Speaker 2 (12:02):
Right, you're right on the pulse of what's going on,
Wilter Isaacson. As usual, you had an impressive career in
journalism at Time, in CNN among other outlets. How much
of the ethics process and goals of journalism applied to
writing a biography?

Speaker 1 (12:20):
Well, when I went through Time Magazine, we did. And
you know people push back on this, but we did
try very hard to be objective rather than opinionated. Now,
there were a lot of opinions in Time. But if
I did a story about Bill Gates in Time Magazine,
or even a story about Jimmy Carter in Time Magazine,

I was not bringing to it all of my biases
and opinions.

Speaker 3 (12:47):
I was trying to filter those out. Now. Can't be
perfect at it.

Speaker 1 (12:52):
But we were doing what we thought was objective journalism. Nowadays,
a lot of people do a much more opinionated journalism.
They go on cable TV or they have podcasts to
give you their opinions. I still, and you know, we
talked about it before on my Elon Musk book.

Speaker 3 (13:10):
My job was just to report.

Speaker 1 (13:12):
When I was growing up in Louisiana, there was a
mentor of mine, Walker Percy, and he said that two
types of people come out of Louisiana preachers and storytellers.
He said, for Heaven's sake, be a storyteller. This world's
got too many preachers. And so coming out of my time,
whether it was at the Times, pickyun or CNN or
Time magazine, is like, I'm not there to preach at you.

I'm there to tell you the story.

Speaker 2 (13:35):
You choose a subject. How do you approach these massive,
dense projects.

Speaker 1 (13:39):
Well, there are six words that I have inscribed above
my computer, which I just mentioned a moment ago, which is,
let me tell you a story. And the point of
that is to say, it's going to be as if
I'm at dinner, as if I'm hanging around New Orleans
with my friends. And story tends to be chronological. It

tends to be about the growth of some idea or person.
It tends to be about change over time and what happened.
And so all my books are pretty simple. They begin
at the beginning with Steve Jobs being born or Ben
Franklin being born, and you go through the life and
whenever I'm trying to make a point like how the chronological, Yeah,

they tend to be Alice Mayhew, who you knew? Who
is my editor for thirty years at Timon in Houston.
In the very first book I did with a friend
was called The Wise Men, and it was about foreign
policy in the forties. And she kept writing in the
margin all things in good time, I take to her.
She would just abbreviate it, and it was keep it chronological.

That's the way the Bible does it. If it's good
enough of the Bible, it's good enough for you. And
that's the way we live our lives, which is chronological.

Speaker 2 (15:03):
You know, I'm just about to start an autobiography, and
I am taking notes, mental notes as I talked.

Speaker 3 (15:11):
To you, because you're a storyteller by heart, you know.

Speaker 1 (15:14):
You know, whenever you want to make a point, like
if I wanted to make a point about how did
Steve Jobs go about choosing a design aesthetic.

Speaker 2 (15:25):
What about those awful colors that he chose? Yeah, oh pan,
oh my gosh.

Speaker 1 (15:30):
Right, And instead of talking about these colors are awful,
I say to myself mentally, let me tell you a story.
And then I talk about going into the design studio
having the Pantone catalog, him getting mad that the blue
is not blue enough.

Speaker 2 (15:47):
And the green, oh, that horrible green.

Speaker 1 (15:51):
He chose, and I tell you the story as opposed
I say, what happened in that design studio? How was
he at the Whole Foods getting a smooth but yelling
on his phone that blue isn't blue enough? And then
he kept saying the white isn't white enough. I mean,
you know that was Steve. And by telling you a story,

you see how the person's mind operates.

Speaker 3 (16:13):
So you will have a great time.

Speaker 1 (16:15):
Your memo will be chronological, it'll be anecdotal, and it'll
be driven by people and photos.

Speaker 2 (16:21):
Oh okay, photos, I have so many great photos I
want to put Do you think photos are important?

