Imagine an early morning with Elon Musk at a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral and ending the day chatting with The Social Media Professor in New Orleans. Well, that was a day in the life of Elon Musk biographer Walter Isaacson last week.
While visiting our daughter Selma at Tulane University last week, Monica and I took the opportunity to listen to Walter Isaacson as he was being interviewed by President Mike Fitts. Currently Isaacson works at Tulane University as a history professor but is more known as a biographer. During a free-flowing conversation, they covered a range of topics both on being a biographer and also on what it takes to be a creative genius or a so-called Renaissance People.
Walter Isaacson certainly has covered a number of extremely creative people in his previous biographies, most recently one on Jennifer Doudna, the Nobel Laureate who cracked the gene editing code. When he had written the biographies of Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin, he got a call from Steve Jobs who asked “are you doing me now?”. At that time, Steve Jobs knew that he didn't have much time left and Isaacson took the job.
Isaacson shared that he found some common denominators among his subjects:
- First, they all operate on the intersection between the arts and the sciences.
- Their creativity is also fueled by an unbounded curiosity that often lasts until their very last breath.
- They are also quite difficult people to work with as their mission to accomplish things, solve problems, or come up with new innovations often overshadows considerations of personal feelings.
Leonardo da Vinci could wonder about the most ordinary things such as “why is the sky blue?” He also wrote “describe the tongue of the woodpecker” in his journal. Why would he be curious about that? Regardless, the resulting inquiry into the matter eventually resulted in the discovery that the long tongue, three times the length of its beak, could serve double duty to also wrap itself around the brain as a cushion to avoid concussions when the woodpecker smashes its beak into a tree.
Walter Isaacson also shared some failures from his career such as when he aborted his biography on Louis Armstrong as he simply could not get a sense of who he really was. By then he had done extensive research into the pride of New Orleans for two years but he still could not figure out if he was happy when he smiled, whether he liked white people, etc, etc.
I knew everything there was you could possibly know about Louis Armstrong. Except for who he was.Walter Isaacson, October 21, 2022 at Tulane University on why he aborted Louis Armstrong biography
As he is currently working on the official Elon Musk biography, he shared how fascinating it is to capture a very intriguing man but also that it was difficult to capture a life that is very much ongoing. Like drinking from a firehose. After the Elon Musk biography, his plan is to go back and do a biography of someone who has been dead for at least 2,000 years like Aristotle… Out of frustration, Isaacson recently strayed from his normal observer, interviewer role when he asked Elon Musk:
Can't you just focus on getting us to Mars and get us to an era of sustainable energy and not have to solve problems in Ukraine or whatever else, like buying Twitter?Walter Isaacson, October 21, 2022 at Tulane University on asking Elon Musk without revealing the answer
While chatting with Walter Isaacson after his talk, I asked him if he believed it was possible to change the world and still have a good, well-balanced family life. He said that it seemed to be difficult. But he himself wasn't about changing the world, merely about chronicling others who do so and stated that he had a great and happy family life.
We also learned that Walter Isaacson grew up on the 5500 block of Magnolia Street a few blocks from Tulane University only a block from the 5600 block of Magnolia Street where Monica and I lived our first year together while I was teaching at Tulane University for my first teaching job! Small world!