It’s been a sad and strange week, first with the iPhone 4S announcement and witnessing the Gizmodo staff just show everyone how it’s done with their coverage. And then learning that Steve Jobs had died, and watching them do the same thing all over again, though in a more somber mood this time.
Steve Jobs created the thing I’m using to create this post, and that other thing that I stare at (for better or worse) more than I look into my husband’s eyes. We all loved Jobs for the beautiful and incredibly useful stuff he’s responsible for building. But we also love to consider what he was like as a person. What kind of guy can make such a huge impact on the world?
I never met Steve Jobs, but there are two things about him as a person that resonate with me a lot: 1. His favorite musical artist was Bob Dylan. Major big ditto. 2. He was adopted. Ditto again!
This 2005 Stanford commencement address has been passed around a lot since Steve passed on Wednesday. It’s deeply fascinating to me because he outlines the series of events that led him to becoming such a creative mastermind, and it all started with his adoption. If he hadn’t been adopted by that particular couple, he says, he never would have dropped out of Reed University, he wouldn’t have taken calligraphy (which led to his interest in design), he may not have developed an interest in phone phreaking, taken LSD, and started his own company.
Listening to his connection of all those dots makes me think about DNA. We give our genetic ancestry too much power. We blame our genes for bad habits and credit them for our talents. But here is a series of events, rather than a collection of DNA, that created a genius. Would Steve Jobs have grown up to be a genius if he hadn’t been adopted? Maybe. I’m certainly not saying that being adopted makes you a genius. If only! But it seems to me many environmental factors had to align to make him great.
In his book “The Genius in All of Us,” David Shenk cites a boatload of science (nearly half the book is references) to back up the argument that it’s not nature VERSUS nature, with nature winning in some cases and nurture in others, that makes us who we are. Rather, it’s always nature PLUS nurture.
A reader pointed out that Jobs’ biological sister, Mona Simpson, is at the top of her own field: she’s a successful novelist. Doesn’t that point to biology being the deciding factor in what kind of person one becomes? I’m not saying that I don’t believe genetics are important (nor does Shenk). Who we are is a result of how all the factors combine: biology, environment, practice, and accidents. I think Simpson had her own set of idea circumstances.
Steve Lohr wrote in a New York Times Magazine profile of Jobs described a change in Jobs after meeting his biological sister for the first time: “The effect of all this on Jobs seems to be a certain sense of calming fatalism—less urgency to control his immediate environment and a greater trust that life’s outcomes are, to a certain degree, wired in the genes. A few years earlier, Jobs was staunch on most of his character having been formed from his experiences, not his birth parents or genetics (Jobs frequently referred to his adoptive parents as “the only real parents” that he ever had).” I wonder what his career would have been like had he felt that fatalism earlier in life? Would he have started Apple?
Personally, I find the fact that I’m not at the mercy of the double helix spirals coursing through every cell in my body comforting and also exciting. Who I meet, what I do, accidents that happen, and my own will all go into making me who I am.
Steve Jobs’ genius, like Beethoven’s or Einstein’s or Stephen Hawking’s, was the result of a biological and environmental perfect storm (all of which included a crapload of hard work). My particular storm may not be perfect (yet!), but I cherish the knowledge that I have at least some control over its course.