Speaker 1 (16:26):
I think photos are very important, especially when a they
tell a story. In other words, it is not just
a mugshot. And secondly, when you make people feel you're
a little bit behind the scenes.

Speaker 3 (16:40):
I don't like.

Speaker 1 (16:40):
Those pictures where it's six people posing against a step
and repeat that says time CNN on the backdrop.

Speaker 3 (16:48):
I kind of like the pictures in which you see Andy.

Speaker 1 (16:53):
Grove huddling with Gordon Moore in the early days of Intel.

Speaker 2 (16:57):
Right now, have you been a Time one hundred person?

Speaker 3 (17:00):
You guys all have? Actually you have? Yeah? Good?

Speaker 2 (17:03):
Oh, you were but I was, but I just wondered
I couldn't. I don't remember that you were. But that's
it was.

Speaker 1 (17:08):
After our left Time magazine, and my friends John Hughey
and Rick Stingle somewhat surprised me by one year, saying,
all right, because I had helped in the nineties invent
the time one hundred for a hundredth I mean for
the seventy fifth animate of Time, and we had a
big party on the hundredth being seventy fifth anniversary, but

we created the hundred most important People of the Century,
and then we extended it. And so one day John
and Rick called and said, Okay, you're going to be
in it, and they got Madeline Albright to write a
nice little.

Speaker 2 (17:38):
Piece that is so great, so great, I'm going to
go look that up because because I think you're absolutely
belong in that pantheon.

Speaker 3 (17:46):
It I don't think that.

Speaker 2 (17:47):
But crazy people that have been rich single.

Speaker 1 (17:51):
The editor who chose it had a wonderful book called Flattery,
and I think it was a Michael Kensley line, but
he said, insincere flattery actually better than real flattery because
it shows people care enough to go the extra mile
to make you feel good. So I think that was
sort of flattering that they did that, even though I
don't think it was deserved.

Speaker 2 (18:12):
Well, when you go to interview in Steve Jobs or
an Elon Musk, how did you develop the trust that
it takes to enable you to follow them around, meet
everybody in their lives, watch and listen to their movements.

Speaker 1 (18:26):
When I was a reporter on the time, speaking on
my very first day on the job in New Orleans,
there was a murder and I was sent out to
cover it five am and I've had to go down
to the pay phone afterwards after the police gave me
the facts, and I phoned it into the rewrite man
and he said, well, did you talk to the family?
I said, well, no, you know, there was just a

murder in the man he said, go knock on the door.
And I had to take a deep breath, walk back down,
knock on the door, and it just surprised me. They
opened the door and they wanted to talk. I didn't
have to ask many questions. I just sat while they talked.

Speaker 2 (19:01):
Who was it the father?

Speaker 3 (19:02):
Yeah, father than the mother.

Speaker 2 (19:03):
They pulled out, but who got killed?

Speaker 1 (19:05):
A daughter and a family? Yeah? And they pulled out
the yearbook, pictures and many things. And I realized people
want to talk if you want to listen. And I've
always had the luxury, whether I was doing Steve Jobs
or elon Moscow Jennifer Dunda, I was saying, I don't
want to do this based on five or ten interviews
or fifteen interviews. I just want to be by your

side days on end, twelve hours a day if need
be in the background watching. And I had that luxury.

Speaker 2 (19:35):
So how long did you say with Steve Jobs? Were
you there before he got sick or before he knew
he was sick.

Speaker 1 (19:41):
I had done Ben Franklin and Albert Einstein, and I
was taking a walk with Steve Jobs, who had come
to the party of that John door through for the
Einstein book, and he said, do me next, and I thought, well,
that's a bit full, you know Ben frank Then Albert Eines,
I think I said, I'll do you in twenty thirty

years when you retire maybe. And then I was told,
if you're going to do Steve, you got to do
him now. And I said, well, I didn't know he'd
been diagnosed. He said, no, he spoke to you the
day after he'd gotten his cancer diagnosis. So that's when
I realized I had this important calling, almost to take
the person who had done most to shape the world

we lived in at that time, meaning brought us into
the era of the friendly personal computer, of the iPhone,
of the app economy, of a thousand songs in our pocket,
retail stores, Pixar digital animation of movies.

