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Bookmark: Take a chance on these moguls' biographies

December 29, 2011|By Julia Keller, The Chicago Tribune

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.

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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.

Why?

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.

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