When he died, lots of quotes, stories and links started flying around about Steve Jobs. People clung to them as if they were the last vestige of innovation as we knew it. I won’t lie–I got a little caught up in it. I get that uber-fans are evangelical about the brand, but I thought the flowers and wreaths piling up outside my local Apple store was a bit much.
One thing that had a deep and lasting–yes, I’d say life-changing–effect on me, was linking through to Steve Jobs’ commencement address at Stanford in June of 2005. If you missed it (were you under a rock?), it’s worth watching it on YouTube or reading through the transcript. The bit that struck a chord with me was this:
“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.”
I couldn’t stop (and haven’t stopped) thinking about it. You see, I’m a bona fide generalist. This can be defined as a person who has knowledge, aptitude, or skill in a variety of areas–the dictionary specifically contrasts it with a specialist. Being a generalist can be a bit disorienting and scary. If you’re a specialist and looking for a job, it’s easy to narrow down the category you need to look in. If you’re a generalist looking for a job, it’s difficult to find the right category to look in, let alone find the right job. I’ve been face to face with recruiters who tell me I seem ‘perfect’ for a job, only to then tell me my CV is not specific enough and the ‘client won’t go for it’. (Don’t get me started on recruiters…) Worryingly, it seemed that being competent at too many things was a hindrance rather than a help. Ought I have spent more time concentrating on one thing so I could become a specialist?
Steve Jobs’ advice on collecting dots was like a salve to my anxious mind. All of a sudden, I had a way to view the ‘dots’ I had been collecting as beneficial rather than limiting. It became plausible to believe that at some point in the future they’d form some sensical, coherent picture. That I hadn’t been wasting my time familiarising myself with a number of different industries and professions. That there was hope for me yet!
But sometimes my dots can be troublesome little beasties. Don’t make the same mistake I did this week when I looked at two dots up close, linked them together, and thought I had a picture. What I had, metaphorically speaking, was a line. I became fixated on the line and forgot to take the other dots into account. When the line between the dots disintegrated, I became disoriented and agitated. These dots correlate perfectly. Don’t they? But why has the line disappeared? But then I zoomed out again and remembered the other dots. Focus on the big picture.
The thing about dots is that they only make sense from a distance, as a collection. I’m still waiting to join all my dots and for the complete picture to come in to view. In fact, I think I may still be collecting dots. From now on I’ll try to remember to zoom out, not in.