Speaker 2 (20:41):

Speaker 1 (20:41):
And I was going to get to be up close
and watch him and how he operated, and go to
the design studios with him, and be at meetings with him,
and be at dinners with him.

Speaker 3 (20:54):
And I said, man, I can't.

Speaker 1 (20:56):
This is almost not only a duty, but a joy
to be able to look at such a brilliant mind.

Speaker 2 (21:03):
Well, I spoke to him. During that time. I knew
all those guys on all the tech guys because of
my affiliation with a man who worked at Microsoft and Steve.
I remember calling him after he was diagnosed with pancreatic
cancer and to ask him for a friend, about his
treatment and what was working, what wasn't working. He responded immediately.

He was so open. I found he was both the
nicest person and the gruffest person. At times he could
bite people's heads off, or he could just have a
spiritual bonding with people. And that's always the difficulty sometimes
of writing, whether it's Kissinger or Elon Musk or Steve Job,

is that they're a little bit more vibrant than most people.

Speaker 3 (21:50):
They have more ups and more down prickly.

Speaker 1 (21:53):
Yeah, and if I've tried to capture it, I think
some people very close to Steve said, well, you did
too much on the prickly side, Steve. And some people say, well,
you sugarcoated him too much, And I say, man, I
just tried pretty hard to be honest.

Speaker 3 (22:07):
I didn't have an agenda. Now.

Speaker 2 (22:08):
Did Steve want control with his It.

Speaker 1 (22:11):
Was amazing to me that when we talked, I said, ya,
I want to do it. I want to be by
your side, but I don't want you to control the book.
You don't get to approve it in advance. And he
said that's the only way it should be, because if
it's improved in advance and he has control over it,
nobody will pay attention to it. But he said, if

it's done honestly and I don't have control, it'll be
considered more of a historical biography. The one piece of
control he wanted was the cover, really, and he picked
that iconic picture of the cover. I think it was
Albert Watson did the photograph gets a white background, the

black turtleneck, black turtleneck, it was, and he wanted it
in black and white, and he had his design team
work on it. Even the font, the Sorcery font, it
just says Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. And he obsessed
over making that cover almost like an Apple product, stark beautiful,

with simplicity being the ultimate sophistication. Other than that, he
didn't near the end of his life when he was sick,
I read long passages to him.

Speaker 3 (23:27):
I read him the last chapter.

Speaker 1 (23:29):
I read him things that I thought he might be
upset by, because I didn't want to upset him, but
I want to give him the chance to correct it,
like not giving stock options to some of the early employees,
or you know, times he was wrong and he didn't
push for any corrections.

Speaker 3 (23:48):
And he particularly liked the concluding chapter.

Speaker 2 (23:53):
Amazing, just amazing. Now that book was the inspiration for
the movie, right.

Speaker 3 (23:58):
Yeah, for the Aaron movie. I think there're a couple
of movies.

Speaker 2 (24:01):
Yeah, brilliant. Well what about Elon? Did he release control?
That control free?

Speaker 1 (24:08):
I mean so I was out visiting our friends Joel
Klein and Nicole Seligman and sag Harbor a few years ago,
just like in the old days when we used to
hang around sag.

Speaker 3 (24:20):
Harbor, and.

Speaker 1 (24:23):
I thought, for my next subject, I really wanted to
do somebody bringing us into the air, sustainable energy, space travel, robotics.

Speaker 3 (24:31):
Obviously Musk was a choice.

Speaker 1 (24:33):
And so somebody put us together on a phone call.
We didn't run across each other a few times, and
we talked for two hours. I remember being upstairs at
Joel and Nichole's house and I said, here's the deals
with my books. Number one, I don't want to do
it based on interviews. I want to be by your
side for two years whenever I want to be.

