I just listened to a recording of a Steve Jobs speech given at the Center of Design Innovation in 1983, to an audience at the International Design Conference. I highly recommend listening to it if you have a few minutes and a casual interest in how computers, or anything really, is made and thought about.
What’s striking about this speech is its clarity.
Jobs’ real contribution to technology is understanding its worth to many people who hadn’t yet embraced it. This is a result of his great ability to look at something and really understand the meaningful aspects of it. In any creative pursuit, meaning is found by understanding the purpose of producing something, by really figuring out what it is that a creation brings to the world. The outcome of this approach is creative output that is deliberate. Deliberate in the sense that it takes its form for a reason.
All of this seems obvious until you begin to see the sheer magnitude of things around you that are the way they are ‘just because’. ‘Just because’ is an interesting phrase because on face value it might indicate that things are ‘just because’ because the reason they are because of is so obvious that the need to actually put it in words hasn’t occurred to anyone. When in reality it’s ‘just because’ (minus any actual reason following that) because there is no clear reason, and no one has taken the time to think through any of this at all.
Take this wooden spoon:
I somehow have come into possession of this wooden spoon, and have been cooking with it for months. For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to figure out why there are slits at the end of the spoon. For the life of me I have not even a semblance of a clue.
There are gaps at the end of a fork because the material that remains forms prongs or spikes that you can then use to pierce food and pick it up. The relative width of the gaps and resultant ‘prongs’ between them on this spoon mean that doesn’t happen. So what else? Maybe you want to pick solid up from what you’re cooking and want to drain some liquid from it. But in that case why would the gaps be at the edge and not at the center where the spoon actually curves downwards and will naturally take the liquid? (There’s another wooden spoon in the set that actually is designed this way so that rules this theory out). It doesn’t give you better control, it doesn’t let you pick things up any easier, and it doesn’t boost magical stirring power.
The worst part is that the slits at the end of the spoon actually make it harder to clean because inevitable things get stuck in there that I then need to use either a fork or a knife to get out. So what’s the point?
Sincerely, if you understand a point to this spoon that I don’t please do let me know.
I imagine spoons like this come from a discussion like this:
If you don’t have time to think about why you’re parading around like a headless chicken then you probably shouldn’t be parading around like a headless chicken.
In a way ideas are like sculptures. You start off with a promising piece of material that requires meticulous chiseling before it becomes something beautiful. The day you land on a good idea without any chiseling is a great day, but most other days and most other ideas require constant thinking and re-thinking to get to the final piece, to really understand the essence and the core string that holds up an abstract thought. Good ideas require work.
Part of the work is constantly refine your idea, but there is a curative aspect of it also. I read somewhere once (where I now cannot trace) that anyone who has ever written something knows that it isn’t coming from them, that it’s some strange external force or spirit that’s somehow channeling it’s way through their head and onto their keyboard. And I believe it’s true because I really don’t have any control over what ideas my brain spews out. I’m not that much of a mind jedi. But what I can do is to recognize the good ones from the shit ones. And there are a lot of shit ones.
And might I add even the great minds produce a lot of shit ideas. Here’s an excerpt from Jony Ive’s Eulogy for Steve Jobs:
Steve used to say to me (and he used to say this a lot), “Hey Jony, here’s a dopey idea.” And sometimes they were — really dopey. Sometimes they were truly dreadful. But sometimes they took the air from the room, and they left us both completely silent. Bold, crazy, magnificent ideas. Or quiet, simple ones which, in their subtlety, their detail, they were utterly profound.
And just as Steve loved ideas, and loved making stuff, he treated the process of creativity with a rare and a wonderful reverence. I think he, better than anyone, understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.
The only way I can think to be inherently more creative, and to produce better ideas and better work is to surround myself with great ideas, to create an environment where the parts of my brain that I can’t consciously control can find enough fodder to continue processing. And surrounding yourself with great ideas also improves your ability to recognize the good ideas from the bad ones.
And once you put it this way you realize that creativity is really just the name we give to the intention to produce something. And clarity is just the name we give to having really understood something. Put together you have a force that really understands how to change the world and is a promise to do it. I can’t really see a point to spending myself any other way.