Chrisann Brennan has been described as the “emotional heart” of Alex Gibney’s new film, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. She came to the Fresh Dialogues studio for an intimate conversation about her relationship with Steve Jobs and their child, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. In this video clip, we discuss why, despite being burned by other journalists, she chose to take part in Alex Gibney’s documentary. She also shares her unique perspective on why the whole truth matters. As Andrew Ross Sorkin explores, Steve Jobs can be both hero and villain.
Here’s the transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
Alison van Diggelen: What are you hoping to achieve by contributing so fully in the documentary (Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine)?
Chrisann Brennan: When they first approached me, they said Alex Gibney did not manipulate content and in the spirit of what I intended, he would uphold that. I’ve had a lot of experience, because of Steve, where people…run on their own agenda…but I found that Alex Gibney did uphold what I said.
Alison van Diggelen: What message are you hoping to get over?
Chrisann Brennan: I don’t want to judge Steve because he did what he did, it was fabulous…but I like the fact that the (movie) spectrum shows we are different people now. We value different things. We will expose these things because we want to have a dialogue in the world about the whole picture…not just the ‘Mount Rushmore picture’ of people who do well.
Alison van Diggelen: So you can contribute that fully faceted perspective?
Chrisann Brennan: Yes, I do feel that.
Alison van Diggelen: You said “I don’t want to paint me as the victim, and Steve as the villain.” Is there an alternate way you’d like to frame it?
Chrisann Brennan: That will continue to evolve. I survived it…I have more than survived it…I survived him…
Alison van Diggelen: And do you feel that is a victory right there?
Chrisann Brennan: I feel it says if you hold onto the truth, it actually starts to amount to something. This was twisted love…we would have done better if we could have.
Alison van Diggelen: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
Chrisann Brennan: Oh, yeah…but I couldn’t have. When I was living with Steve and he was showing me his poetry, I really wish I’d taken it to heart more deeply.
Bite in the Apple – Chrisann Brennan and daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs — Steve Jobs – from book from PR/author
Chrisann Brennan: Mm hmm. When I grew up enough to be an adult and understand that 17-year-old, I felt ohhhh. There’s just so much. If we had a chance to talk now, it’d be great…
Alison van Diggelen: What would you ask him?
Chrisann Brennan: I think I would just express some kind of love…
Alison van Diggelen: You would tell him you loved him?
Chrisann Brennan: In some form…
Alison van Diggelen: That’s beautiful…Now I want to find that passage…(that shows) the side of Steve that is not well known: this goofiness.
Chrisann Brennan: (Reading from her memoir, The Bite in the Apple) Running into the kitchen one day, he took the phone off the hook, pressed the # key and told me he’d just blown up the world! (laughter)
Alison van Diggelen: It’s very powerful…
One last question: what do you feel was Steve’s greatest legacy?
Chrisann Brennan: He showed people how to free themselves up…how to be who they were. Yes, he made a technological device…but mainly the message is to be who you are. Now a lot of people are running around trying to be like Steve Jobs. They miss the point…it is to individuate, to understand what you need to go out and do. He was such a fabulous example of it in so many ways.
Alison van Diggelen: Chrisann Brennan, thank you so much.
Read more at Fresh Dialogues about Brennan’s perspective: “I am a modern Mary Magdalene, the truth of who I am was blacked out. Steve fancied himself a Christ figure…”
The new Elon Musk biography by Ashlee Vance will “likely serve as the definitive account” of the most successful entrepreneur in the world, writes Jon Gertner in the New York Times. But it can also be read as a manual of how to succeed in business. Here are six big lessons for entrepreneurs, young and old:
1. Think Big
While Musk was at college, he decided the three things that would have the biggest positive impact on the human race were: sustainable energy, the Internet, and making life multi-planetary.
Here’s how Vance describes Musk’s big thinking:
“What Musk has developed that so many of the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley lack is a meaningful worldview. He’s the possessed genius on the grandest quest anyone has ever concocted. He’s less a CEO chasing riches than a general marshaling troops to secure victory. Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to…well…save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation.”
