Acclaimed author Walter Isaacson draws lessons from three of history's great innovators

The former head of CNN and TIME magazine and best-selling biographer headlined Spring Convocation on March 31.

Walter Isaacson headlined Spring Convocation on March 31, 2016.

Walter Isaacson, best-selling author and acclaimed journalist, shared in his Spring Convocation address what he referred to as the “Cliff Notes” version of the lessons he’s learned from the innovators he’s studied over the years.

He explained to the audience gathered in Alumni Memorial Gymnasium that smart people aren’t successful if they don’t push themselves.

“You have to be imaginative,” Isaacson said. “You need to be innovative. You have to believe in a purpose larger than yourself if you are going to amount to much. And those are the lessons I have taken from each and every person I’ve written about.“

Isaacson, president and chief executive officer of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, D.C., wrote, “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.” The book, which was published in 2014 and quickly became a New York Times best seller, is a biographical tale about the people who invented the computer, Internet and the other great innovations of the digital age.

The former chairman and CEO of CNN and editor of TIME magazine has also written several biographies; Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin are among some of the great innovators who provided Isaacson with the lessons he shares.

Jobs taught him to strive not just for success but for excellence. “He thought a passion for perfection is what made things truly excellent,” Isaacson said.

Jobs pushed to make Apple computers beautiful, even the parts that no one would ever see. He also believed in “distorting reality.”

“You have to do things people tell you cannot be done,” Isaacson said. And Jobs had a way of pushing people to perform simply by staring at them without blinking. “He would say, ‘Don’t be afraid. You can do it.’”

Equally important, Isaacson said, is the notion that every good lesson requires balance. “You have to know when something is impossible and when you can push people to do the impossible.”

Isaacson’s research on Einstein taught him the value of staying curious. “Things remained mysterious to him that others took for granted,” he said.

Einstein was often willing to question conventional wisdom and think outside the box. “If you are going to change the world, you have to be a little crazy,” Isaacson said. “You have to push a bit. … The ability to continue to question is at the heart of the humanities and is what the liberal arts is all about.”

Isaacson pointed out, there isn’t just one rule to be followed blindly. “You have to know when it works and when it doesn’t,” he said, adding “Einstein knew what was inside the box before he thought outside of it. You need to have the foundation of a great education.”

​Franklin’s contribution to America was “good natured religious and ethnic tolerance – I don’t think it’s that disparaging to say that was his contribution,” Isaacson said, noting that the ability to collaborate, bring people together and be inclusive are skills that continue to escape politicians and world leaders. “Compromisers might not make great heroes, but they do make great democracies.”

Isaacson was born in New Orleans. He is a graduate of Harvard College and of Pembroke College of Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He began his career at The Sunday Times of London and then the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He joined TIME in 1978 and served as a political correspondent, national editor and editor of new media before becoming the magazine’s 14th editor in 1996. He became chairman and CEO of CNN in 2001, and then president and CEO of the Aspen Institute in 2003. He is chair emeritus of Teach for America, which recruits recent college graduates to teach in underserved communities.

Isaacson was appointed by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate to serve as the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other international broadcasts of the United States, a position he held until 2012. He is vice-chair of Partners for a New Beginning, a public-private group tasked with forging ties between the United States and the Muslim world. He is on the board of United Airlines, Tulane University and the Overseers of Harvard University. From 2005-2007, after Hurricane Katrina, he was the vice-chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

Elon’s Spring Convocation serves as annual event to recognize Dean’s List and President’s List students, the faculty, the upcoming graduating class and members of the Elon Society, the premier annual giving group at Elon.

Prior to Isaacson’s address, Elon University President Leo M. Lambert conferred honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees to board of trustees members Wesley R. Elingburg and Mark T. Mahaffey.