The Lost Steve Jobs Tapes

Illustrations drawn on iPad by Jorge Colombo

From Fast Company:

A treasure trove of unearthed interviews, conducted by the writer who knew him best, reveals how Jobs’s ultimate success at Apple can be traced directly to his so-called wilderness years.

If Steve Jobs’s life were staged as an opera, it would be a tragedy in three acts. And the titles would go something like this: Act I–The Founding of Apple Computer and the Invention of the PC Industry; Act II–The Wilderness Years; and Act III–A Triumphant Return and Tragic Demise.

The first act would be a piquant comedy about the brashness of genius and the audacity of youth, abruptly turning ominous when our young hero is cast out of his own kingdom. The closing act would plumb the profound irony of a balding and domesticated high-tech rock star coming back to transform Apple far beyond even his own lofty expectations, only to fall mortally ill and then slowly, excruciatingly wither away, even as his original creation miraculously bulks up into the biggest digital dynamo of them all. Both acts are picaresque tales that end with a surge of deep pathos worthy of Shakespeare.

But that second act–The Wilderness Years–would be altogether different in tone and spirit. In fact, the soul of this act would undermine its title, a convenient phrase journalists and biographers use to describe his 1985 to 1996 hiatus from Apple, as if the only meaningful times in Jobs’s life were those spent in Cupertino. In fact, this middle period was the most pivotal of his life. And perhaps the happiest. He finally settled down, married, and had a family. He learned the value of patience and the ability to feign it when he lost it. Most important, his work with the two companies he led during that time, NeXT and Pixar, turned him into the kind of man, and leader, who would spur Apple to unimaginable heights upon his return.

Indeed, what at first glance seems like more wandering for

the barefoot hippie who dropped out of Reed College to hitchhike around India, is in truth the equivalent of Steve Jobs attending business school. In other words, he grew. By leaps and bounds. In every aspect of his being. With a little massaging, this middle act could even be the plotline for a Pixar movie. It certainly fits the simple mantra John Lasseter ascribes to all the studio’s successes, from Toy Story to Up: “It’s gotta be about how the main character changes for the better.”

I had covered Jobs for Fortune and The Wall Street Journal since 1985, but I didn’t come to fully appreciate the importance of these “lost” years until after his death last fall. Rummaging through the storage shed, I discovered some three dozen tapes holding recordings of extended interviews–some lasting as long as three hours–that I’d conducted with him periodically over the past 25 years. (Snippets are scattered throughout this story.) Many I had never replayed–a couple hadn’t even been transcribed before now. Some were interrupted by his kids bolting into the kitchen as we talked. During others, he would hit the pause button himself before saying something he feared might come back to bite him. Listening to them again with the benefit of hindsight, the ones that took place during that interregnum jump out as especially enlightening.

The lessons are powerful: Jobs matured as a manager and a boss; learned how to make the most of partnerships; found a way to turn his native stubbornness into a productive perseverance. He became a corporate architect, coming to appreciate the scaffolding of a business just as much as the skeletons of real buildings, which always fascinated him. He mastered the art of negotiation by immersing himself in Hollywood, and learned how to successfully manage creative talent, namely the artists at Pixar. Perhaps most important, he developed an astonishing adaptability that was critical to the hit-after-hit-after-hit climb of Apple’s last decade. All this, during a time many remember as his most disappointing.

Eleven years is a big chunk of a lifetime. Especially when one’s time on earth is cut short. Moreover, many people–particularly creative types–are often their most prolific during their thirties and early forties. With all the heady success of Apple during Jobs’s last 14 years, it’s all too easy to dismiss these “lost” years. But in truth, they transformed everything. As I listened again to those hours and hours of tapes, I realized they were, in fact, his most productive.

Continue reading the rest of the story on Fast Company