Speaker 3 (24:51):
He went okay.

Speaker 1 (24:53):
And then I said, and you have no control over it.
I'm not going to let you read it in advance.
He went okay. So I thought wow. And so I
went downstairs and there were a few people hanging out,
and a few minutes later, by sort of buzzing and
said what happened? He said, well, Elon just tweeted out
Walter's writing my biography.

Speaker 3 (25:10):
And I said, oh, I guess.

Speaker 2 (25:11):
I've got the time by the tail X. Yeah, did
you have X by then?

Speaker 3 (25:15):
No? No, no, no, although.

Speaker 1 (25:17):
He had started a company called X twenty years earlier,
and he told me at the time, he said, someday
I want to revive the original X, which was a
became PayPal, but it was a payments platform that he
thought should be connected to a social media platform.

Speaker 2 (25:31):
So what's it like on your end to have control
like that? Do you feel all powerful or I mean,
you're really setting the historical record for these guys.

Speaker 3 (25:42):
Well, you know it goes back by the way I.

Speaker 2 (25:44):
Say, guys, you only you did one woman, right?

Speaker 3 (25:46):

Speaker 1 (25:46):
Yeah, I did Jennifer Doubtna and I did a book
called The Innovators, which I kind of liked, but I
don't think people read, which was about how teams of
people do things. And it begins with Ada Lovelace and
ends with Ada Lovelace. She's a framing device. But what
it does for me when I feel okay, I have
control over the narrative.

Speaker 2 (26:05):
Is I do try to go back to this.

Speaker 1 (26:08):
Let me just tell you the story and let me
just report it exactly as I saw it, with no agenda,
and you open yourself up to some criticism. You know,
we talked about Kara Swisher, who I love and was
on a podcast, Great old friend, But she said, how
come you didn't you want my judgmental?

Speaker 3 (26:25):
You didn't say what a jurky is? I said, I
tell you the story, you can come to your own judgment.

Speaker 1 (26:30):
So I think, if I'm going to get that incredibly
close up access, the value I can bring to the
party is to just try to report it as honestly
as I can, as up close as I can, and
not filter it through too many layers of my own opinions,

because there'll be really smart people from Kara to hundreds
of others who will be able to analyze it and
offer a pen onions. But I feel that if I'm
going to get that much access, I should just try
to report the hell out of it.

Speaker 2 (27:09):
Well, I was looking back counting the years between your books,
and it's about three and a half four years between
a book. Is that what you give yourself?

Speaker 3 (27:17):
Yeah? I think so.

Speaker 1 (27:18):
It takes me about a year and a half or
two years of immersing myself in a subject and then
about a year to write it. In the case of
Elon Musk, I was doing both at the same time,
meaning I was writing while I was reporting.

Speaker 2 (27:34):
That's a big, fat book? Is that your biggest book?
In number two?

Speaker 1 (27:36):
Now, they're all approximately the same, all about six hundred pages,
but with Elon in particular, very short chapters, because I
wanted to recreate what it was like to be writing
by a side where you'd spend an hour focusing on
a leak in the Raptor engine, then on unprotected left
turns and full self drive, and then on something that

was happening on Twitter, and then with Grimes his girlfriend
Claire Bouchet, what was happening and his boom boom boom,
boom boom. And I try to keep it sparse so
it's not me doing a whole lot of my own pontificating.

Speaker 3 (28:13):
It's a fast paced narrative.

Speaker 2 (28:15):
Does he have anybody telling him what he should or
should not do?

Speaker 1 (28:19):
He doesn't have enough people around him to say no.
And I know, you know, you've been a great manager.
And when I was running things, I always tried to
have strong people who would say that's a really bad idea,
or we can fix that idea maybe. And he does
have Gwynn shot Well, who has run SpaceX for more

than twenty years. And I describe in the book how
she says no, which is the way to say no
to Elon. Didn't just to say that's a dumb idea. No,
it's there were And I tell stories. Given an alternative, yeah, well,
I mean i'd do it through storytelling. I'll give one
real quick, which is Elon to force them to get Starship,

this huge rocket that he's now tested twice.

