Saturday, 23 June 2012

Connecting the Dots

Our guest blogger S Pavlina writes:

Connecting the Dots

During his 2005 Stanford commencement address, Steve Jobs told a story about connecting the dots. He noted that sometimes we can't predict how we'll be able to apply our knowledge and skills later in life. For instance, Steve learned about calligraphy at Reed College, with "no hope of practical application." Years later, he used this knowledge to include advanced typography and proportionally spaced fonts in the design of the Mac's operating system.

Steve said that he couldn't have predicted this outcome in advance, but 10 years later he was able to connect these dots looking backwards. By then the long-term value of that calligraphy class was obvious.

Follow Your Intuition

Another point he stressed during that speech was that in order to set yourself up for connecting the dots, you must follow your intuition. When he first enrolled at Reed College, he had to take required courses that didn't interest him. Then he dropped out and sat in on classes that truly interested him for another 18 months. To choose these classes, he followed his intuition.
When I was 10 years old, I was exposed to my first glimpse of BASIC programming. At the time I didn't know what intuition was, but I became very interested in computers. I used to save up my money to buy programming books at the bookstore. One of my favorites when I was 13 was Dr. C. Wacko's Miracle Guide to Designing and Programming Your Own Atari Computer Arcade Games.

I had no idea where this would lead. I didn't set out to become a programmer. I was simply motivated by curiosity and wonder.

I ended up learning to program computer games before I'd really had a chance to play many of them. Most of the early games I played required typing in BASIC programs by hand. Then I could run those programs and play the games. Since I had the source code, I was able to learn how simple games were constructed. I'd try to imagine how the game would work while I was typing in the code. Since I couldn't type very well, I picked up a lot of early game programming techniques by typing in other people's code one line at a time. I learned to type in BASIC long before I learned to type in English.
I had no idea that years later I'd be writing my own computer games and selling them to people all around the world. All I knew at the time was that I was very curious about programming, and I wanted to learn more.
I went to college and picked up degrees in computer science and mathematics, but on a practical level those were largely worthless. I was already working on my first commercial game project while I was still in college, and it was selling in software stores like Comp USA shortly after I graduated. I was able to do this work because of what I learned between ages 10 and 18 on my own. I gained more practical value from Dr. Wacko's book than I ever did in college. I went to college for logical reasons, but the payoff came from following my intuition.

I don't think it's always true that we can never connect the dots looking forward. I was able to do that with public speaking. I expected I'd eventually start doing my own workshops, and so I made a commitment to learn public speaking. I practiced for 5 years before I did my first 3-day workshop. I could see that coming up from many years in advance. It was a predictable outcome.

I still agree with Steve Jobs that sometimes we can only connect the dots with the benefit of hindsight. Life has many twists and turns, and we don't always know where our paths will lead.

I believe the core lesson here is how important it is to follow your curiosity. This is a bit different than the advice to do what you love. How do you know you'll love something if you've never done it before?

I doubt Steve Jobs knew in advance that he'd enjoy typography. I didn't know in advance that I'd enjoy programming. But the curiosity to try it was there.