This passage comes early in the book, and feels as though Vance has been drinking Musk’s Kool Aid. By the last page, however, he’s painted a vivid and balanced picture of a driven man, focused intently on changing the world in a big way, no matter the cost to himself or his family (see No.6 below). So, if you want to succeed like Elon Musk, don’t waste time building a widget that’ll be 10% better than the competition:
Think big, really big, and go for it.
2. Learn to be a Better Boss
Elon Musk was ousted as CEO from two early startups Zip2 and X.com (the precursor to PayPal) because he was a bad boss. In his early days, Musk was a controlling, micro-manager whose “one upmanship” tactics were brutal.
“Musk’s traits as a confrontational know-it-all and his abundant ego created deep, lasting fractures within his companies.”
According to a colleague at Zip2, he’d rip into junior and senior executives alike, especially when employees told him that his demands were impossible.
“You would see people come out of the meetings with this disgusted look on their face…You don’t get to where Elon is now by always being a nice guy, and he was just so driven and sure of himself.”
These days, he’s still very demanding but has got better at being a decent boss at Tesla and SpaceX and his longtime employees are fiercely loyal.
Of course, part of being a good boss is inspiring your team with an awesome mission (see No.1 above) and articulating that clearly. Early employees of SpaceX were told that “the mission would be to emerge as the South-west Airlines* of Space.” More recently of course, the Mars mission dominates the company’s focus. Who wouldn’t be on board with the mind-blowing goal of making humans a multi-planetary species?
So don’t fret if you’re not getting “Boss of the Year” awards in your early days, but learn from your mistakes, and motivate your team with a grand vision.
3. Hire with Care, Fire fast
Musk is renowned for hiring top talent and for several years, he even insisted on personally interviewing employees fairly low on the totem pole. For key technical hires, once he decides he wants someone, he’ll go above and beyond to hire them. He even cold-calls them himself. A SpaceX employee recalls receiving a call from Musk in his college dorm room and thinking it was a prank call.
But on the flip side, if you’re not a fit for the team, then you’ll soon know about it, according to Steve Jurvetson, a Tesla, SpaceX board member and close ally to Musk.
“Like (Steve) Jobs, Elon does not tolerate C or D players. He’s like Jobs in that neither of them suffer fools. But I’d say he’s nicer than Jobs and a bit more refined than Bill Gates.”
The lesson: hire strategically with great care, and if an employee doesn’t fit, don’t wait.
Some of his “bombastic counteroffensives” worked, others were arguably counter productive and alienated potential allies and supporters.
Yet Vance also offers a more sympathetic interpretation of his tirades as “a quest for truth” as opposed to pure vindictiveness. As Vance writes,
“Musk is wired like a scientist and suffers mental anguish at the sight of a factual error. A mistake on a printed page would gnaw at his soul – forever.”
Although taking things personally and seeking war has generally worked for Musk, it’s a highly risky strategy. Setting the record straight is one thing, but how many bridges can you burn? One key consideration is this: going to war demands a lot of time and energy which might be better spent on getting your mission accomplished.
Choose your battles carefully.
5. Have a trusted assistant
Ashley Vance describes Musk’s long-time assistant Mary Beth Brown as:
“A now-legendary character in the lore of both SpaceX and Tesla….establishing a real-life version of the relationship between Iron Man’s Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. If Musk worked a twenty hour day, so too did Mary Beth…She would emerge as the only bridge between Musk and all of his interests and was an invaluable asset to the companies’ employees.”
Sadly for Musk, she’s now moved on, but having worked with her briefly in 2012/13 (to arrange an in-depth interview with Musk), I can attest that she was very charming and an excellent surrogate for Musk. She represented him well in a professional and personal capacity.
Read more about her in the biography and try find someone as loyal, talented and hard-working to be your right-hand man or woman. Good luck!