Speaker 3 (29:08):
Yes, and do it.

Speaker 1 (29:08):
And that's the way he does it first time, is
littlest rocket at the very beginning, three explosions before he
got it right. But that's why he gets rockets up
and Boeing doesn't or NASA doesn't, because he's willing to
take risks and then learn from them. And so he said,
we have Falcon Heavy, which is then the heavy rocket
that they were using to get communications satellites into high

Earth orbit. He said, we're going to cancel it because
that'll force us to go faster with Starship. And everybody's
in the meeting ard, oh my god, that's gonna be
a nightmare. And they text Gwyn Shotwell, who's in her
cubicle nearby, and she comes running in says, okay, I
understand what you want to do. He want us to
go faster with Starship and I understand you. Yeah, yeah,
I get it. You want to cancel off. And so

let's go through the numbers. Here, we have this many
satellite launches. We have to get these military satellites up.
Let's make a chart of what we have to do.
And she just innundates him with engineering facts, and by
the end of it, he says, Okay, we'll keep Falcon
Heavy going for a while.

Speaker 3 (30:08):
Yeah. It wasn't just he.

Speaker 2 (30:10):
Needs to be talked to. He needs to have raw
engineering and numbers. His mind works.

Speaker 1 (30:17):
Yeah, he's not very good at emotional or human interaction.
He's you know the types quite well. But you give
him a whole lot of data and he processes. He's
a geek. He's on the autism spectrum. He is very headstrong.
And I think if you've hung around people from as
you have, from Microsoft to other places, you know the type.

Speaker 2 (30:41):
They should all wear the T shirt that my old
boyfriend Charles Simoni had printed eminence geek. Yes, right right,
I'm going to send you one.

Speaker 3 (30:51):
Yeah, exactly.

Speaker 2 (30:52):
You are a geek of biography, now you are A
sense of mission is a big theme among your subjects,
What is the mission that drives your kenon of rating.

Speaker 1 (31:13):
I think that the most important thing we can do
as a species is learned how to be creative and
to connect our creativity to humanity, and so I tend
to want to write about people who connect the humanities
to our technology, the sciences, to our arts. Leonardo, of course,

is the patron saint of that. That's what Vitruvian man is.

Speaker 2 (31:40):
And how amazing that you started kind of with that.

Speaker 1 (31:43):
Well so interesting, Yeah, but I mean you look at
what Steve Jobs brings to the party.

Speaker 3 (31:50):
The model always ended his.

Speaker 1 (31:53):
Product presentations with a slide of a street signs that intersected,
and it was the art and technology, or sometimes the
arts and the sciences. He said, at that intersections where
creativity occurs. So my mission is, I know, I'm not
going to be a Steve Jobs or Leonardo da Vinci,

but I can tell you the story about how creativity occurs.

Speaker 2 (32:18):
Henry Kissinger died last November. What came to mind when
you heard that news?

Speaker 1 (32:23):
Did you read all the r Yeah, I definitely read
all the commentary, and it surprised me. Actually it didn't
surprise me, but I was interested that the controversies of
his entire life were still there at the end. The
obituaries were either fawning in praise, which I found highly critical,

or war criminal type accusations. And it reminded me of
what we talked about a little earlier that when you're
writing about a Kissinger, if you're writing about a jobs
or a musque, that trying to put them into one category,
to say they're evil or their saints. Now our day

and age, we sometimes want to have a quick take
on people.

Speaker 3 (33:09):
People don't read Shakespeare enough.

