Thursday, October 6, 2011

Will America Ever Produce Another Steve Jobs?

It hardly needs to be said that Steve Jobs was a transformational figure, doing as much or more than anyone to create the personal computer, and decades later, the products that will gradually replace the personal computer. Jobs took the lead in adopting the mouse and graphical interfaces, critical features that made computers user friendly to non-geeks. He was a talented marketer, offering tech products that actually looked attractive and felt sleek. The massive personal computer market spawned by Jobs and a small group of like-minded geeks made possible the Internet as it exists today: a global forum for the largest informational and intellectual exchange in history. The creators of portals, search engines and social networks are singles hitters compared to Jobs' standing as the high tech world's Babe Ruth.

A rather scary question is whether America will ever again produce a figure such as Jobs. When Jobs went to high school and college, America was evolving from the rigidity and conformity of the 1940s and 1950s into a more open-minded place where being different was tolerated and, in Jobs' case, ultimately rewarded. Jobs briefly attended college. Then, he dropped out but hung out around campus, exploring what interested him, growing spiritually as well as technically. Steve Jobs was simply different, and that's why he achieved such far-ranging, innovative success. His varied interests in the arts, music, religion, and high tech were ultimately reflected in the products he created. It wouldn't have been obvious to 99% of personal computer makers that they should create a product that promotes music, like the iPod. But Steve Jobs by all indications saw the iPod, iPad, iPhone and other expansions of the digital world as just part of the same continuum.

His particular vision is gone. He leaves behind a company that employs about 50,000 people, with suppliers that probably employ tens of thousands more (and let's not forget Pixar, Jobs' other corporate creation that's now a Disney subsidiary). Entrepreneurial success like this is crucial to economic growth. Comparable figures from the past, like Edison and Ford, had similar impact on the economy. Today's contentiousness over economic, monetary and tax policies, social safety nets, and so on can't do much to solve our problems. That debate is about the allocation of costs and burdens, and does little or nothing to make the economy grow.

The way to solve our problems is to foster more rapid economic growth. As history shows, a small number of original thinking entrepreneurs can have a disproportionate impact on growth. They envision and then foster disruptive change, sweeping aside conventional assumptions and recreating the world as they see it. They produce products almost no one else could have imagined, and convince millions of other people to like and buy those products. They are strong-willed and singularly determined. Blessed with exceptional intelligence, they tend to be impatient with those less capable, whom they may micromanage and over-supervise. Highly sensitive to criticism and any imperfection in their worlds, they often don't play well with others. They're difficult to be around and their employees have to be well-compensated to put up with them. When they succeed, they become exceedingly wealthy, as do their employees and the nations that host their companies.

There is reason to doubt America's ability to produce another Steve Jobs. Our educational system posits that all holes are round--as in well-rounded--and tries to peg all kids into them. To be regarded as highly successful, kids need to get A's in all subjects, excel at taking standardized tests, and be superb athletes, musically gifted, charitably and community minded, well-traveled, immersed in at least two foreign languages, pleasant, mannerly, well-groomed, well-spoken and generally pleasing to adults. A kid who is brilliant in one or two areas, such as high tech or math, but is otherwise diffident, reticent, indifferently groomed, and unexceptional in other ways, is viewed as weird, strange, unbalanced, geeky, nerdy and not competitive for most of the best colleges. A 17-year old Steve Jobs today would probably have a tougher row to hoe than Steve Jobs had in the 1970s. There was once a time, decades ago, when America's educators understood that it was more important to cultivate a student's strengths than to turn all kids into carbon copies of the student body president. That allowed many gifted, but not well-rounded kids to grow into great successes in their individual fields.

America's obsession with well-rounded students who excel at taking standardized tests means that we are turning out legions of future administrators, bureaucrats, consultants, corporate lawyers, and mid-level executives. Those in this group who earn MBAs may accumulate small fortunes in business or finance. Very few or none will have any macro impact on the economy.

Those poorly rounded, but disproportionately talented kids who have the potential to change the world must struggle against stereotyping, unfavorable social expectations and schools that don't value them. It's important to remember that advanced economies require people who are highly specialized and that innovation comes from those that don't fit in and aren't readily accepted. America today has reverted to a troubling conformism that may hinder the full development of our children's potential. This nation remains a haven for tinkerers, inventors and garage-based business start-ups. Our best chance for future prosperity rests in their hands, not in the hands of the idiots on Capitol Hill who can barely agree on a continuing resolution. Let's try to give the nerds a better chance at the brass ring.

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