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Isaacson: Jobs was ingenious, but not necessarily smart

In a New York Times op-ed, Steve Jobs' biographer, Walter Isaacson, describes how Jobs wasn't all that interested in, for example, rigorously solving classic tests of "intelligence," like brain teasers--which Bill Gates would have loved.

All that's left are definitions.

Was Steve Jobs the greatest inventor of the last 50 years? Or merely a genius? Was he an artist? Or merely a very, very good salesman?

Naturally, Jobs' biographer, Walter Isaacson, has some thoughts on the subject, which he expresses today in the New York Times.

He describes how one evening at a Jobs family dinner, someone threw out a classic brain teaser, something about a monkey having to carry bananas across a desert. Jobs offered a few imaginative guesses but didn't seem terribly interested in whether he solved the problem.

Isaacson believes that Bill Gates would have sat there and used his monstrous rational brain power to find the answer. Because Gates is the epitome of what is usually defined as "smart." Whereas Jobs personified instinctive, intuitive genius.

The difference comes out in the products they made. Jobs made the iPod--a product that inspired you as soon as you looked at it. Gates, on the other hand, brought the world the Zune.

Isaacson links Jobs' way of thinking to his time in India. He says that, like Einstein, he was a visual thinker. He concludes that the Apple co-founder was "super-ingenious," while Gates--the mere also-ran--"super-smart."

Oddly, though both Jobs and Gates had the reputation of suffering fools as much as Richard Nixon suffered openness, Isaacson believes that Jobs understood people intuitively only too well. Jobs was mean to people because he could see through them.

"He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, cajole them, intimidate them, target their deepest vulnerabilities, and delight them at will. He knew, intuitively, how to create products that pleased, interfaces that were friendly, and marketing messages that were enticing," says Isaacson.

Biographers, however, see only one side of a subject--usually the older, wiser, more knowing side. For all of Isaacson's observations, a truer description of Jobs' methods, his character and his true talent came in the 7-minute eulogy given by Apple's Jonny Ive at the company's memorial ceremony for Jobs. (I have embedded it here.)

While Isaacson theorizes about the inner working of Jobs' mind, Ive describes it in a far more real way.

He says Jobs used to say to him "a lot": "Hey, Jonny. Here's a dopey idea."

"And sometimes they were really dopey. Sometimes they were truly dreadful. But sometimes they took the air from the room and left us both completely silent," added Ive.

Jobs, Ive said, understood better than anyone how fragile ideas are and how easily they can be lost.

Call him what you will, but no one could--or perhaps no one chose to--do what Jobs did, think like Jobs thought, or work like Jobs worked.

"He never assumed we'd get there in the end," said Ive. Because he knew, perhaps, that in this world, rational answers can only take you so far.