Speaker 1 (33:11):
And at the end of Measure from Measure he says,
you know, even the best are molded out of faults.
And if you look at any of them, the greatest
heroes in Shakespeare, Henry the Fifth Man, he kills all
the prisoners, you know, and he's deeply flawed and the
villains Othello is kind of complex, lear very complex. I

think in the cable TV, shout show, blogosphere, quick take,
social media era, when you read about Henry Kissinger, you say, WHOA.
People haven't kept up with the ability to hold contradictory
or conflicting ideas in their head.

Speaker 3 (33:53):
But if you are trying to understand people.

Speaker 1 (33:56):
There's sometimes a lot of conflicting themes.

Speaker 2 (34:00):
Surprises many people. And I don't always just fiberguess or
that an author like you, a writer like you, can
dissect the work of an Einstein, for example. I mean
you made us understand that was part of the mission,
which was such a great mission though, because you finish
reading and you think, oh, you know, maybe I do
understand what Einstein was talking.

Speaker 1 (34:20):
Well, what Einstein did that wasn't great when they didn't
do it intentionally was if you were in the era
of Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, you were supposed to
understand science. You would be considered a philistine if you
didn't understand checks and balances and Newtonian mechanics. Well, Einstein
comes along and he makes science seem like you have
to be an Einstein understand it. It's relativity and uncertainty

and chaos. And I wanted to say, how did it
come up with relativity theory? Tell me the story. Swiss
patent clerk looking at devices to synchronize clocks. He's doing
a thought experiment. If you're traveling really fast, what would
look synchronized to you? Is it different than for some
somebody else and he comes up with the theory of relativity.
Why did I want to do that? I wanted to

demystify science because those of us who love the humanities
would think you were totally a philosine if you didn't
know the difference between you know, Picasso and Rembrand. But
we would happily admit we don't know the difference between
a transistor and a capacitor, or a differential equation, or

a gene in a chromosome. And so I wanted to
do Einstein to say physics is really beautiful. And I
wanted to do Jennifer Dowden and to say biology is
really beautiful. I'm going to explain to you how you
would edit a piece of genetic code and how that
would change it, and likewise would do it so well, Well,
my dad was an engineer. I was a science lover growing.

Speaker 2 (35:48):
Up, and you have people sit down with you.

Speaker 1 (35:52):
Well, when I did Einstein, Brian Green, whom you know,
was enormously helpful, So was a late Murray Galmont. And
I even took a math class to try to understand that.

Speaker 3 (36:02):
Although I don't put the math.

Speaker 1 (36:03):
In the book, but to me, it's a joy if
I look at the people I've admired the most I've
written about Ben Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, one of the
things they have in common is they wanted to know
as much as possible about everything knowable.

Speaker 3 (36:19):
I have this amazingly.

Speaker 1 (36:21):
Lucky thing in life, which is I actually can make
money by learning new things. I can learn what is
special relativity, what's general relativity, what is quantum mechanics? Try
to explain it in a storytelling fashion, such a joy
and it helps us because if we're going to be

part of a debate about how we should edit our genes,
it helps to know what crisper how it works.

Speaker 2 (36:52):
Tell us about Crisper well.

Speaker 1 (36:53):
Jennifer DOWDNA to me is one of the most delightful
characters because when all of the alpha may are trying
to do as old is Jennifer. Jennifer is in her
fifties now, I think, but she focused on RNA when
all the men were doing the Human Genome Project and
focusing on DNA and a group of women Jillian Banfield,

Emmanuel Sharpenjay Katti Koichko, Jennifer Dowd thought, well, RNA is
the more interesting molecule.

Speaker 3 (37:24):
It actually does work.

Speaker 1 (37:25):
DNA just sits there in ourselves and curates information. Yeah,
but the RNA goes and figures out how do you
build proteins from that information? And it goes and builds
the proteins. And so you can use it to make
a spike protein from a COVID virus that will become
a vaccine, or you can use it the way bacteria

do to cut up viruses and to.

Speaker 3 (37:49):
Edit the DNA.

