The Mystery of Invention

 Posted by on Oct 7, 2011  Add comments
Oct 072011

Generations of music lovers have mourned the early death of Mozart, imagining the magnificent contributions he would have made had he lived into old age. Similarly, people today around the world, while celebrating the remarkable life of Steve Jobs, are simultaneously sorrowful as they contemplate the many ways he might have continued to delight us had his life not been curtailed. His ability to innovate and break new ground in so many diverse areas – from computing to animation, marketing to music – makes his loss all the more profound.

Steve’s Stanford graduation address is being replayed repeatedly today, full of life lessons for us all. But it’s also intriguing in the context of the discussion so prevalent today of developed versus developing countries, and innovation – the one card, Cutter Fellow Professor Rob Austin tells us, that developed nations can still play.

In the US, we bemoan the failings of our educational system, pointing to the perfect SAT math scores of so many Chinese applicants to US universities. Yet here is Steve Jobs, college dropout, telling us, “I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. … much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.”

Is genius purely innate, invention a matter of destiny? Interesting that Bill Gates, Job’s nemesis, was a college dropout too. Jobs advises us, “You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” There are certainly ways to encourage creativity, much we can do to foster an environment where it will flourish, much as Jobs’ father provided a workshop in the family garage. How much of Steve’s extraordinary accomplishments were the result of growing up in California, for instance – imagination set free from convention? How much was the result of his unique, individual drive, his willingness to flout convention, to pursue a dream?

As organizations strive to create workplaces where invention will occur, and countries consider how they can remain competitive through innovation, the life of Steve Jobs offers many lessons, and raises just as many questions.


Karen Coburn

Karen Fine Coburn is President & CEO of Cutter Information LLC. She leads Cutter's strategic positioning and growth initiatives, including building and managing alliances as well as Cutter's relationships with its +100 consultants.


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