Walter Isaacson has made a career as a thorough biographer of exceptional people, including Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. Of course, Walter is quite exceptional himself, in that writing books isn’t even his day job.
By day he’s the CEO of The Aspen Institute, a non-profit policy studies organisation By night, he writes. His latest book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, examines the entrepreneurs and inventors whose work led to the creation of modern computing, and the internet.
How’s he manage to head an organisation while still research and write his books? We caught up with Walter to learn a bit about his methods, what he’s researching at the moment, and how he works.
Location: Washington, D.C.
Current Gig: CEO of the Aspen Institute. Author, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Past books include Steve Jobs; Einstein: His Life and Universe; Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
One word that best describes how you work: Late-night
Current mobile device: iPhone 6
Current computer: I’m a gadget freak. I use an iPhone and a Blackberry and sometimes a Samsung smartphone. I have a MacBook Air and a Dell PC and an iPad. I like to be able to write and research on any of them, wherever I am.
What apps, software, or tools can’t you live without?
What’s your workspace setup like?
Jammed and messy with multiple devices at home, neat and presentable at my Aspen Institute office.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
No car. I use metro and Uber.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
Outlook tasks, so I can share with others at work.
When doing research for your books, are there any tools that you find to be indispensable?
Access to a university library. I love to ferret out the academic papers, journals, and oral histories as well as go see the actual artefacts, such as Colossus at Bletchley Park, Charles Babbage’s reconstructed engine at London’s Science Museum, the Mark I at Harvard, and the delightful cornucopia at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.
I assume most of your writing and outlining is done digitally these days — what do you write with?
Word and Google docs.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?
I am good at wiring, soldering, fixing and installing all things electrical. My father and uncles were electrical engineers, and like many of the characters in this book I grew up with a basement workshop that had circuit boards to be soldered, radios to be opened, tubes to be tested, and boxes of transistors and resistors to be sorted and deployed. As an electronics geek who loved Heathkits and ham radios (WA5JTP), I can remember when vacuum tubes gave way to transistors.
What do you listen to while you work?
New Orleans funk: Nevilles, Dr. John, Wynton Marsalis, Jon Batiste. The strong backbeat and syncopated piano riffs energize me. If I hit a rough patch in my writing, I put on “Iko Iko.” I grew up on Napoleon Ave near Tipitina’s. I still go to sleep dreaming of Professor Longhair there.
What are you currently reading?
Books about the Renaissance.
Do you use an e-reader or do you prefer paper books?
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert? Maybe both.
How does being an extrovert affect your work as a writer, which is often a solitary pursuit?
I’m lucky that I’ve known and been gathering string on most of the players in the digital revolution over the years — ever since my days at Time in the 1980s and 1990s when we put many of them on the cover — and I can get them to sit down with me.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I write from 9pm until 2am, and try to sleep until 9am.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Walker Percy said “There are two types of people who come out of Louisiana, preachers and storytellers. For God’s sake be a storyteller, the world has too many preachers.”