Speaker 1 (37:51):
And so they come up with this amazing tool called Crisper,
which allows people to edit our DNA. And just last
week they got FDA approval to treat sickle cell, which
is just a one letter mutation of DNA that causes
enormous pain and suffering if you have sickle cell anemia.

And now they can cure it. And now it can
be cured just by editing the DNA and the stem
cells of the person who has it. And eventually, and
this is where we get into the moral territory, you'll
be able to edit it in embryos and sperm so
that you'll be able to make inheritable edit so we

will never have children ever again who have sickle cell.
And that sounds great, but you get into moral territory,
which is we're going to edit our babies. What if
we give them the ability to carry more oxygen in
their blood? Will I be able to get somebody who's
going to be an Olympic athlete if I edit my children.

Speaker 2 (38:51):
I'm sure you will.

Speaker 1 (38:52):
And that the way it's going, and that's going to
be the moral issue over the next twenty years is
how much are we going to use gena editing, not
just secure diseases, but.

Speaker 3 (39:03):
To enhance our children.

Speaker 1 (39:05):
And if you're going to be part of that debate,
it does help to know what is a gene, what
is a chromosome, and exactly how can you edit DNA?

Speaker 2 (39:15):
So you have to write another book about Jennifer.

Speaker 1 (39:18):
Well It ends with her winning the Nobel Prize, and
it ends with the picture of Victoria Gray, the first
person to be treated for sickle cell anemia, and it
ends with.

Speaker 2 (39:29):
And she's nowhere near finished, you know.

Speaker 1 (39:32):
And that's sometimes why I go back in history, like, okay,
now let me do a Leonardo da vinci Is, because
you know they're finished.

Speaker 3 (39:39):
But I think, as a person who likes history.

Speaker 1 (39:42):
And journalism, one of the things I can bring to
the party is reporting about people who are still active,
and so yeah, there's a danger to that, Jennifer DOWDNA
may invent something new, but I think people will understand
the new era of life's sciences were coming into from
that book.

Speaker 2 (40:03):
So all the subjects that you've covered, all these human subjects,
what kind of childhood is there any? Are there any
traits in their childhood? Yeah?

Speaker 1 (40:13):
Yeah, almost all of them were misfits as kids, meaning
they had rough childhoods because they didn't fit in. Whether
it was Einstein and Kissinger each growing up Jewish in Germany,
whether it was Leonardo coming from a small village where
he's illegitimate, his father want legitimate him. He's gay, he's

left handed, and he goes from the village of Vencei
to the town of Florence and has to deal with
the demons of childhood. Elon Musk being beaten up all
the time and psychologically abused by his father, coming with
a lot of demons you see in Elon today, some
of which he harnesses into drives and some of which
drive him and Steve Jobs going through an awkward childhood

where he didn't fit in, adopted by a wonderful family,
but one who'd never gone to college.

Speaker 3 (41:06):
And so I think that having a sense of.

Speaker 1 (41:10):
Being an outsider, of being who you don't totally fit in,
can help spur creativity. Is not a one to one correlation.
A lot of people would misfit childhoods that turned out
to be nar to wells, and a lot of people
with pretty happy childhoods. But even Ben Franklin runs away
from being apprenticed to his brother famously, you know, three

coins in his pocket, leaves secretly to Philadelphia. Now I
look at myself. I had a real happy childhood. My
parents were the nicest people I know. And so maybe
that didn't make me a disruptor, but it made me
perhaps somebody could write about disruptors. So that's a common thread.
And a lot of people I've written about they've had

disrupted childhoods and they become disruptors themselves.

Speaker 2 (41:57):
So you write these fantastic books, take about four years
on a subject. Your editor, How often do you meet
with your editor? Well, with Alice Mayhew, whom you knew,
it was a symbiotic relationship. You just go to lunch,
you'd hang out on her back porch and she would

have read everything incredibly carefully, and she'd line at it
and also tell you you're getting boring here, you're not
telling a story, you're losing your narrative.

