Photo by San Jose Library (CC BY-SA 2.0)
What made Steve Jobs great? It wasn’t any one thing: it was a combination of traits and skillsets. I would argue his most important trait was, to quote Joe Nocera of the NYTimes:
…an astonishing aesthetic sense, which businesspeople almost always lack.
Now an astonishing aesthetic sense does not just happen. Here in Jobs’ own words from his 2005 commencement address at Stanford, is one way he cultivated his aesthetic muscles:
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.
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.
OK, yes, he dropped out. But if this class had not been available to Jobs, would he have developed into the powerhouse that he became? I don’t know. I do know that he thought this was a turning point in his life.
I firmly believe that arts education is a critical component to our economic success. My guess is that the lessons that Jobs learned doing calligraphy carried over to his ability to orchestrate new products, to visualize new opportunities, and to create market-moving presentations.
Jobs certainly had other things that helped him—an affinity to technology, an ability to hire the best people (and fire them and rehire them over and over), exposure to Silicon Valley as a youth, and on and on. But without his aesthetic sense, what would he have accomplished?
If we want more kids to grow up like Steve Jobs, we need to provide provide quality arts learning opportunities to more of our young people. Everybody should be able to noodle out a tune on a piano, draw a realistic picture from observation, write simple calligraphy, write a powerful poem, dance a vital swing step, and act out a character with verve. And these skills are all teachable.
I know people who are researching the impact of the arts on other learning, and the preliminary data are powerful: studying the arts enriches achievement in other areas. Is that any surprise? Creating art requires perception, analysis, and synthesis, to create a product that evokes passionate response from others. The kind of passion that millions of Apple uses feel for the works of their maestro, Steve Jobs.
If we want to succeed in a global economy, we need quality arts education more than ever. I am emphasizing children as the focus of this post, but for you grownups, it’s not too late to take some guitar lessons, a drawing class, or maybe even calligraphy.