by Lynn S. Schwebach
Few people have made such a dramatic impact on the world as Steve Jobs. His innovative products are universally known and coveted, changing the way we communicate, conduct business, create and listen to music, design, spend our leisure time and learn. Jobs earned and deserves the title “creative genius.”
Like others in this lofty category – Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky – his life and work will be analyzed for years. Uncovering the “hows” and “whys” of a creative process, such as Jobs, gives us important information about how we can nurture creativity in our lives, occupations, and avocations.
His own words are a good place to start. At Stanford’s 2005 commencement address, Jobs talked about a calligraphy class he happened to “drop in” on at Reed College in 1971. He had already dropped out of Reed as a freshman, but stuck around for 18 months taking random classes.
Jobs said he took the class because of the beauty he found in art, which he found everywhere on the Reed campus. At the time, Reed offered outstanding calligraphy classes, and throughout the campus, “every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed,” Jobs said.
From this class, Jobs noted that he “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.”
Jobs told the graduating class that at the time, none of what he learned in the class had any practical applications in his life. But ten years later, when he and Steve Wozniak designed the first Macintosh computer, all his calligraphy knowledge came back to him – and they designed it all into the Mac. (Also see the article, Why Cutting Arts Funding is Lethal.)
Jobs’ speech about how his knowledge of calligraphy worked its way into his iconoclastic personal computer exemplifies the human creative process at its best. Scientists know that creativity involves taking “stored memories” and combining them with new, incoming data to create something unique. For this reason, they call creativity a combinatory process.
Jobs didn’t think about or practice calligraphy for ten years. He took the class as a lark, as a way to expand his knowledge of art. But what he learned became essential to his innovations years later.
This is why neuroscientists tell us today that the more new experiences we expose ourselves to, the more we are able to generate “new combinations” of knowledge. And it’s these new combinations that lead to novel technological and scientific products, new forms of literature, music, works of visual and performing arts.
I can’t think of a better excuse to travel, read, visit museums, hike, and even take a class. You might start with calligraphy.