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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