Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, is a pretty intense read of about 600 pages, like the subject himself. What motivated me to press on was the graphic novel by Jessie Hartland. The quirky short novel provided an entertaining summary of Jobs’ life and left me wanting to know more about Jobs’ design approach and thinking processes. I was determined to finish those 600 pages!
Much ink, figuratively, has been spilled over Isaacson’s book. Jobs’ inner circle disdained it. Aaron Sorkins’ movie which was based largely on the book was panned but snared a Golden Globe – Jobs’ wife called it “fiction”and Tim Cook (current Apple CEO) hated it too. I don’t hate Isaacson’s book. It’s quite informative but it seemed to focus quite a bit unfairly on his over-excitabilities (see #2 below for explanation).
It’s impossible to comment on all the ideas in the book that piqued me. What I’m going to write about are some thoughts from the book that connected with my prior experiences, and made me stop and think a bit about my own life experiences and design decisions.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Spare and functional design. Minimalism. Bauhaus design simplicity. Make it really simple.
These words occur repeatedly in the book to describe Jobs’ approach to product design and life. As a designer of sorts, these ideas resonate with me. I like clean minimalist design. Initially, when I was learning media production software applications, I would try to incorporate various capabilities of the software into my learning products in grad school. Those products sometimes ended up looking too cluttered and messy. As I grew in experience and expertise, I’ve learned that less is more, in my design, writing and in my teaching. Bottomline: Don’t be pretentious, ostentatious (faking some grandiose design to cover up for a lack of substance) and don’t be opportunistic. Excel and make great products.
In teaching, I’d rather “cover” fewer content areas than cram a course with too much thinking stimuli. But, many students and institutions don’t always get this principle of simplicity though. And students don’t use the time to be more creative and critical in their thinking, largely because of the compliance-mentality that schools have traditionally instilled in them. Much of their creativity has been squeezed out of them when they entered school. One student had an anxiety attack and nervous shakes when she realized she missed a deadline and thought this might jeopardize her GPA score/A grade.
As I wrote on Twitter recently:
If you change the rules, you change the entire game. That’s why people resist change. Change must be perceived as meaningful. #ThinkAloud
— Yin Wah Kreher (@yinbk) April 10, 2016
Designing something non-conventional that is different from the norm will disrupt the status quo. How do we get students or anyone to understand our motives are for their good and not out to harm them? How do we convince them that they can trust us and our learning goals for them?
2. Intense. Complex. Driven. [ICD, and it’s not a bad thing!]
As extraordinary as Jobs was, so was his personality. I wasn’t put off by Isaacson’s constant [somewhat unfair I feel] description of his temper tantrums and passionate displays of views. I understood in part some of the traits of non-neurotypical [exceptionally gifted] folks. I had planned to study such non-neurotypical folks and their informal learning habits in my first dissertation proposal. I’d thus read quite a bit of literature on this “demographic segment,” special population, as researchers would term them.
Mary-Elaine Jacobsen [The Gifted Adult] and Susan Daniels and Michael Piechowski (Eds.) [Living with Intensity] had introduced me to the complex traits and inner processes of extraordinarily gifted adults. I learned about Dabrowski’s Theory of Disintegration, and the use of this lens to study giftedness. Jobs had a heightened intensity and sensitivity of life experiences. I don’t know if anyone understood that he had multiple overexcitabilities, methinks at least 4 of them, that made him exhibit more emotional and perfectionistic behaviors about his ideas. I feel he was quite misunderstood by many people who had the privilege to work with him.
Also, we need to remember that people are multi-layered beings. No one writer will be able to fully capture the essence of an individual, much less by just interviewing people instead of living with the person for an extended period of time. We too are limited by the language through which we view the world. No one group has equal insight into all facets of reality; and no individual has the same perspective as another person on how s/he views events and people. As such, this is Isaacson’s interpretation of the data he collected — based on his background as a journalist. I read this book through the lenses of a designer, artist (a learning designer is both an artist and scientist) and social scientist. How different this book would be if a scholar who studies neurodiversity and non-neurotypical individuals had written this biography? There would be more compassion, I feel.
What struck me throughout this book was not just how productive Jobs was but also how keenly evaluative he was. To use today’s education buzzwords, he had creative and critical thinking, to the max. Highly observant, he would find inspiration from different fields (arts, humanities), cultures (Japan, India, Italy) and settings. He prized intuition (after visiting India), and apparently, to a lesser degree, rational thought.
Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work. Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic; it is learned and is the great achievement of Western civilization. In the villages of India, they never learned it. They learned something else, which is in some ways just as valuable but in other ways is not. That’s the power of intuition and experiential wisdom. (Isaacson, 2011, p. 48)
In my unpublished dissertation, I referred to this form of knowing that tended to be despised by some researchers:
Knowledge elites privilege individuals with specialized knowledge over those perceived to have “indigenous knowledge”14 (Doyle, 2004; Dei, Hall & Rosenberg, 2000; Hollingsworth, 1984; all cited in Carr-Chellman, 2005). Yet, why should one form of knowing or understanding be privileged over another? The fundamental knowings we possess that are considered ordinary or folk knowledge can be just as powerful (Carr-Chellman, 2005). And while we do often need and rely on the specialized knowledge of experts, that knowledge may be of little use—or even harmful—when it is detached from the ordinary knowing of people in communities. Unfortunately, intuition, instinct, personal perceptions and insight — forms of knowledge developed through experience — have frequently become devalued in society’s privileging of intellectual, scientific knowledge over indigenous knowledge.
I felt upon reading Jobs’ words that I found an ally who understood what it meant to design intuitively without sometimes, being able to explain how the choices were made. They just were. These choices come from the heart and spiritual inklings from within us. His creative genius was a combination of incredibly fine-tuned intuitive insight and evaluative thinking that often did not rely on input from others. He knew what was best instinctively, naturally; hence he didn’t rely on market research. This does not mean that he did not listen to others. He sought out others to have conversations about emerging product concepts. What was unique about Jobs is that he did away with the need to always have stakeholder consensus. Because he was so exceptionally perceptive and ahead of others in his thinking, to listen to others who were less quick in their thinking would just hold him back. I think this part of his personality was misunderstood and made him appear arrogant. But highly gifted individuals are often lonely and alone because of their need for autonomy in thinking. Hence, his Think Different advertising mini-speech about the “misfits.”
I’ve written too many words over 3 ideas. There is no way I could do justice to a 600-page book about an exceptional person. But Jobs is a singularly unusual person and as many continue to analyze and dissect his life, I wish he himself had written his memoir. I wish he had found time to share what it was like to know he was different and how this self-awareness led to his insights, productivity and interactions with others.
Jobs didn’t get to have a Reddit AMA. It would have broken the Internet.