Freedom to fail is what made Steve Jobs

Let us now argue about how to create the next Jobs


 
Freedom to fail is what made Steve Jobs

David Paul Morris/Getty Images

Having paid Steve Jobs the full measure of our devotion, let us now argue about how to create the next Steve Jobs. Which choices can governments and educators make that will encourage the next miraculous hybrid of gearhead, design genius, marketing whiz and change catalyst?

It’s fair to answer, “Give up. It’s impossible.” The rise of Jobs 1.0 looks more like a happy accident than anything else. He dropped out of a liberal-arts college in Portland and then stuck around to audit the calligraphy course. And yet I’m pretty sure that if everyone in Canada were required to take calligraphy without credit, it wouldn’t spark a new renaissance. To be fair, probably people would send more and nicer thank-you notes.

But still. It’s worth spending a little time to ask what was germane and broadly applicable in Jobs’s life. After all, no matter what governments do, it won’t be long before they’re claiming to be producing a new generation of Jobses.

Governments are trying all the time to encourage innovation and productivity. On Oct. 18, the latest federal expert panel on the subject will release its report on how to improve federal support to business R&D. Some good may even come out of that process. This panel has a tech entrepreneur from Waterloo, Tom Jenkins, and a university president, David Naylor, on it.

You’d have to be a real cynic to point out that it’s only been five years since the last government-appointed expert panel released the last report on business innovation. Or that that panel also starred a rich Waterloo gearhead, Mike Lazaridis, and a university president, Indira Samarasekera. So right there, you see how a crazy dream can change the world.

But never mind the nuts and bolts of federal policy. (You can thank me later.) Asking how a Steve Jobs could rise where he did, when he did, is just another way of asking what matters in the development of human potential. That’s always useful. What makes it fun is that Jobs’s own remarks on education appear to offer contradictory lessons.

He really wasn’t fond of teachers’ unions. “The unions are the worst thing that ever happened to education because it’s not a meritocracy,” he said in 1995. “It turns into a bureaucracy, which is exactly what has happened. The teachers can’t teach, and administrators run the place, and nobody can be fired. It’s terrible.”

He also believed in wide-open choice in education. In the same 1995 interview he said, “I believe very strongly that if the country gave each parent a voucher for $4,400”— the cost of a year’s public education in California—“that they could only spend at any accredited school, several things would happen. Number one, schools would start marketing themselves like crazy to get students. Secondly, I think you’d see a lot of new schools starting.” Third, “Some of the schools would go broke. A lot of the public schools would go broke. There’s no question about it. It would be rather painful for the first several years.”

So, bust the unions and blow up the public school system. I’m not even sure I believe that would be the right path, but it’s only fair to give Jobs a vote. In Canada these are seen as pretty right-wing ideas. But other elements of his story are so redolent of California in the 1970s they practically reek of patchouli. He once said his lifelong rival Bill Gates would be “a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.” (In Gates’s defence, his late-career emergence as a philanthropist rivals anything any other tech pioneer has done on the “broadness” front.)

When he unveiled the first iPad, Jobs said: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” It was a direct rebuttal to Gates’s belief that schools should aim to educate students in fields that “produce jobs.” Jobs believed, rightly, that nobody can know anymore at 20 which field will “produce jobs” when he’s 40, so it’s better to just try to become a good person, in the way Aristotle would have understood that term.

It took barely 48 hours after Jobs died for his 2005 Stanford University commencement address (“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”) to become the ur-text for anyone seeking the Meaning of Jobs. That speech was about the merits of failure. Jobs said the hardest trials of his life were also the most fruitful: his decision to drop out of college, the putsch that kicked him out of Apple in 1985, and his cancer diagnosis. Each time, living life by rote simply became impossible. He was thrown back on his own resources. It really hurt.

Here, I think, is where the Jobs who lived a random life and the Jobs who wanted to bust the teachers’ unions find common ground: he believed in freedom, including the freedom to fail hard. He supported meritocracy and opposed central planning. So one way to honour his best example would be for governments to refrain from doing what comes naturally: to tell everybody what they should learn and do, and to try to shield everyone from a cloudy day.


 
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Freedom to fail is what made Steve Jobs

  1. Human potential?  There is a surfeit of human potential left unused in an alarming number of cities and countries across the planet.  Really, the waste of human capital* is truly staggering.  We should not be waiting, baited breath, for the next Steve Jobs to grace us.  No, we should be wondering why he even (was allowed to?) happened at all.  Not only do you need genius.  You need genius that is approved as worthy.  Oh, and that money can be made off of is certainly very helpful as well. 

    *Human potential is just that, potential, as in: could possibly be.  Human capital is developed potential, as in: already is & available for use.  

    PS: that Steve Jobs disproved of central planning, merely means that he had no talent/genius for it.  His genius found it’s best venue for expression as a CEO, where it must be said he held the reigns to make a tyrant blush.  

  2. Governments are trying all the time to encourage innovation and productivity.   But they won’t just get out of the way.

    So one way to honour his best example would be for governments to refrain from doing what comes naturally: to tell everybody what they should learn and do, and to try to shield everyone from a cloudy day.  Amen!  Anybody dare put odds on that happening?

