Lessons in Innovation from the Biographer of Jobs, Einstein & Franklin

Walter Isaacson has written the biographies for some of the greatest inventors of the last 300 years in Ben Franklin, Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein. He spoke at the National Book Festival in Washington DC and I serendipitously stumbled upon his speech on CSPAN2. It was so amazing, I wanted to share it all with you as I found it is on Youtube here:

I highly encourage you to watch the whole thing, but I wanted to highlight two things that stood out to me.

Simplicity is a spiritual quest.

Especially in the tech scene and product world, we talk about simplicity like a Holy Grail of sorts and with good reason; a truly simple product has many advantages in the market and a strong likelihood of success. I think Isaacson captured this very well in his talk when he said,

Walter Isaacson on Simplicity

Often I find myself getting caught up in building something that is infinitely flexible and covers a million use cases and it makes me forget the essence of what I’m trying to build.

Spirituality comes into play because this requires faith; I have to believe that by sticking to the core of what I’m doing and ignoring some attractive features, I’m building the right product. It also reminds me of the effort required to get there; the first few iterations are unlikely to get to perfection. Instead, it is the dogged pursuit of simplicity that helps find the essence of what I’m really trying to create.

Tying these concepts together, and sharing how Einstein and Franklin thought about simplicity in addition to Jobs is a fascinating insight only the biographer of all 3 could do.

You have to be YOU.

After a question from the audience at the very end of the video, Isaacson covers the most important lesson I think we all need to remember as we read all the tech blogs and study successful people:

“Don’t try to just copy any one of them. Biography is understanding our world, our values and how you might apply them in your life.”

No matter who I’m studying or learning from, I try to see what I should learn from them to build on who I am, not try to be them. I will never pull off the design instincts and asshole of Steve Jobs nor the curiosity and mathematical brilliance of Einstein, but I know I can learn skills and approaches from them that will make the best version of me.