Don’t Worry About Connecting the Dots
Many things serve as inspiration for the Monday Mornings with Madison column. Over a year ago, a colleague sent me the Commencement Address by Steve Jobs, then CEO of Apple Computer and Pixar Animation Studios, delivered to Stanford University students on June 12, 2005. It was no surprise that Mr. Jobs was a gifted communicator. With very little preamble, he basically told three stories. Each was a message unto itself, and each was inspirational.
As 2011 draws to a close and we begin to think about 2012, Mr. Jobs’ words of wisdom to those graduating students some six to seven years ago about past, present and future are particularly poignant, especially as we contemplate a year gone by that also brought Mr. Jobs’ untimely demise. This week, and for the next two weeks, we’ll share most of that Commencement Speech — in three parts — and then perhaps dare to add a little insight of our own. His first story was about connecting the dots.
I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation. Today, I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.
The first story is about connecting the dots.
I dropped out of Reed College after the first six months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?
…I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.
It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:
Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 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 have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.
Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
The first part of Mr. Jobs’ speech was about trusting that there is a value and purpose to most everything we experience in the journey through life. The path followed may not – at times — make sense. We may not always be certain that the decisions we are making are the right ones. It is impossible to look ahead and see how many seemingly random experiences of yesterday and today may connect and even help in the future. It will only be in the mirror of hindsight – long, long after – that we will see the connections with 20/20 clarity.
Case in point. In 1951, a surgeon studying human cells took a sample of a tumor from a woman named Henrietta Lacks. At the time, the sample was taken testing purposes. Ultimately, Dr. George Gey, a daring scientist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, used those cells in an experiment. Many scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture for decades, but they all eventually died. Dr. Gey was the first to discover that some cells – in this case Mrs. Lacks’ cells — were different. They reproduced an entire generation every 24 hours and never stopped… even to this day. As told by Rebecca Skloot in her book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” they became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory. Her cells became part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it. Her cells helped develop drugs for treating leukemia, influenza, hemophilia and Parkinson’s disease and have been used to study lactose digestion, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating and the negative effects of working in sewers. Virtually every cell culture lab in the world has millions – if not billions – of Mrs. Lacks’ cells in small vials on ice and they have been used in thousands of other scientific tests during the last 60+ years. HeLa cells, as they are known, is one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last 100 years. However, when Dr. Gey tested that cell sample, he had no way to see how all those dots would connect.
Instead of worrying about how to connect the dots of what you’ve learned in the past to benefit you in the future, it might be more beneficial to allow yourself to explore new, diverse areas of interest. According to Jorge Barba, who calls himself an Innovation Insurgent and blogs on a site called Game Changer (focused on strategy and innovation), “those… who curate content on diverse topics (new terminology for sharing content) have a higher possibility of connecting more dots because we engage with more information. And the wider the better.” His advice is to explore everything that interests you. In Steve Jobs’ case, it led to a Calligraphy class that was a game changer for computers as we know them today. For Dr. Gey, it led to the discovery of HeLa cells which may eventually lead to a cure for the cancer that took Steve Jobs’ life. Who knows where your diverse interests may lead you.
With the economy slowly recovering, there are surely many questioning their professional choices and career decisions as they shift gears to find a place in the post-recession marketplace. Right now, the value of your past jobs, degrees and experiences may not make sense. They may not seem to connect with where life is leading next. In planning for 2012, be confident that past and present will have value for you in the future and give yourself permission to try things you’ve never tried before. As Mr. Jobs advised those eager college graduates, trust that the dots will eventually connect.
Quote of the Week
“Don’t fear failure so much that you refuse to try new things. The saddest summary of a life contains three descriptions: could have, might have, and should have.” Louis E. Boone
© 2011, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.