Font of Knowledge

I owe Steve Jobs a good deal. From early dial-up internet on my original Aqua iBook to blogging with an iPhone and iPad. Despite liberating £1000s from my wallet over the years, I am eternally grateful to him. He has opened up a world of new possibilities, knowledge and ideas to me and many millions more.

Poor guy looks like he’s on his last legs though. Emaciated and gaunt, bowing to the inevitable he stood down as Apple CEO the other day. If I were a betting man I’d reckon cancer will have him within 6 months.

A famously hot tempered perfectionist, I wonder how much cancer has changed him. Diagnosed some 6-7 years ago, reading his 2005 Stanford Commencement address – made to a hall of eager freshmen – he had a pretty ‘nailed on’ philosophy well before the ‘Big C’ properly got hold of him. Like David Servan-Schreiber, cancer will extinguish him but it didn’t beat him.

He calls life’s rich pattern ‘connecting the dots’. I think of it as a ‘Nile delta’ of possibilities. Either way, it’s a fact that life often makes sense looking backwards. But the tributaries down which we flow through life are serendipitous, random and unfathomable. Once you’ve noticed your route though, it all looks pre-ordained.

I quoted Jobs’ example of calligraphy (below) the other day. He created, from random events, the font-rich world we take for granted on every electronic device. Imagine if he’d taken technical drawing instead. It could all have been very different.

The moral I draw? Don’t waste time trying to plan life, live it. Think more about today than next year. Don’t sweat the small stuff. And finally, even the big things in life generally happen by accident, it’s how you respond and what you do next that matters.

Here’s a piece of his Stanford address:

I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?

It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I 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.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. 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.

Adjacent Possible

I read recently that all successful innovation expands into the ‘adjacent possible’. Whether it’s spines becoming feathers, swords becoming ploughshares or mobiles becoming smartphones, successful innovation depends on adapting technology to expand into an adjacent – and sometimes very different niche.

It’s also a useful metaphor for work and life. It’s a dangerous business trying to change everything all at once or trying to leap from one paradigm to a completely different one. I worked for two organisations which set out to change their whole market in the 1990s. In one we got it right, by applying an ‘adjacent’ idea from the restaurant business to mobile phones. The other had exactly the right strategy – cloud computing – just ten years too early. That organisation largely destroyed itself trying to create a new ‘non-adjacent’ future before people or the technology were ready.

Charles Babbage’s Victorian computer was way before it’s time. But despite its potential people stayed wedded to the steam age. A friend told me in ancient Alexandria an inventor allegedly created a tiny table top steam engine, but considered it a mere curiosity – who needs steam power when you have slave labour.

So what of the iPad? Steve Jobs famously failed with the Apple Newton: too big, too slow, too expensive, no market. I bought an iPad in September more out of a sense of duty than belief. I wasn’t sure I needed one, but discovered I more or less do. For me the most amazing ‘adjacent possible’ that lies latent in the iPad is the ability to span all ages. My pre-school son can use it happily and so can his grandmother. We bought my parents an iPad for Christmas and she is now sending email.

Seizing the ‘adjacent possible’ doesn’t necessarily mean incrementalism – there are huge advances to be made by looking at the opportunity next door or putting familiar ideas and capabilities in new configurations. I learnt some years after applying ‘set menus’ to mobile phones that there is a well established marketing creativity trick called ‘related worlds’; namely, looking for new product ideas and inspiration in other sectors. As I emailed back to my mum this morning, she has leapt from the computing stone age to the 21st century in one graceful bound. She’s surfing the web and connected for the first time in her life – thanks to the re-imagined and simplified interface of iPad.

‘Think different’ was Apple’s strapline in the 1990s. It’s good advice. Neither a big phone nor a small computer, iPad is less than either. But it is more than both combined in getting my mum online. Hats off to Steve Jobs – he’s not ‘man of the year’ for nothing.

As soon as iPad became adjacent Steve Jobs made it possible and created new adjacent possibilities for millions of people. I’m writing on one now.