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Talk-ED: When the Apple is the Teacher

Stuart Middleton
10 October 2011

I recently wrote about the loose use of the term “drop out” to describe those few who leave college / university not through the bottom but out through the top because their aspirations take them more quickly to a higher and more sophisticated place.  Such people are “step ups” not “drop outs”. 

A shared characteristic of these people is not that they are failing in education – the key qualification for real drop outs – but that they possess knowledge and skills that quickly make evident to them the irrelevance of what they are doing in college / university.

I used Bill Gates as an example.

The death this week of Steve Jobs brought these ideas to the fore again as commentators freely tossed around descriptions of Jobs as a “college drop out.” I think he was another of these “step ups” with ambitions that went far ahead of college pathways and much more quickly.

In the much quoted Stanford speech he explains his reason to stop attending classes as one of recognising the cost to his family of attending college.

I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It is interesting to note that although he himself describes his actions as “dropping out” he immediately notes that it wasn’t to get away from college but to do the things he really wanted to do so perhaps he “dropped out” in the Timothy O’Leary sense, the assertion of personal wish over the power of conventional expectations. I would bet that he was confident that all would “work out OK” when he made the decision. And we note that he continued to hang around Reed and go to classes of choice for some time after making his decision. He in fact describes himself at that point as a “drop in”.

Another that I saw recently described as a “drop out” was Mark Zuckerman the founder of Facebook. Of course those who apply this to the likes of Gates, Jobs and Zuckerman conveniently ignore that fact that they each qualified for entry into the most prestigious institutions in the US (Harvard, Reed) and that they had been to prestigious preparatory schools prior to this.

It is a further and perverse reflection of our belief that there is only one pathway for people to follow – elementary school, high school, university – if they are to be successful in life. These genius figures just don’t fit the norms which are what marks them as genius.

Gates had outstanding knowledge of computers prior to completing his primary education, Zuckerman was described as arriving at Harvard with “a reputation as a programming prodigy,” Jobs attended schools in Cupertino where he was later to set up Apple’s Headquarters and while still at school attended after-school lectures at the Hewlett-Packard Company in Palo Alto, California, and subsequently was hired there for the summer. This fellow was no slouch when it came to computers as a result of his growing up in Silicon Valley.

So why would we expect young people with such extraordinary and precocious knowledge to simply fit into the normal track?

Who might we have in New Zealand that fit this “step up” category? Who are the Australian “step ups”?

In New Zealand, Sam Morgan built up and subsequently sold TradeMe (an eBay style site) making him a likely contender, stepping up from university to get on with the things that fired his imagination and for which he had the knowledge and skills. Why continue to move at the pace of those who haven’t?

Daniel Robertson left his engineering course to set up (an internet based shop in the style of Amazon), selling books, music and suchlike. It has grown to impressive proportions both in New Zealand and in its Australian version across the Tasman.

There must be many others – Peter Jackson left school at 16 and started working to his passion for making films comes to mind.

None of these people can be described as “drop outs”. For from it all are educated well past the point that characterises real drop outs and each shares the characteristic of reaching a point where it was clear to them that the conventional track through and out of education systems was not going to meet their goals and aspirations.

No they are different and it is well captured in The Apple Creed written up on the wall of Apple Headquarters in Cupertino (address is No 1 Infinite Loop), well it was when I visited in 2000.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They are not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them, disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them. And the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward. Maybe they have to be crazy. How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels? We make tools for these kinds of people. While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Steve Jobs was one of those. That’s why he finished his Stanford address with an exhortation to the young audience to:

“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish!”


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