How'd they do it?
That is often thought to be the primary motivation behind our fascination with the life stories of business behemoths: a curiosity about the means – both noble and scurrilous – by which mammoth fortunes are made. "Steve Jobs" (Simon & Schuster) by Walter Isaacson is on track to be the highest-selling book of 2011, according to Amazon. It ranks in the top five books of the year among Barnes & Noble customers as well.
And even as you read this, myriad copies of the Jobs biography – sleek and cool-looking with that shiny white cover and bare-bones typography – are surely being wrapped and beribboned, ready to serve as stocking-stuffers for wannabe billionaires everywhere.
Is there more to the popularity of "Steve Jobs," however, than just trolling for tips on making it big? More, even, than relishing the tidbits of gossip about the odd behavior of Jobs – quirks such as eating fruit exclusively for weeks on end or dressing repetitively in black turtlenecks, and more sinister habits such as glaring at employees to intimidate them?
Even people who have no intention of enrolling in an MBA program – and who don't give a hoot about what Jobs ate or wore – are flocking to read his biography.
The secret of the appeal of "Steve Jobs" – and of any good mogul biography – can be found on page 291 of the 571-page tome. It's the moment when Isaacson is describing what happened after Jobs was sacked from Apple in 1985:
"At the company he founded after being ousted from Apple, Jobs was able to indulge all of his instincts . . . He was unbound. The result was a series of spectacular products that were dazzling market flops."
People may believe they buy mogul biographies to read about success: immense wealth, limitless power, international fame. Ideas that worked. Strategies that proved to be brilliant. "Eureka" moments. But the moments that matter – in life, in a biography – are just the opposite. They are the moments of stark despair, when ideas fizzle, when plans fall apart, when nobody's calling you a genius. When nobody's calling you, period.
As the world now knows, of course, the true and transcendent greatness of Jobs emerged after he was dumped from Apple. It came when he returned for a second go-round. It came with the development of the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad. It came with his work at Pixar. It came in the retailing innovation represented by Apple stores.
Had he not endured the "dazzling flops," however, those milestones might very well never have occurred. He'd have been a footnote in business history. A colorful one – but a footnote nonetheless.
Thus a great mogul biography is really just an epic poem about risk.
It must convey the dynamic nature of pivot points in the lives of these individuals, moments when their fortunes were poised precariously between triumph and disaster.
Looking back, it's easy to say that a Steve Jobs was inevitable. But he wasn't. He had to fight, to try, to dream. He had to lose in order to win. Isaacson calls him a "creative entrepreneur whose passion for perfection and ferocious drive revolutionized six industries." Even more crucially, the biographer adds, "Jobs stands as the ultimate icon of inventiveness, imagination, and sustained innovation." Being innovative doesn't mean that every product or idea will work. It means, as "Steve Jobs" reveals, that you stick with it until a few magnificent ones finally do.
Once you've finished "Steve Jobs," try these five biographies of American moguls – listed in order of preference – because they, too, shimmer with the heat and passion of lives lived, battles fought, chances taken:
"Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr." (1998) by Ron Chernow.
One of the best biographies ever written about any public figure, this long and enthralling book captures a man whose life was marked by "silence, mystery and evasion," as Chernow notes. At one point the world's richest man, Rockefeller was the favorite target of muckrakers who shook their fists at his slippery ways. What his enemies saw as ill-gotten gains helped to build, among other things, the University of Chicago.
"The Founding Father: The Story of Joseph P. Kennedy" (1964) by Richard J. Whalen.
This book explains how the patriarch of the Kennedy clan actually accumulated his fortune – dollar by dollar, deal by deal, including the purchase of Chicago's Merchandise Mart – and held onto it through the Depression and other challenges. "Wealth, power, and the chance of greatness for his name were the lifelong ambitions of Joseph Patrick Kennedy," Whalen writes, and then he proceeds to undergird the generalities with fascinating details about this father of a beloved president.
"Morgan: American Financier" (1999) by Jean Strouse.
Morgan functioned as a one-man Federal Reserve before the United States had such an entity, but he was far more complicated than his relentless focus on money-making led many people to believe. Strouse's portrait is richly detailed – particularly about the early emotional life of a man who seemed to have been born old.
"Andrew Carnegie" (2006) by David Nasaw.
The brilliant Scot turned the fortune he made in steel production into public libraries, among other lifelong charitable impulses, and in this briskly written, even-handed picture of his life, Nasaw traces how a poor young man from a small village of weavers came to tower over the rising industrial giant known as they United States of America in the late 1800s.
"Mellon: An American Life" (2006) by David Cannadine.
The hooded stare, the gaunt body and the perpetual air of melancholy that made him resemble a mortician's assistant, all worked against Mellon's public image. But in this fine biography, Cannadine points out the tremendous risks that Mellon took when he switched from banking to manufacturing, risks that could have backfired: "He saw the moment, seized the opportunity, and took his chance, with an impressive combination of calculated aggression, right timing, and cool nerve." And he did it while enduring the public humiliation caused by his restless wife, who ran off with a con man. Mellon's only solace: making money and collecting great art. Both habits had lasting effects on American history and culture.