Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Jobs vs. Gates: right-brained assumptions about genius and creativity

When we Americans think of genius and creativity, as opposed to mere smarts, most of us think of  so-called "right-brain" rather than "left-brain" skills. A recent case in point is Steve Jobs' biographer Walter Isaacson. In his opinion piece in this past week's Week in Review, Isaacson's contrast between genius Jobs and super-smart Gates falls exactly along the right-brain, left-brain fault line, with predictable results. Presented with a logic puzzle:

Mr. Jobs tossed out a few intuitive guesses but showed no interest in grappling with the problem rigorously.
This causes Isaacon to
think about how Bill Gates would have gone click-click-click and logically nailed the answer in 15 seconds, and also how Mr. Gates devoured science books as a vacation pleasure...
The impatient intuitor vs. the mechanically logical Aspie. Guess which one is the creative genius:
So was Mr. Jobs smart? Not conventionally. Instead, he was a genius. That may seem like a silly word game, but in fact his success dramatizes an interesting distinction between intelligence and genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical. They were sparked by intuition, not analytic rigor. Trained in Zen Buddhism, Mr. Jobs came to value experiential wisdom over empirical analysis. He didn’t study data or crunch numbers but like a pathfinder, he could sniff the winds and sense what lay ahead.
Intuition vs. analysis and genius vs. smarts leads, almost inevitably, to East vs. West:
He told me he began to appreciate the power of intuition, in contrast to what he called “Western rational thought,” when he wandered around India after dropping out of college. “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do,” he said. “They use their intuition instead ... Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.”
Then there's experiential wisdom vs. conventional learning and imagination vs. knowledge:
Mr. Jobs’s intuition was based not on conventional learning but on experiential wisdom. He also had a lot of imagination and knew how to apply it. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Genius also involves "the ability to apply creativity and aesthetic sensibilities to a challenge," specifically, an interdisciplinary one:
In the world of invention and innovation, that means combining an appreciation of the humanities with an understanding of science — connecting artistry to technology, poetry to processors. This was Mr. Jobs’s specialty. “I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics,” he said. “Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
Dealing the death blow to Gates (vs. Jobs), there's empathy and social skills:
The ability to merge creativity with technology depends on one’s ability to be emotionally attuned to others. Mr. Jobs could be petulant and unkind in dealing with other people, which caused some to think he lacked basic emotional awareness. In fact, it was the opposite. He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, cajole them, intimidate them, target their deepest vulnerabilities, and delight them at will. He knew, intuitively, how to create products that pleased, interfaces that were friendly, and marketing messages that were enticing.
It's eerie how closely the traits Isaacson praises in Jobs dovetail with the educational priorities of today's education world: imagination and creativity; intuition in place of analysis; experiential learning in place of "conventional" learning; interdisciplinary breadth; an emphasis on empathy and social skills; and  a rejection of "white," "Western" modes of thought.

In his East vs. West, Isaacson also mirrors the education world's simulltaneous caricature of Western thought as excessively left-brained, and of the more Eastern parts of Asia--even Steve Jobs' intuition-driven India--as even more excessively left-brained:
China and India are likely to produce many rigorous analytical thinkers and knowledgeable technologists. But smart and educated people don’t always spawn innovation. America’s advantage, if it continues to have one, will be that it can produce people who are also more creative and imaginative, those who know how to stand at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences. That is the formula for true innovation, as Steve Jobs’s career showed.
In characterizing genius and creativity as being specific to the intuition-driven, empathy-driven, experientially-taught, interdisciplinary thinking side of humanity, and as being the comparative advantage of the U.S. over its competitors, the many pieces like Isaacson's are furthering well-established trends in education that have already become ridiculous parodies of what people like Isaacson are advocating.

For one recent example of some of this, take a look the following science project rubric I came across yesterday [click to enlarge]:
This is only one of many variations on the sort of rubric that is proliferating around our k12 schools and turning science into a superficial exercise in, and parody of, the creative and user-friendly design skills that Steve Jobs had in earnest--skills that constitute only a fraction of the many forms that genius can take.

1 comment:

Dawn said...

"That is the formula for true innovation, as Steve Jobs’s career showed."

Yeah (she says snarkily), Bill Gates has done nothing revolutionary and world changing, has he?


I am one of those intuitive thinkers like Jobs but frankly I'm getting tired of the way that kind of thinking is valued over other kinds of thinking. I don't think genius should equal "magical" thinking. It seems too much like people looking for short cuts from the hard work that people like Gates fearlessly engage in.