    • There is a fundamental flaw in everyone that pops out of the woodwork and takes an opportunity to bash to Govt, and asks for the Govt. to stand back. Apple did great things with the same Govt around, without constantly asking for the Govt to step back. 

      If you want to do something do it- do ask for everyone to stand back while you take a run to try to jump a gap. If you are focused on getting people to give you way and stand back- you are incapable of jumping the gap i.e. innovating. There is nothing gained from anyone standing back.

  3. The problem, I think, is that the kind of public policy that might produce more Steve Jobses might do a worse job of producing Joe Lunchbucket. For innovation to work, you don’t just need somebody with an idea, you need a workforce capable of producing the product (and good infrastructure/a good business climate). 

    What is more, Canada doesn’t need to have its own innovators. Ideas are public goods – anybody can snap them up (Jobs was quite adept at doing so too – if you look at what he took from Xerox). Look at RIM as a case in point, yes, for a few years RIM earned extra-high profits from being a first-mover. But it didn’t take long for copycats to enter the market, rendering the Blackberry an also-ran. Or look at a success story – Bombardier. Yes, Bombardier invented the snowmobile, but it is the company’s involvement in rail and regional jets that produces the vast majority of revenues and jobs. 

    The better strategy for a country that makes up a tiny portion of global population or GDP, is to have a public policy capable of producing skilled median workers, good infrastructure, and a favourable business climate. Our enduring firms have not been great innovators, but rather refiners of existing products in industries where Canada has inherent advantages. 

    • I’ve been over this several times and still don’t understand where you’re going with it.

      If you want us to take ideas and innovations from other countries and have a lot of Joe Lunchpails manufacturing them…..that would make us part of the Chinese factory system…and really, China has that covered….which is why we have large numbers of unemployed Joe Lunchpails.

      •  I think Jobs is excellent at his own ideas and innovations for how to make customers buy the products voluntarily. China is indeed a world factory, but it is lack of plenty innovation and outstanding ideas.

        • Well China has invented so many things over the centuries….paper, printing, the rudder, the compass, the abacus, cannons…we can’t fault them on innovation.

  4. Well we could search out and fast track the clever kids. Britain is starting to do this, but I’m sure we won’t.

    Plus we’re rather up-tight, and while people like Einstein and Hawking got multiple degrees  Jobs and Gates did not.

    Different fields of course, but learning for bright people can be a messy hit and miss process that doesn’t fit in well with our middle-class version of well-adjusted, well-rounded students.

    • I’m learning about physics right now, and one of the really interesting things I’m learning is that Einstein was wrong.  Not wrong all the time, of course, but I’m just amazed he was wrong on anything.  So not only can you not tell which “smart person” is going to be a successful smart person–even if they are successful at being the innovator and all that, you still can’t tell when to listen and when the idea is wrong.

      • Since I don’t know what you think he was wrong on, I can’t comment….but of course he was bound to be wrong sometimes. He was human after all.

        He said himself….”If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”

        We should support all smart people…not pick and choose.

  5. ““I believe very strongly that if the country gave each parent a voucher for $4,400”— the cost of a year’s public education in California—“that they could only spend at any accredited school, several things would happen. Number one, schools would start marketing themselves like crazy to get students. Secondly, I think you’d see a lot of new schools starting.” Third, “Some of the schools would go broke. A lot of the public schools would go broke. There’s no question about it. It would be rather painful for the first several years.” ”

    The Edmonton school board did that (without the vouchers) about 15 years ago and we have one of the best systems going – visiting school boards from most western countries come here for ideas. Schools get funding based on a combination of # of students and provincial exam results, and the schools have open borders (i.e. you don’t have to live in the neighborhood/cachement area to attend any particular school). There are a number of language-immersion schools (French, German, Ukrainian come to mind, there are likely others), liberal arts, computer science, military/cadets, sports (some with a soccer focus, or hockey or whatever) and students & their parents choose which school suits their particular needs. It’s not radical or right-wing. It works.

    • And yet we have the highest rate of kids leaving high-school incomplete in the country.  Knowing now that Edmonton schools get funding based on exam results, I think I start to see a connection.  I wonder how many expulsions there are shortly before exams?

      • Examination results in Alberta schools only affect funding to the extent that some parents will send their children to schools with the best exam results.

        All funding (except that raised by school fees and casinos and the like) comes from the province according to strict formulas that have nothing to do with test results.

        However, the school boards receive the funding, and have a certain leeway as to how they distribute it among schools.  Those with poor test results are more likely to get more funding than to get less.

        • This isn’t what Candace claims, however.   And I know that the school-board  in Calgary is different from the rest of the province and operates differently from it. So are you sure about how the Edmonton system works?

          • Total funding at the provincial level makes no implications about how the funds are divided at the local level, however.

      • The early-school-leavers rate is usually attributed to the availability of well-paying low skill and high risk oil-patch jobs in Alberta.

        International tests based on a sample of all students in an age group show Alberta students are among the highest performing in the world.  Of course, there’s always a debate about the meaningfulness of test results, complicated for comparisons based on international tests by translation and cultural issues.