Walter Isaacson is a gifted storyteller. A career journalist who has steered both Time magazine and CNN, Isaacson has written biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Henry Kissinger, Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein. His latest biography, published last year, looks at the life of Leonardo da Vinci. Isaacson, now a history professor at Tulane University, recently visited Wharton to be interviewed by his friend and management professor Adam Grant as part of the Authors@Wharton speakers series. Grant has also written several bestsellers, including Give and Take and Option B, which he co-authored with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
Grant and Isaacson shared a lively discussion on topics ranging from the genius of Jobs and da Vinci, the qualities of a curious mind and what it takes to be a great leader. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation:
Adam Grant: Walter, it’s such a treat to have you back here.
Walter Isaacson: It’s great to be back at Penn and back with you. We’ve had a lot of good times together.
Grant: I want to talk about so many fascinating people you’ve written about, but also a little bit about your own life. You’ve run the Aspen Institute (a nonpartisan educational and policy studies think tank), had leadership roles at CNN, and were the editor at Time. You’ve also been the biographer of some of the greatest innovators in human history. Your new book is Leonardo da Vinci. How do you write a biography of someone who lived half a millennium ago?
Isaacson: The good thing about Leonardo da Vinci is he left 7,200 pages of notebooks. We can look every day at this mind dancing across nature.
We all keep notes digitally these days. When I tried to do Steve Jobs’ period in the 1990s — when he was in the wilderness between his stints at Apple, he worked at NeXT Computer — we went back to try to get all the emails and memos. He couldn’t get them out of his machine. The operating system couldn’t retrieve them anymore. But paper is a really good technology for the storage of information.
I asked Simon & Schuster, the publisher who did Leonardo da Vinci, to “do it all on art paper and not one of these things where you put the things in the center.” I want it throughout to be that heavy quality, coated, color images because I wanted to show that paper is actually sometimes good for transmitting information.
Grant: You’ve picked a lot of original thinkers throughout history. Why da Vinci?
Isaacson: You’ve written a lot about innovation and creative leadership, and you’ve seen the patterns. It takes me a while to see the patterns. I started with Ben Franklin, then Einstein, then Steve Jobs. The pattern after a while wasn’t that they were smart, because if you’re at Penn, you’ve met lots of smart people, and they don’t usually amount to much. They’re a dime a dozen. But what’s interesting is when they’re innovative or creative, as in your books, the pattern is people like that tend to be curious across disciplines.
“The biggest takeaway from this book is just stay curious about everything.”
Penn is a university that pioneered crossing disciplines, as opposed to other Ivy League schools that really do have departments and disciplines that are much more siloed. Ben Franklin did that. He goes up and down the coast, looking at how swirls of air resemble the swirls of the northeastern storms. Then he discovers the Gulf Stream. Same with Leonardo. He sees patterns across nature.
When I was writing about Steve Jobs, he would end his product presentations always with the intersection of the arts and technology. He said, “At that intersection is where creativity happens.” He said to me, “Leonardo is the ultimate of that.” Leonardo had that ability not just to connect art and science but to make no distinction between the beauty of art and science. That’s why he was the final mountain to climb in this series of books.
Grant: I think your point about pattern recognition is really important. To me, studies of creative people are about looking at lots of people’s experiences at once, as opposed to doing one person’s experience in a lot of depth. I think there’s a ton we can learn from da Vinci. I also think it seems like it’s unfair. I want to live in da Vinci’s era because no one knew anything. You be an architect and a scientist and a great painter, and you could get to excellence much quicker in each of those fields than you can today. Is it too late for a Renaissance man or woman today?
More at – https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/leonardo-da-vinci-steve-jobs-benefits-misfit/