Choose Your Own Dots

Steve Jobs once gave an interesting commencement address in 2005 at Stanford University. You can watch the video here and I reproduce a part of the text below.

The first story is about connecting the dots.

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 sans 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 10 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 backward 10 years later.

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. 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.

Somehow I feel that this message can be interpreted in multiple ways and as a consequence, there is a tendency to understand life as a journey on a one-dimensional pathway that gets unfolded as we walk through it. This is the route where you can connect all the dots 10 years later.

Of course, the dots always connect in the hindsight. This is the generalization of the adjacent possible concept I will write about some day. For now, it is important to understand that no destiny or karma connects your dots; You connect your dots yourself standing at a multi-node junction at each step of your life. I recommend you read the excellent thoughts on How to make hard choices by Ruth Chang for further understanding.

If you look at the above figure, at each moment of our lives, we need to choose the next step from multiple options available, then the next step and the cycle continues. If today I decide to become an actor from an engineer, of course I will utilize some of the lessons I have learned in my engineering life and the dots will connect then as well. What I want to convey here is that life is not a jigsaw puzzle where you or I will fit nicely and will be able to look back joyously in a few years time. Instead, life gives us the opportunities to be a part of any one of several such puzzles. You would have noticed that the expression `any one’ is important here.

The consequence of such a thinking is that it saves us from some severe problems about which people remain confused throughout their lives.

  • There is no right person to marry. Find someone reasonably good enough and strive yourself to be the best spouse you can be.
  • There is no right career. Choose something reasonably attractive and work 10x harder than your peers so that you can become a grandmaster. Switch when something else (that pays well) pulls you.

As they say, you are the author of your own life. Realize that you are the artist behind this picture. Make sure to draw a good one. And remember that each stroke arises from the choice we make at each moment: don’t assume your limitations and aim for the bigger dots!

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