Reflections on being unplugged from the internet, Steve Jobs, and innovation

A few days ago I returned from a wonderful vacation which included a reunion with 6 of my college roommates & their husbands on Crete, a few days in Paris, and then a visit with a friend in the south of France.   Unlike all my other trips, this time I left my computer home.  I had forgotten what it was like to be “unplugged”.  Except for a few moments of distress when I thought about the number of emails piling up, I found myself surprisingly relaxed, relieved to be away from the information overload that has become the norm of my existence.   Time became more fluid and it was easy to be totally immersed in whatever I was doing- talking with friends or enjoying a meal or exploring new sites.

Back home, I’m feeling drawn back into my normal modus operandi but I’m resisting it.  I’ve allowed myself the pleasure of following up on suggestions made by the friends I’ve just seen regarding articles and speeches.  One of those recommendations was to listen to the commencement speech Steve Jobs gave at the 2005 Stanford graduation.   I just did that.

Unlike the presentations delivered at big Apple events, this was a much more direct, personal sharing that gives insights into this repeat innovator.  He tells 3 stories about his life.  The first, which he describes as connecting the dots- after the fact, illustrates the importance of trusting yourself rather than listening to what others tell you. Because he dropped out of college, he felt free to audit any classes he wanted.  One of those was calligraphy.  Years later, when developing the Mac, that experience led to building in different type faces with proportional spacing.  The second, which he says relates to love and loss, is really about dealing with failure.  It’s the story of his being fired from Apple and how that led to his starting NeXT and Pixar.  He says that after the initial devastation, he realized “The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”  This relates to 2 aspects of innovation:  1) letting go of the need to be right all the time , i.e., accepting failure as part of the process,  and 2) seeing things differently, letting go of assumptions.  Both are critical to being a successful innovator.  His third story is about his bout with pancreatic cancer and the value of accepting the reality of mortality.  Saying he had adopted the philosophy of  living each day as his last while still in his teens, being told he might die within weeks drove the message home that we have a limited time on this earth; the time to act is now.   “Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

Steve’s talk about his personal journey exemplified traits embodied by all innovators:  courage, taking action, authenticity, resilience, overcoming failure.  Not surprising but nice to see him describe it so directly and succinctly.

So I’m back to work on the book on gender and innovation with my collaborator, Jacqueline Byrd of Creatrix.  Oh the stories we’ll be able to tell….. And already I’ve been drawn back into cyberspace and the information it promises.  Vacation is over.