Steve Jobs. This is a man who revolutionised a generation and changed the way we live, work, think and communicate. His brilliance sparked a hundred other brilliant minds, effectively filling our world with ideas and concepts that would have seemed foreign and impossible a mere decade ago. Touch-screen technology is way up there on the list of things like Newton’s gravity, Ford’s automobile and sliced bread!
In his 2005 commencement address to Stanford University, he told college undergraduates to trust that the dots would connect, to find what they love to do and to not waste time living someone else’s life.
Look past the seemingly generic advice and really listen to what he was saying. He was precise about the latter, that to live with the results of other people’s thinking is to live a life trapped. You realise that underlying everything he said is the “think different” approach that propelled Apple miles away from the competition. Jobs was a great innovator, often taking existing ideas and turning them on their heads to come up with something that surpassed the original.
Why is Jobs so prolific? He didn’t finish school, dropping out after six months of college. Was he an outlier, someone who did not quite fit into the mainstream, much like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates or Sir Richard Branson? Or are all of these gentlemen trail-blazers, thinkers who took a different approach to what everyone else was doing?
If you think that the trait that all these guys have in common is that they are all school dropouts, you are wrong. If that was all that was driving them to success, surely there would be more billionaire moguls in the world. What sets them apart from the herd is their ability to think – critically, creatively and systematically.
Every problem solving process involves alternating between critical, creative and systematic thinking. Creativity is being able to imagine something new, having a positive attitude towards change and having the discipline to commit to the process of improvement and refinement.
Critical thinking is the ability to evaluate the facts available and make the best judgement call for the cause at hand. Systems thinking is the ability to look at the whole picture, and having the ability to tie everything together. All three are inter-linked, operating together as an efficient filter of the world.
Jobs did not invent the mp3 wheel – there were already existing mp3 players in the market when he launched the iPod. Jobs created an amazing business model that allowed only iPod users to buy music from iTunes through the exclusive deals struck with the music labels. Today, the iPod has rendered all other players on the market obsolete, and it, along with the iPhone, the iPad, and the iMac, have become common nouns in the English language.
Branson is someone who always questions the conventional. He always asks: Why can’t we do it this way?” We see this in the details that differentiate his Virgin Airlines from the rest. From the limos to the airport, to the ice cream they offer their customers. He is someone who challenges the accepted wisdom of any industry he is involved in. This philosophy is summed up perfectly in the title of his book Screw It, Let’s Do It.
When no other CEO would think of it, he was willing to jump off planes and parade himself shamelessly as the face of his own company, knowing that when people can put a face to a name, a brand is born. Often, the simplest ideas in the hands of great thinkers literally sprout wings and take off!
Ever notice how children have this innate talent of making these three thinking styles work to their advantage? They embrace new challenges with gusto, whether it’s devising a way to build the tallest toilet paper roll tower in the world, or trying to negotiate for more TV time. They’ll present critical arguments in their favour, seek creative solutions and never fail to strive toward the final goal. Why is it that when these enterprising children grow up to be adults, most seem to lose this ability somewhere between primary and secondary school?
As we grow, we are socialised into accepting a narrower view of life. Possibilities are shaved until all that is left is a shadow of the initial creativity. We are fed expectations and limited aspirations, none of which are a result of our own thoughts.
It’s not too late to reverse this. Start in your home and in your children’s schools. There are many ways that critical and creative thinking can be incorporated into our existing education system. There are many things that schools can do to encourage creativity, instead of suppressing it. We should encourage our children to ask questions and not follow blindly. If change needs to happen, so be it. The creative and critical know that excellence comes with much tweaking, and sometimes, a complete overhaul.