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Walter Isaacson: 5 Traits of True Geniuses

As the biographer to Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs, Isaacson knows a thing or two about
geniuses. Here's what he's learned.


IMAGE: Getty Images


People tend to think of geniuses as singular and incomparable characters, who can't be categorized or likened to
anyone else. That's partly true, but according to Walter Isaacson, the former CNN chairman who has written
biographies on Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and, most recently, Steve Jobs, there are certain character traits
that geniuses do tend to share.
Onstage at New York City's 92nd Street Y Sunday night, Isaacson kicked off the inaugural "7 Days of Genius" festivalby
sharing his thoughts on what he believes, having studied the lives of three of the world's biggest thinkers, are the

markings of true genius.

Here's what he said:

1. They have a passion for perfection.

The most important thing to know about true genius, Isaacson said, is that it's not simply analogous to intellect. "At a
certain point in your life, it becomes apparent that smart people are a dime a dozen. What really makes someone
special is if they're imaginative. If they think different," Isaacson said.
One of these differences is that geniuses--Steve Jobsis a great example--tend to be obsessive perfectionists. To
illustrate this point, Isaacson told the story of the time during Jobs's childhood when he was building a fence with his
father. His dad, an auto mechanic, told Jobs at the time that it was important to make the back of the fence as
beautiful as the front. When a young Jobs asked his father why that was, since no one would know the difference
anyway, his father replied, "But you will know."
That's a lesson Jobs carried through his career at Apple, painstakingly poring over even the hidden details, like the
circuit boards in the original Macintosh computer. And that, Isaacson said, is one reason why Jobs was a genius. "A
real artist cares even about the parts unseen," he said. That's also why he managed to build such a lasting and worldchanging company. "A lot of companies keep their eye on making a profit," Isaacson said. "If you really want to make a
company that will survive, you focus on making good products. If you care about making good products, eventually,
profits will follow."

2. They love simplicity.

The beauty of Apple products is, of course, their simplicity, which Isaacson said is another obsession of true geniuses.
When Jobs was first working on the iPod, he was fixated on ensuring that it would only take three clicks to get to any
song in the iPod library. "He told the team, 'Don't show it to meuntil you can get it in three clicks,'" Isaacson said. Out
of that desperation to keep things simple, the team came up with the expertly designed wheelthat allowed users to
scroll, rather than click, through songs.
The wheel met Jobs's standard for simplicity. The large on/off button, however, did not. "Steve said, 'Why do we need

that?'" The answer, as we now know, was that the iPod didn't need an on/off switch, but could power itself up and
down on its own.

3. They make other people do what they never thought was possible.
"Steve was a real jerk to work with, but he gathered around him the most loyal people, because he drove them to do
things they didn't know they could do," said Isaacson. Jobs's trick was not giving in to other people's hesitations and
self-doubts. Instead, when employees or colleagues claimed that a task was impossible, Jobs would just stare at them
and say, "Don't be afraid. You can do it." It's the tactic he used to convince his team that they could shave 10 seconds
off the boot-up time for the original Macintosh. Despite initially considering it impossible, the Apple team members, in
the end, shaved a full 28 seconds off the boot-up time. "Steve could drive people crazy," Isaacson said, "but also drive
them to do things they never knew they could do."

4. They challenge other geniuses.

It was Albert Einstein who taught Isaacson this genius trait. Einstein came along, of course, centuries after Sir Isaac
Newton, another great mind whose theories were respected by the rest of the scientific community in Einstein's time.
But it was only in challenging one of Newton's theories, Isaacson said, that Einstein stumbled upon the theory of
"Newton says time marches along second by second, irrespective of how we observe it," Isaacson said. Einstein,
however, refused to take that theory at face valueand, instead, developed the theory that time is, in fact, relative to
our state of motion. "That ability to think different, and think out of the box, that's what made him Einstein," said

5. They appreciate diversity.

Ben Franklin, Isaacson said, possessed a quality that people may not typically associate with the word genius. His
genius, said Isaacson, was tolerance. "He understood if you create a society with great diversity and everyone is
tolerant, it will be stronger," Isaacson said.
With that tolerancecomes humility and the ability to humble yourself to other peoples' opinions. "Most creativity

comes from a group of people who play off each other, who cover each others' weaknesses, and amplify each others'
strengths," Isaacson said. "Over and over again, you see Franklin's wisdom, which is bringing people together. That's
part of his genius."



Why Vice President Joe Biden Is So Inspired by Theranos

At a visit to health care startup Theranos, Vice President Joe Biden seemed to endorse the company's unorthodox


Vice President Joseph Biden gave a shout-out to health care startup Theranos and its founder on Thursday, as he
toured the company's Newark, California, facility and then made some brief remarks before an audience of about 150
Theranos employees and press.
Biden said he'd met Elizabeth Holmes(above), the founder of Theranos, at a conference about a year ago. Since then,
he said, "I've been threatening Elizabeth for the past year that I'm going to take the opportunity to be shown around.
Talk about being inspired! This is inspiration, man," he said.
He applauded the company for being able to dramatically cut costs while manufacturing in the United States. He also

said that Theranos is at the forefront of a paradigm shift in health care, where the emphasis is moving from treating
symptoms once a disease has manifested to stopping the illness before traditional symptoms are necessarily
Theranos has attracted attention for both the ambition of its mission and the precociousness of its founder. By
dramatically cutting the costs and inconvenience of bloodwork, and by making results available directly to patients,
Theranos is aiming to help detect disease earlier, when treatment may be more effective.
Holmes dropped out of Stanford University during her sophomore year to start the company at the age of 19.
Theranos has raised more than $400 million, but Holmes still owns half of it. Theranos also boasts an all-star board,
including two former U.S. Secretaries of State.
Biden also did a bit to parry what is probably the main criticism of Theranos, which is that it has not published any
peer-reviewed studies of its work. When asked about this, Holmes generally says that Theranos is submitting each of
its tests for FDA approval. Theranos is not required to do this, and Holmes describes FDA approval as the "gold
standard" for determining efficacy and the proper use of a test. She also says that she'll release more information
about her company when she determines it's time to do so, not when her competitors request it.
This strategy also provides much less information to Theranos's competitors than publication in a journal would
entail. Biden didn't directly address the complaints about peer review, but said that "the fact that you're voluntarily
submitting all your tests to the FDA demonstrates the confidence you have in what you're doing."
Biden also used his own family's history to illustrate the importance of detecting disease earlier. His son Beau died of
cancer in May. He described the families of people with such difficult diseases as "so close to breaking," and said that
"science is going to catch up ... But a big piece of that is ... changing the paradigm of [medicine], dealing with costs,
and dealing with availability."