During his 2005 Stanford commencement address, Steve Jobs told a story about connecting the dots. He noted that sometimes we can't predict how we'll be able to apply our knowledge and skills later in life. For instance, Steve learned about calligraphy at Reed College, with "no hope of practical application." Years later, he used this knowledge to include advanced typography and proportionally spaced fonts in the design of the Mac's operating system.
Steve said that he couldn't have predicted this outcome in advance, but 10 years later he was able to connect these dots looking backwards. By then the long-term value of that calligraphy class was obvious.
Follow Your Intuition
Another point he stressed during that speech was that in order to set yourself up for connecting the dots, you must follow your intuition. When he first enrolled at Reed College, he had to take required courses that didn't interest him. Then he dropped out and sat in on classes that truly interested him for another 18 months. To choose these classes, he followed his intuition.
When I was 10 years old, I was exposed to my first glimpse of BASIC programming. At the time I didn't know what intuition was, but I became very interested in computers. I used to save up my money to buy programming books at the bookstore. One of my favorites when I was 13 was Dr. C. Wacko's Miracle Guide to Designing and Programming Your Own Atari Computer Arcade Games.
I had no idea where this would lead. I didn't set out to become a programmer. I was simply motivated by curiosity and wonder.
I ended up learning to program computer games before I'd really had a chance to play many of them. Most of the early games I played required typing in BASIC programs by hand. Then I could run those programs and play the games. Since I had the source code, I was able to learn how simple games were constructed. I'd try to imagine how the game would work while I was typing in the code. Since I couldn't type very well, I picked up a lot of early game programming techniques by typing in other people's code one line at a time. I learned to type in BASIC long before I learned to type in English.
I had no idea that years later I'd be writing my own computer games and selling them to people all around the world. All I knew at the time was that I was very curious about programming, and I wanted to learn more.
I went to college and picked up degrees in computer science and mathematics, but on a practical level those were largely worthless. I was already working on my first commercial game project while I was still in college, and it was selling in software stores like Comp USA shortly after I graduated. I was able to do this work because of what I learned between ages 10 and 18 on my own. I gained more practical value from Dr. Wacko's book than I ever did in college. I went to college for logical reasons, but the payoff came from following my intuition.
I don't think it's always true that we can never connect the dots looking forward. I was able to do that with public speaking. I expected I'd eventually start doing my own workshops, and so I made a commitment to learn public speaking. I practiced for 5 years before I did my first 3-day workshop. I could see that coming up from many years in advance. It was a predictable outcome.
I still agree with Steve Jobs that sometimes we can only connect the dots with the benefit of hindsight. Life has many twists and turns, and we don't always know where our paths will lead.
I believe the core lesson here is how important it is to follow your curiosity. This is a bit different than the advice to do what you love. How do you know you'll love something if you've never done it before?
I doubt Steve Jobs knew in advance that he'd enjoy typography. I didn't know in advance that I'd enjoy programming. But the curiosity to try it was there.
Let Curiosity Be Enough
When only curiosity is present, it's tempting to demand that it justify itself with the promise of practical value. But curiosity doesn't work that way. We begin with a desire to explore and experience something new, but it's merely a seed. We can't predict what will become of that seed until we plant it.
These seeds may grow into fountains of value years later. Or they may remain side hobbies or casual interests. Demanding advance validation from these seeds is like telling to baby to go out and get a job. You have to nurture the seed for years to see what becomes of it.
Recently I decided to follow my curiosity without knowing where it will lead. I've been feeling the urge to refresh my programming skills since I haven't done any serious programming in about a decade. I don't have any specific projects lined up. I just felt an intuitive nudge about it.
So this weekend I started playing around with Xcode, a development tool for the Mac, iPhone, and iPad. I learned the syntax of Objective-C and went through several online tutorials. I wrote my first little iPhone/iPad app to draw a fractal and posted a picture of it on my Google+ page. I'd never written an iPhone app before, so it was rewarding to do that for the first time. It was easier than I expected.
Where will this lead? I have no idea. Maybe I'll write an app that ties into my personal growth work. Maybe it will remain a side hobby. Or maybe I'll lose interest within a week or two and explore other interests. I'm not demanding any sort of payoff from this. It's enough to honor my curiosity.
Partly I feel that the excitement is in not knowing where this will lead. Sometimes it's nice to enjoy some mystery in life. Not all desires can be formed into goals.
When I pursue interests out of sheer curiosity, they do often lead to valuable connections and payoffs down the road. However, there's also a powerful present moment benefit to such pursuits. When you follow your curiosity, you can experience some potent psychological rewards along the way. First, you have the pleasurable anticipation of knowing that you're going to learn something new, and secondly you have the satisfaction that comes with each new insight. This helps you feel good in general, even when you're not pursuing that particular interest, and this can greatly improve overall quality of life.
What are you curious about? What would you like to learn just because it interests you?
Have you been demanding that a curiosity-based interest justify its place in your life, such as by guaranteeing a financial payoff?
What would happen if you could dive in and pursue a new interest merely to satisfy your curiosity and honor your intuition? Could you let that be enough?
Years down the road, you may indeed find that you can connect the dots, just as Steve Jobs did. But for right now, could you let go of any psychological baggage and do it just because it might be interesting in the moment?
There's no need to overcommit. If it doesn't work out, you can drop it after a day or two. There's no need to turn it into a long-term goal. There's no need to expect any particular level of performance from yourself. You don't even have to be good at it.
In fact, you don't even have to love it. All you need is curiosity. You can always dump it if you truly hate it, but why not give it a try just for the sake of learning and experiencing something that calls to you?
When you pursue a new interest, don't worry about plotting a course. Don't worry about not knowing where to begin. Start with a Google search to find some web pages about your hobby. Read those, follow some links, and bookmark pages that seem interesting. After an hour you'll have plenty of resources to get you started.
What new interest could you pursue out of sheer curiosity? Why not set aside some time to look into it? How does next weekend sound?