The passing of Steve Jobs makes it hard not to stop and ponder the depth of impact he had on all of our lives. When kids in the most remote villages of Eastern Africa to the western shores of Cambodia have the same iPods as the youths in the Ginza neighborhood of Tokyo and upper west side of New York, you have to marvel at how one man’s ingenuity touches us all.
It seems that the truly great ones are never fully appreciated in the present, and I can’t help but wonder if future generations will recognize Jobs similar to how we revere Einstein today. An introspective and objective view seems to place Jobs in the same class of preceding wonders who change the way we view and interact with our world. From Walt Disney to Thomas Edison, Babe Ruth to Amelia Earhart, Michael Jordan to Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill to Martin Luther King Jr., the one prevailing theme is that all of these innovators followed their intuition, and although cognizant of the dissenters, they were not to be dismayed.
Steve Dayan, M.D.
All of these individuals took enormous risk and viewed failure as a necessary means to an end. In fact, they all have been rather forthcoming with their mishaps. Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times; Walt Disney missed the mark with Oswald the Rabbit; Thomas Edison’s lightbulb took 1,000 steps; Abraham Lincoln lost multiple elections; and Winston Churchill suffered from depression, alcohol abuse and a no-confidence vote from his parliament.
These “greats” also dismissed conventional wisdom and status quo to follow their intuition, regardless of criticism. No matter how much we celebrate the current phenom of the month, statues are only created to those who persistently persevered in the face of doubt.
Jobs is famous for not relying on market research to test his products. Rather, he believed in his keen sense of knowing what the consumer desires. Jobs asked us to think differently, and although he did, it seems that collectively we are headed in the opposite direction. We live in a society and culture where thinking differently is not promoted. In fact, it is often discouraged.
I teach an undergraduate course at DePaul University, and on the first day, I always challenge the class with tough questions. It never ceases to amaze me how all of the students reflexively respond, “I don’t know.” So quickly I say, “I know you don’t know the answer, I don’t ask you questions that you know the answers to, I want to see how you think.” They always seem puzzled, and I have now realized they are rarely asked to think. The ability to think differently is what empowers an individual and fuels a generation.
The robotic responses I receive in my classes don’t seem to be unique to the college level. This past weekend, I was reading an article in the local suburban paper about the school system my children attend. It was nice to see that the system’s grammar and middle schools are ranked in the top of the state. Sounds impressive, right?
But being a researcher, I was interested in the methodology and was dismayed to realize the rankings are all based on one criterion: the students’ scores in statewide standardized testing. The two-page article went on to interview teachers, administrators and city officials, all of whom were applauded, but I couldn’t help but wonder, “What about creative thinking?” Is that celebrated? Can it be measured? Should it be measured? If we judge our teachers, school officials and students on how well they can pick the right answer out of a serving of four, then how are we to expect them to think up answers that don’t exist?
The current form of examination rewards the reflexive behavior to quickly concede ignorance (“I don’t know”) and go on to the next question. This narrow course doesn’t seem to deviate, even up through graduate school. Looking back on all the employees I have had over the past 12 years, I would have to admit that those with the least formal education and most practical experience were those who were best able to think on their feet, figure their way out of a new bind and execute solutions for moving forward.
The world is changing rapidly. The revolutionizing informational age fosters variations so quickly in the marketplace that dogmas of yesterday may as well be historical footnotes on a dusty bookshelf. My last employee who had an MBA could weave elaborate and impressive spreadsheets on how to set up business units, manage a corporate division and design cost unit analysis for every procedure we offered, but he sorely lacked the practical experience to understand how these exercises fit into a medical practice, where the responsibilities are so palpable and real. And with the current cost of higher education exceeding what many prospective graduates can expect to earn, one has to wonder if the next big financial collapse in America is the education bubble. Beyond the economic concerns, however, the bloated bubble of greater concern may be our current educational system steering the next generation on a path that extinguishes creativity.
Even in medicine, where individuality and creativity were once the hallmarks of America’s most respected and successful profession, in today’s fiscally focused healthcare system it makes more economical sense for us to be standard modules that can be switched in and out seamlessly. Due to the inherent nature of our field, aesthetic medicine in particular attracts highly creative and motivated individuals. And as fiduciary-minded physicians, it may be the aesthetic physician’s duty to resist cookie-cutter thinking and promote creativity in our meetings, journals and training facilities.
Historically, the breakthroughs in medicine have come from fostering creative thinking. Allowing forums, whether in print or in speak, that allow for different thinking may stimulate the next generation of bright minds. A seemingly bad idea may spark the next person’s brilliant idea. I can’t help but wonder what Steve Jobs would have been like if he had been a cosmetic surgeon.
On the last day of my course, I pose a final question to the class: “Are you a celebrated follower or a doubted thought leader? You really can’t be both … so choose one.” I don’t think Steve Jobs would have any trouble answering that question.