6. Work hard, very hard
Not only does Musk lead two hard-driving companies (which are 300 miles apart) – SpaceX (L.A.) and Tesla (Silicon Valley) – he’s chairman of SolarCity, and has five boys, two ex-wives and a tight circle of friends, that includes Google’s Larry Page. He claims to sleep an average of six hours a night, but almost every waking hour is devoted to his businesses. His ex-wife Justine Musk, describes his work ethic like this:
“I had friends who complained that their husbands came home at seven or eight. Elon would come home at eleven and work some more. People didn’t always get the sacrifice he made in order to be where he was. He does what he wants, and he is relentless about it. It’s Elon’s world, and the rest of us live in it.”
The only regular downtime he allows is to indulge in long showers, but even then, it’s really work. He says that’s when he has most of his innovative ideas.
So, the lesson for you is the same as that espoused by pioneering giants like Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie: there’s nothing like good old fashioned hard work.
Note: Although Musk comes over as a hard-driving maniac in this biography, he does have a more sensitive side. You can see this for yourself in this candid interview. He comes close to tears several times.
Yet the biography is already courting controversy. Today Musk said one passage about his attitude to employees and childbirth was “total BS and hurtful.” He addedthat Vance’s book was “not independently fact-checked” and should be taken “[with] a grain of salt.”
So is there a definitive guide to Musk’s remarkable life? One that doesn’t need fact checked or taken with a grain of salt? You could start with a description of his life from the man himself.
As far as I know, this is the first time Elon Musk has shared his whole life story, so candidly, even tearfully, in front of a live audience.
Watch the video or read the transcript, as Musk takes us on a journey from the suburban streets of South Africa to the tech mecca of Silicon Valley…and beyond. He tells us about his teenage “existential crisis” and his bookish quest for the meaning of life; how the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle both upset him and inspired his space transport startup SpaceX; and why he became the reluctant CEO of electric car company Tesla Motors.
Interview highlights and key turning points in his career:
The Rebellious Child: Musk grew up in South Africa. At age 6, he desperately wanted to attend his cousin’s birthday party, but was grounded for some long-forgotten transgression. How did he get there? (This was probably the first of his many rule-breaking adventures.)
“It was clear across town, 10 or 12 miles away, further than I realized actually, but I just started walking…I think it took me about four hours…My mother freaked out.”
The Iron Man Inspiration: He was a huge fan of comics and read Iron Man comics. Did he ever imagine he’d be the inspiration for Robert Downey Jr’s movie character, Tony Stark?
“I did not. I would have said zero percent chance…I wasn’t all that much of a loner…at least not willingly. I was very very bookish.”
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: How did the novel fire his imagination?
“I was around 12 or 15…I had an existential crisis, and I was reading various books on trying to figure out the meaning of life and what does it all mean? …I read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and it highlighted an important point which is that a lot of times the question is harder than the answer. And if you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part. To the degree that we can better understand the universe, then we can better know what questions to ask. Then whatever the question is that most approximates: what’s the meaning of life? That’s the question we can ultimately get closer to understanding. And so I thought to the degree that we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness and knowledge, then that would be a good thing.”
Why was Silicon Valley his mecca at age 17?
“Whenever I read about cool technology, it would tend to be in the United States…I wanted to be where the cutting edge technology was and of course, Silicon Valley is where the heart of things is…it sounded like some mythical place.”
Why did his startup X.com (the precursor to PayPal) come close to dying in 2000?
“The growth in the company was pretty crazy…by the end of the first four or five weeks we had a hundred thousand customers and it wasn’t all good…we had some bugs in the software…Various financial regulatory agencies were trying to shut us down, Visa and Mastercard were trying to shut us down, eBay…the FTC…there were a lot of battles there. (But) we had a really talented group of people at PayPal…It worked out better than we expected.”
After making over $150M from PayPal, why not just buy an island and relax?
“The idea of lying on a beach as my main thing sounds horrible to me…I would go bonkers. I’d have to be on serious drugs…I’d be super duper bored…I like high intensity.”
