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Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish
As somebody with an accidental career (I started giving advice as a joke, by setting up a cardboard sign on a Manhattan street corner with two friends), I really appreciate what Steve Jobs said in his commencement address at Stanford. Here's an excerpt, but go to the link and read the whole thing -- it's worth the trip:

It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: "We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?" They said: "Of course." My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

And 17 years later I did go to college. But 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, its 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.

By the way, this blog post was written on my iMac G5, which looks more like an art piece than a computer. I've had a Mac since 1982 or 1983, and I've never yet had to read an instruction book to know how to use it. My very first Mac is still in operation, in Rome, Italy, by my friends Thomas and Roberta.

Posted by aalkon at October 3, 2005 9:28 AM

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Comments

Great, motivating Monday morning post Amy.

A few years back Forbes did a special issue on failure, with people like Churchill, Lincoln, Einstein, Newton all used as examples, and how they built on their failures to later succeed. I am going to print this out and use it as a bookmark for that issue.

Posted by: eric at October 3, 2005 10:38 AM

I agree with Eric about your post.
I also agree with you about the iMac G5. We purchased ours earlier this year and love it!

Posted by: Claire at October 3, 2005 10:57 AM

Jobs is a fascinating and gifted individual, appearing repeatedly as a pivotal figure in the most exciting industry in our generation. That a giant personality like this could be dwarfed by Bill Gates shows just how transformative a force personal computer technology has become.

But we don't need to get carried away. By the time the Mac was introduced in 1984, bitmapped graphics were obviously going to be the future for microcomputer display.

> And since Windows just copied the
> Mac, its likely that no personal
> computer would have them.

This is puffery. OF COURSE computers do graphic displays, but it was not all for typography. In the early 1980's, fortunes were being made by people writing fascinating and revolutionary software for architects and musicians, and these applications required intense graphic support.

More to the point, ask yourself whether graphic design and clarity of presentation has actually IMPROVED since Adobe conquered the world: A case could be made that it hasn't. I spent the early 90's working at an Apple-addled entertainment TV company, and was appalled by the number of memos from 23-year-old college graduates (comp lit & psych majors) who thought their arguments were stronger because they switched from 10pt Palatino to 11pt Garamond at JUST the right paragraph. To a lesser extent, the same applies to computer music: Better tools are more cheaply available to better nourished and educated users than at any time in history. So where's the new Bach?

Jobs is a genius who deserves LOTS of credit, certainly. I remember reading interviews with the Macs designers as it was introduced, and the competive pride they took in their powerful video circuitry. Many good things have come from this, but we shouldn't let someone tell us they wouldn't have happened without Jobs precious aesthetic.

It's tempting to grant Jobs the conceit. At his level of superb industrial achievement, it must rankle him deeply to know that Gates probably buys the Ipod Nano for all his nieces and nephews... And thinks it's cute.

Posted by: Crid at October 3, 2005 12:51 PM

PS- I'm lonely in here. Could someone, preferably a lefty with a wide-open heart, please pick a fight with me about this or anything else under the sun, just for old times' sake? Thanks.

Posted by: Crid at October 3, 2005 12:53 PM

That's a very nice post, Amy. It's just the thing for an overcast Monday - Thanks.

Posted by: Curtis at October 3, 2005 1:44 PM

I'll admit that I was momentarily inspired after reading that.

Then again, every last person who told me that I didn't "need" college seemingly already had a degree under their belts; most people are only retroactively willing to confess that they wish they had pursued their hippy dreams instead.

but If I had a pretty penny for every time I met a bowling alley attendant with a PHD in philosophy...

Posted by: Jake at October 3, 2005 2:35 PM

Crid~

If this latest nominee is approved, Ruth Ginsburg will be considered the hot chick on the court.

I hope that gives us something to work with...

Posted by: eric at October 3, 2005 8:26 PM

> Ruth Ginsburg will be considered the hot
> chick on the court.

It's true. At some point, even the butch-est of barristers is going to admire the way that two-button pinstripe suitcoat drapes from the mild, feminine shoulders of the Souter boy.

How's the grandson? Is he four now?

> Then again, every last person who told me
> that I didn't "need" college seemingly
> already had a degree under their belts...

That's the other side of this. Generation after generation, century after century, continent after continent, there's no better way out of poverty than education. But it can't rescue a total fuckup (I speak from experience). And NOT being educated doesn't stop someone who simply has mojo, which Jobs apparently has. They used to call it his "reality distortion field." The most emotionally sober members of his team described it a "nearly Mansonesque capacity for psychotic manipulation." They would not say so for attribution, however, because they knew they might want to work for him again one day.

Maybe Jobs is a special case. Or maybe when he says we need to have faith ("You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever"), perhaps we should believe him.

AHA, Alkon! Where's your (dead) God now?!?!

Posted by: Crid at October 4, 2005 12:17 AM

For every nitwit who thinks that their argment is stronger if it's styled differently, there is a company who cannot express itself decently.

Savannah River Site (http://www.srs.gov) decided to use Windows just in time to charge the public for Y2K issues, which didn't affect Macs, and then, the conversion from Apple cost over two million dollars of taxpayer money just to convert the documents in my division. All of them have to be character-accurate.

So we chug along with Microsoft Word, for which there is no training, even though Gartner Group told managers they'd better get with the program. It's sad.

Whoops. Sorry this part wasn't inspirational. It's prohibited where I work. I have to wait 'til I get home to use something elegant rather than clunky. (Cue RB)

Posted by: Radwaste at October 4, 2005 2:29 AM

Ah, but it seems Jobs' belief in himself was well-founded! First of all, as far as I can see, there's a great deal of evidence both for his existence and for his ability to pull himself out of the shits. God should be able to say so much about his imaginary ass.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at October 4, 2005 4:43 AM

> God should be able to say so much about
> his imaginary ass.

Duzzen have to, his peeps say it for him. Many believers find their faith nourished by the events in their lives.

Posted by: Crid at October 4, 2005 9:37 AM

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