Speaker 3 (42:29):
Priscilla Payton, who took over from her.

Speaker 1 (42:31):
I worked with Priscilla had Time magazine for so long,
dear dear friend, and now she's the editor.

Speaker 2 (42:37):
And she did the Musk book.

Speaker 1 (42:39):
She did the Musk Book, and she did the second
half of the Jennifer Dowdner book. Alice died when I
was doing the Code Breaker about Jennifer Dowder and Priscilla
is the same way. Priscilla can spot structural problems, she
can spot bad leaps of logic.

Speaker 3 (42:54):
She can tell you when you're boring, and she's intense.
And I love the fact that both Alice and Priscilla
have an intensity to them that's levined by a sense
of humor.

Speaker 2 (43:05):
I don't know where you're going. The XPOY was going
to ask you, it's my last question, what's the next book?
Do you know?

Speaker 3 (43:12):

Speaker 2 (43:13):
I think I want to go back in history again.

Speaker 1 (43:15):
As I say, after you've been dealing with a living person,
it's like, okay, shall we go on the way back
machine and take.

Speaker 3 (43:20):
A breath, and.

Speaker 1 (43:22):
I've been thinking. I haven't totally decided. I've talked to
Priscilla about it. Of doing Madame Curie Marie Currey, I
would love that, Yeah, because Marie Currey is a much
better scientist than maybe in your grade school books you
thought of her. I mean understanding that chemistry is basically
just physics. It's about how electrons are going around in

an atom and how they radiate, and what radiation means,
and how you can film in the periodic chart by
discovering things like polonium and radium and then applying it
as she did, and being a woman pioneer where she
wins and the first of Nobel Prize winner who's a woman,

but they won't let her into the economy France as
because they don't allow women, and how you they won't
allow her when she's growing up in Poland to go
to university because they didn't allow women to go. So
she went to an underground called the Flying University, where
they had to secretly meet women who were studying physics
and chemistry. So it's about the true pioneers in the

early nineteen hundreds.

Speaker 2 (44:25):
Well, I think we're ready for a book with the
popularity of Lessons in Chemistry, that novel and the TV
show which you probably haven't watched.

Speaker 3 (44:33):
No, but.

Speaker 2 (44:35):
Chemistry has all of a sudden become a very interesting subject.

Speaker 1 (44:39):
Wow, Okay, well I'll tell her that because it's sort
of the forgotten science. We've talked about biology and editing
our genes and physics and micro chips, and.

Speaker 2 (44:52):
Well, I'm in the kitchen. Chemistry is a very important
science to people interested in cooking and creating.

Speaker 1 (44:59):
And it's a wonderful course that they teach at Harvard
that you should be part of, which is called the
Chemistry of Cooking.

Speaker 3 (45:06):
That's the chemistry.

Speaker 2 (45:07):
Course, and that's what listens in chemistry is all about.
A chemistry becomes a cook and explains everything in chemistry terms.

Speaker 1 (45:14):
And of course, Marie Curry wins her first Nobel Prize
in physics, and then after her husband dies and she's
having an affair with her husband's student, Paul Langevain, and
it's a big controversy, she gets a Nobel Prize in chemistry.
She's the only person to have won two Nobel Prizes
in science.

Speaker 2 (45:33):
Boy, how fabulous. Well, it's just incredible what you're doing
for us. And our knowledge of people who are disruptors,
who are important, who are in the public mind. And
I can't wait for your next book. I think that
we have to celebrate your latest book, the Elon Musk Biography,

and I can only wish you well.

Speaker 3 (45:55):
It's great saying you get.

Speaker 2 (45:57):
Thank you, and you're just such an interesting person. Thank
you so much.

Speaker 1 (46:02):
You know, Benjamin Franklin had a trick. He made people
around them seem more interesting. You do that very well.

Speaker 3 (46:09):
Thank you.

Speaker 2 (46:10):
You're so nice. Thank you.

Speaker 3 (46:12):
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