On the seeds of SpaceX
“I always thought that we’d make much more progress in space…and it just didn’t happen…it was really disappointing, so I was really quite bothered by it. So when we went to the moon, we were supposed to have a base on the moon, we were supposed to send people to Mars and that stuff just didn’t happen. We went backwards. I thought, well maybe it’s a question of there not being enough intention or ‘will’ to do this. This was a wrong assumption. That’s the reason for the greenhouse idea…if there could be a small philanthropic mission to Mars…a small greenhouse with seeds and dehydrated nutrients, you’d have this great shot of a little greenhouse with little green plants on a red background. I thought that would get people excited…you have to imagine the money shot. I thought this would result in a bigger budget for NASA and then we could resume the journey…”
On negotiations with the Russian military to buy two ICBMs
“They just thought I was crazy…I had three quite interesting trips to Russia to try to negotiate purchase of two Russian ICBMs…minus the nukes…I slightly got the feeling that was on the table, which was very alarming. Those were very weird meetings with the Russian military…’remarkably capitalist’ was my impression (of the Russians).”
Why he chose to create his own rocket company, SpaceX
“I came to the conclusion that my initial premise was wrong that in fact that there’s a great deal of will, there’s not such a shortage. But people don’t think there’s a way. And if people thought there was a way or something that wouldn’t break the federal budget, then people would support it. The United States is a distillation of the human spirit of exploration. People came here from other places…people need to believe that it’s possible, so I thought it’s a question of showing people that there’s a way…There wasn’t really a good reason for rockets to be so expensive. If one could make them reusable, like airplanes then the cost of rocketry (and space travel) would drop dramatically.”
How did the vigils for the death of the EV 1 help inspire Tesla Motors?
“It’s crazy. When was the last time you heard about any company, customers holding a candlelight vigil for the demise of that product? Particularly a GM product? I mean, what bigger wake-up call do you need? Like hello, the customers are really upset about this…that kind of blew my mind.”
“I tried really hard not to be the CEO of two startups at the same time…It’s not appealing and shouldn’t be appealing if anyone thinks that’s a good idea. It’s a terrible idea.”
On the idea for SolarCity
“Solar is the obvious primary means of sustainable energy generation…in fact, the earth is almost entirely solar powered today. The only reason we’re not a frozen ice-ball at 3 degrees Kelvin is because of the sun…”
Check back soon for more from Musk on:
where his inspiration strikes (hint: not just Burning Man)
how to build, motivate and retain an excellent team
van Diggelen: You teach entrepreneurship at Stanford University: What are the top 5 lessons for being a successful entrepreneur?
Roizen: When we study and meet with successful entrepreneurs, while each has a different path to success, they all exhibit similar mindsets. For one, they seem to go through life looking at problems as things for which there can be a solution — i.e. they do not accept the status quo, no matter how ingrained. Second, they are not afraid to iterate (or ‘fail’, i.e. learn from a mistake, course correct, and move on.) They tend to be tenacious, that is, they view the failures along the way as necessary steps in getting to success — not as indicators that they should stop. They tend to be very good at telling their stories, building a narrative about the problem, the solution, and what it takes to get there. Finally, successful entrepreneurs tend to know the importance of finding and motivating awesome people to join them in their journey.
van Diggelen: Talk about the importance of networks and the do’s and don’ts of finding and being a good mentor.
Roizen: Let me answer this by starting at the 100,000 foot level. I’ve done a lot of reading about human happiness and I boil the answer down to having meaningful work and meaningful relationships. I believe that if you can do meaningful work with others you build even more meaningful relationships. I hate the word “network” as it almost has a negative connotation — none of us want to be cornered by a ‘networker’ at an industry cocktail party! But, instead I think of ‘building a network’ as a lifelong process of forming relationships with people, finding ‘fellow travelers’ who may share a passion for the same problem that needs to be solved, a skillset that is complementary but appreciated, someone with good common sense to bounce ideas off of — whatever brings value and meaning to each of us in a human connection. For me, those people and those relationships — new and old — help me to keep learning and keep finding new opportunities for work, for growth, for meaning.
As for finding and being a mentor, my main piece of advice, for either the mentor or the mentee, is the relationship only works if there are shared values/ethics, and if there is something meaningful to work on together. That is why I personally believe asking someone to simply ‘be my mentor’ is far less productive than finding for example someone to work for who you can also see as becoming your mentor.
van Diggelen: What do you mean by “living a relationship driven life” versus “a transaction driven life”? Can you give some examples?
