Letters About Literature: Dear Walter Isaacson

We continue our spotlight of letters from the Letters About Literature initiative, a national reading and writing program that asks young people in grades 4 through 12 to write to an author (living or deceased) about how his or her book affected their lives. Winners were announced last week.

In this next installment, we highlight the Level 2 (grades 7-8) National Prize-winning letter from Gabriel Ferris of Maine, who wrote to Walter Isaacson, author of “Steve Jobs.”

Dear Walter Isaacson,

For the last few years I have been obsessively interested in computers, especially Macs. I picked up a copy of your book about Steve Jobs, excited by the thought that I might find a few technical nuggets that could broaden my horizons. I learned nothing about technology by reading your book but rather an unintended lesson on the delicate tight rope that often divides extreme business success and extreme failure in personal relationships.

Like so many highly successful people, Steve Jobs was driven by something that not many people have. This special something is called singular focus. As a result, Jobs had the ability to focus on only one thing and to tune out everything that didn’t align with his end goal. Throughout this book I found myself questioning if Steve’s high level of business success was worth the price he paid on a personal level.

Many a teenager in the twenty-first century would like nothing more than to be Steve Jobs, the founder of one of the largest, coolest businesses in the world! This was true about me until the day I flipped open the cover of your book. Reading about his rags to riches story that started in his garage was inspirational and entertaining. However, overshadowing all this was the mess he made of his personal life — and even some relationships in his business life. At times I felt bad for those around him. It was uncomfortable to look into his world and see the pain caused by his behavior.

Despite these feelings, I couldn’t put the book down. You brought me into his world in a way that no other book has. It inspired me. The reason your book inspired me was because it taught me that failing from taking risks in business (Project Computer Lisa) is not bad. Your writings actually taught me that risk taking as well as failing can be good to the extent that you learn from your mistakes. This concept that failing can be ultimately productive played out many times in your story of Steve’s life.

Additionally, I was also inspired by examples of what I don’t want to be. It showed me that true singular focus can be very expensive in human relationships. Steve Jobs was so focused on his “singular goal” that he would ignore some of the most important things in his life — family and friends. Steve went so far as not seeing his girlfriend who he had a daughter with. When reading this part of your book I had to go back and reread this section because it seemed so surreal to me that a person could actually say no to seeing his own daughter or being part of her life. When putting myself in Steve’s position I could never imagine doing something as extreme as this. I found myself asking if this behavior was normal for Silicon Valley executives? Is the value of family life typically lost in the pursuit of the Silicon Valley Dream?

This same singular focus that interfered with family life also contributed to failed relationships at work. Steve Jobs had a single vision, and he wasn’t generally open to deviations. As I read his story, I realized that he wasn’t anyone I’d want to work for! His coworkers complained that he was too determined and in fact acted like an unpredictable small child when he didn’t get what he wanted. A perfect example of this was when Steve worked at Atari. His inability to work with others had him restricted to work hours when no one else was around. When I first read the chapter about his days at Atari, I didn’t really understand how someone could be too determined, too driven and too rigid. It was not until many chapters later that I started to realize that the same factors that played into his extreme success were the very factors that contributed to his personal human failure in almost all relationships. I remember a point where I stopped reading to try to pull my thoughts together as my vision of what I thought was a model life story was falling apart.

It’s only been a month or so since I finished your book on Steve Jobs. I still think about it a few times a week. You changed my life in a way I didn’t anticipate. I’m conflicted about the price of success. At 13 years old, I haven’t read a lot of biographies that detail the personal lives of super successful people. I understand that an underlying theme for the super successful is being fully dedicated to the goal at hand. Steve Job’s behavior reminds me of the old saying that “nothing succeeds like excess.” Is excess a requirement for extreme success? Your story leaves me wondering if this is the case — and struggling with the balance between still wanting to do something great while still being someone great. Consequently, your story created more questions in my life than it answered.

Gabriel Ferris

More than 50,000 young readers from across the country participated in this year’s initiative funded by a grant from the Library’s James Madison Council with additional support from the Library’s Center for the Book. Since 1997, more than a million students have participated. You can read all the winning letters here, including the winning letters from previous years.

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