The most ignored advice from Steve Jobs (and how it can be your secret weapon)

Photo by Dhaval Parmar on Unsplash

At the launch of the iPad 2, Steve Jobs shared what many people over the years have deemed the secret to Apple’s success:

“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

To Steve Jobs, combining the arts with technology was the key to making Apple so successful.

But despite the fact that he literally stood in front of a picture that shows the intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology and credited Apple’s success to this, the liberal arts continually get ignored and looked down upon as a waste of time by technologists, governments, and society in general.

Every day you hear of government initiatives or non-profits that are working to get more people coding or pushing more students to study STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects.

Often this is at the expense of arts, history, literature, and all of the other things that, as Steve Jobs said, make our hearts sing.

But if you make time for the liberal arts, not only will you become a more interesting person, you can find that little something that will differentiate you from everyone else.

How did it work for Apple?

In his biography, Steve Jobs tells the story of how he dropped out of Reed College, a small liberal arts college close to Portland, Oregon. Rather than pursuing a formal education, he would just drop in on classes that he was interested in.

One of the classes that he was particularly moved by was calligraphy, a subject which he found:

“…beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.”

Later, when working on the Macintosh, he would draw on this as his inspiration for creating some of its most unique features.

“…ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would never have had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.”

This example is often quoted from Steve Job’s biography but I think the importance is overlooked and there are two points I think are worth emphasizing:

  • Steve Jobs devoted time to calligraphy for nothing more than the sake of following something that was interesting to him
  • Then only after many years was he able to draw on this experience to make the Mac a much more unique product

Now, I’m sure that many people have heard this same story before, but nearly everyone ignores this key point:

If you don’t have a broad range of interests, there is nothing for you to contribute to whatever it is that you are making that will make it unique.

In other words, in order to connect the dots on a great product or idea, you have to have a lot of different dots to choose from.

What made Apple successful over the years, was that you had a group of people who were similar to Steve Jobs in that they all had broad ranging interests.

Jobs alluded to this himself in an interview, where he said:

“Part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians, poets and artists and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.”

So not only did they have all of the dots to connect from Jobs himself, but everyone else working at Apple had all of these different interests and dots to connect with everyone else’s, and what you got was an exponential surge in creativity.

Why do people ignore this?

There are no shortage of articles and stories about Steve Jobs and many have been written on topics similar to this — so why is it that people don’t follow this advice?

Think back to Steve Jobs and the calligraphy classes which would later turn into the typeface for the Mac.

You have to spend time following your interests, even if there is no clear immediate payoff.

This is where we have collectively screwed up over and over again. We have optimized and “hacked” everything in our day to become more productive in the short-term.

But in doing this, we have squeezed out all of the time to be curious and to explore our interests just for the sake of learning.

And if you’re not exploring all kinds of different things, you’re not going to be much different than anyone else.

So go out, be curious and explore your interests, whatever they may be. Not only will it make you a more interesting person, but you may find some work of art that shows up in your design, or some passage in philosophy that changes your management style, or some event in history that changes your business strategy.

There are countless dots out there to connect, but if you are looking in the same places as everyone else, you’re going to end up being just like everyone else.


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