Roizen: I’m a big believer in leading a relationship-driven life and I’ve blogged about it here. In short, if you believe what I said above about meaningful relationships being the key to happiness (a big ask I know!) then it makes sense that every transaction in which there are one or more others involved becomes an opportunity to build a relationship. From my life experience, I run into the same people working in this industry over and over and over, so the quality of every transaction is important because it builds a relationship that transcends any individual transaction.
In business school, we learned that a negotiation should be viewed as ‘an opportunity to find the maximal intersection of mutual need.’ I love this concept, instead of a transaction being ‘zero sum’, we can actually achieve a better result for both of us by putting our two heads together to solve both our problems.
van Diggelen: What’s been your hardest challenge as an entrepreneur and how did you overcome it?
Roizen: Almost running out of money many times. Microsoft entering our market. Shipping a product with a lot of bugs. Emotional disagreements with cofounders and key contributors. In other words, there really is no hardest challenge in entrepreneurship, rather there are a whole series of ‘near-death’ experiences. They key is to not let them become ‘death’ experiences! There’s no overcoming, just pushing through, getting back up, learning from your mistakes, mending fences, and moving on. And if you fail in the big picture and your company ends up going out of business, do it with empathy and honor and in Silicon Valley, you will usually get another at-bat.
van Diggelen: How do you see Silicon Valley changing in the next 5-10 years?
Roizen: I think what makes Silicon Valley so special will continue to fuel our next 5-10 and many more years. I do think the valley is changing in a few ways. For one, we are spreading our attention from ‘the next cool iPhone app’ to solving some of the world’s bigger problems, which I find very exciting and frankly more fulfilling. We are seeing technology have a far greater impact on those diverse big problems — from health to food to energy. I am really excited to see what the next 20 years brings about!
Seventy years ago today, the prisoners of Auschwitz were liberated. Irene Weiss is one of those survivors. She was 13 years old when she was captured in Czechoslovakia, her long blond braids shaved off and her family killed in the gas chambers. Weiss sat down with me to share her inspirational story. Remarkably, it was her vivid daydreams that helped her stay alive. Listen to our conversation here:
“There will never be any hate or discrimination after this, because we will tell the world what happened: This is what a 13-year-old was daydreaming about,” she told me.
Irene shared some powerful descriptions of her time at Auschwitz. Here are some excerpts of our conversation.
On the sights and sounds:
“At night we could hear the steam engine, which makes a lot of hissing noise. We’d hear the whistle of the train arriving. Then we could hear the hum of human beings, a huge hum of sounds. And then I’d look up the road and see them coming: a huge column of women and children and elderly moving toward the gate of the gas chamber…. You could see flames, like the whole forest was burning…. The screams were blood curdling. I would stuff my fingers in my ears. I couldn’t stand it.”
On how she dealt with the pain:
“I cannot say to you that all I wanted to do is die. No! I pushed that out of my immediate grief. It was like a stone — you know, without feeling. It’s the way we deal with death…. We grieve and find a way to distance ourselves from the real, painful part of grief. You have to do that; otherwise you have to stop living, or you cry all the time … or commit suicide. Some did…. It was quite easy, by just touching the electrified fence.”
On never crying:
Weiss has never let herself cry about her experiences, even to this day, despite having her beautiful braids of long, blond hair shaved off; being told by her fellow prisoners that the rest of her family had been killed (they just pointed to the chimneys); and finding a shawl belonging to her late aunt as she sorted through the mountains of prisoners’ belongings.
I asked her if she ever cries for joy, for example when she saw her children getting married.
“Well I do experience great joy from my children, endless joy,” she said. “Like all parents, it’s mixed with a little bit of fear that it should last and nothing should spoil it.”
One day soon there will be no more survivors who can tell us their story, which is all the more reason to listen closely and learn from brave women like Irene Weiss. What would it take to make her daydream a reality?