How did Steve Jobs, a college dropout, go on to found a computer company, get kicked out, help steer the success of Pixar, and make his way back to Apple and phenomenal success? Since he was a college dropout, it wasn’t from something he learned in college. In fact, he wasn’t much of a student in high school either. His opinion was that schools just made students memorize stuff, rather than teaching them interesting information. What were the entrepreneur skills Steve Jobs didn’t learn in school?
Since I’m interested in the question of whether or not our educational system teaches kids what they need to have a successful career, or actually hampers the ability of top students to be a success, I decided to look at Jobs’ characteristics that were important to his success that were the opposite of what he would have learned in school.
What were the characteristics of Steve Jobs that go against what the education system teaches? Here’s what I learned from reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli.
Jobs was not a rule follower.
Especially these days, maybe because schools are bigger, they really crack down on anyone who strays outside the rules. And there are so many. Rules about how many days you’re allowed to make up homework after you’re absent sick. Even rules about how many days you can be sick before you need a doctor’s note to come back to school, etc.
Jobs had a sense of being special (and also his entitlement.)
Schools teach against anyone thinking they’re special, unless they’re an athlete. Wait, that’s another rant.
Jobs tinkered with electronics.
When does a kid with 2-4 hours of homework per night and 2 hours of sports practice per day have time to tinker with anything?
Jobs relied on his instincts.
In school, you’re supposed to answer what you’re sure about, because you’ve memorized it. Wrong answers are penalized, so you can do well on standardized tests. Of course, Jobs was penalized for wrong guesses on the Apple III and the LISA. But penalties didn’t permanently derail him. In school, it’s certainly emphasized to students that if they mess up at any time during their four years of high school, they’re permanently damaging their changes of getting into a “good” college, and therefore their futures.
Jobs had an ability to talk people into giving him what he needed.
This is against the rules. See emphasis on playing by the rules, above.
Jobs tried a lot of different things, meaning that while he had successes, he also had a lot of failures.
When your school GPA a class rank tracks all four years and can determine which college you get into, risking failure in a class – or in some cases not even anything less than an A – is not an option. It’s not that the failures didn’t bother Jobs, in fact the risk of failure often drove him, but he wasn’t afraid to try something that might fail.
Jobs dropped out of college and then sat in on classes that interested him, like calligraphy.
He refers to this in his famous Stanford commencement speech. [link] What university would dare put calligraphy on the list of required courses for an engineer, or even a business major? Is there even space for it as an elective? The number of required hours and required classes for each degree seems to be growing, and the number of electives is shrinking. In fact, I’ve even see universities boast that their degrees are so rigorous that there’s no room for electives. Why can’t we trust students, even at the college level, to take courses they’re interested in? I think this might be an even more complicated answer than it seems, because in my exeperience lots of the University Honor or University Scholar degrees started out with a great deal of freedom, but now that freedom is restricted. What I don’t know is if that grew out of the students not being successful or the frustration of professors with their lack of control. Some will tell you that a liberal arts education allows for this, but that wasn’t my experience. Even liberal arts degrees have a lot of requirements.
Jobs focused on things that no one else thought was important.
(He realized that aesthetics were important when most engineers didn’t.) In school, if you don’t focus on what the teacher or the standardized test is important, you get a low grade.
Jobs realized the importance of the intersection of art and technology.
This is something that is difficult to do in the current academic environment. If you focus on an academically “rigorous” program, taking more and more AP classes is encouraged; taking fine arts is seen as a distraction and won’t help your GPA or college entrance exams.
Jobs never wanted to know what had proven to work, but what theoretically should work better than the proven way.
And of course school always wants the proven answer, see above. For example, Apple stores looked nothing like other tech stores of the time. They were designed as austere, beautiful, modern, clean upsale boutique stores. They didn’t have salespeople; they had technical experts trained in teaching people how to use Apple technology.
But those weren’t Steve Jobs’ only characteristics that helped him to success. In my next post, I’ll go over some of the other characteristics that were emphasized in Becoming Steve.