Steve Jobs at the Intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology

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.
– Steve Jobs

With the iPod, iPhone and iPad, Steve Jobs changed the way we lived, making computers accessible and personal. He transformed how we relate to electronic devices, putting a heretefor unseen premium on design and usability. Along the way, he upended entire industries, breaking the monopoly pricing enjoyed by greedy music conglomorates and forcing telephone companies to meet the needs of consumers.

Apple is one of the most successful companies in the world and proof of what this country can still accomplish. Only America offers the freedom, creativity and technical knowhow necessary to give rise to a media corporation like the Cupertino giant. Steve Jobs liked to say that he existed at the intersection of liberal arts and technology, a genius that would have been crushed among the slave laborers of China or the repressed salarymen of Tokyo.

And all this was done by a man without a college degree. As noted in his widely-read commencement address, he was a person who followed is interests wherever they led. Not wanting to bankrupt his parents, he dropped out of Reed College – and then “dropped in” on whatever courses interested him. This meant studying calligraphy, perhaps one of the most impractical courses available. Picture a bearded and half-starved Steve Jobs hand-lettering posters as he followed his curiosity.

What would you call a person like that today? A flake. Can’t you be more practical? What’s calligraphy going to get you? Please, be realistic, there are no jobs for calligraphers…

Yet, as Jobs noted in the quote above, his journey makes sense only in retrospect. He was not on a career path, a linear ascension on a road that others had laid out for him. Instead, he surrendered to his interests. As he studied calligraphy, he had no way of knowing that it would lead to the beautiful typefaces found on the Mac.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.
– Steve Jobs

Can you imagine a world without the Mac? Computers would be ugly, utilitarian devices, with software to match. Jobs stressed the power of good design, whether it was the feel of an iPhone in your hand or the pleasant experience of dragging icons on a desktop.

This is a beauty that you will not find in any spreadsheet. Bill Gates said that what he most admired about Jobs was, “His taste.” His eye for quality and usability was something that Microsoft could never fully duplicate, no matter how hard they tried. It was embodied in a person, not a corporation. Like with iPad rivals, everything else feels like a cheap knock-off.

There’s an irony that America’s best company was lead by a man without business training. Steve Jobs did not have an MBA. An iconoclast, guided by hippie-era values of self-discovery, he followed his gut, and confidently let the market decide. Better to be a failure on his own terms than let his ideas get watered down by committees of number-crunchers.

This artist exposed the folly of an entire generation of MBAs, proving that you didn’t need an advanced degree from Harvard to build a wildly successful company. In fact, having such a degree may be a hindrance to revolutionary products, as evidenced by other great college drop-outs like Mark Zuckerberg.

Yet, as anyone who works in an office knows, America has been infected by the soul-crushing business terminology and theories of MBAs, from the meaningless “value-added” to the we-know-best attitude of “business process reengineering.” Rather than concentrating on building great products, busybody managers concentrate on vision statements, stultifying PowerPoint presentations and endless hours driven by utter disorganization.

It’s no wonder that people are drawn to the principles of REWORK, a brilliant book by a couple of other visionaries. They spell out a more humane and more productive way of working together.

This revolt is also seen in the agile software development, an iterative approach to software design that frees people from doomed-from-the-start “waterfall” models, like Microsoft Project.

In web content management (my field), this means moving away from complicated leviathans like Vignette in favor of nimble software designed around the user, such as my beloved WordPress.

American companies would be wise to ditch the MBAs. Instead, concentrate on building great products, stuff you actually want to use. And have the courage to hire creative iconoclasts like Steve Jobs, people at the intersection of liberal arts and technology. Painters, writers, photographers, designers – maybe even add a calligrapher to the staff. You never know where it might lead.

Author: Joe Flood

Joe Flood is the author of The Swamp, a funny new novel that mocks the city America has come to hate.

2 thoughts on “Steve Jobs at the Intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology”

  1. Wow, you write beautifully! This is an amazing tribute to very gifted man. I’m glad people with your talent have illuminated how complex Jobs really was, and how he succeeded in shifting technology from a mechanized tool towards an elegant interface.

    I still can’t believe he’s gone!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *