Steve Jobs and Creativity: 2.0

Ok, so despite the fact that Steve Jobs’ go-to moves as a creativity facilitator involved insults, intimidation, taking credit for others’ work, and generally being unstable, he still clearly got results.

Here’s a real quote from the Isaacson bio rather than my ham-handed pretend one:

Job’s prickly behavior was partly driven by his perfectionism and his impatience with those who made compromises in order to get a product out on time and on budget. “He could not make trade-offs well,” said Atkinson. “If someone didn’t care to make their product perfect, they were a bozo.” At the West Coast Computer Faire in April 1981, for example, Adam Osborne released the first truly portable personal computer. It was not great–it had a five-inch screen and not much memory–but it worked well enough. As Osborne famously declared, “Adequacy is sufficient. All else is superfluous.” Jobs found that approach to be morally appalling, and he spent days making fun of Osborne. “This guy just doesn’t get it,” Jobs repeatedly railed as he wandered the Apple corridors. “He’s not making art, he’s making shit.”

That gets us closer to an idea that might help teachers. Let’s try out some theories:

Being tough forces others to meet your expectations

I think this feels true to most of us if only because we’ve often experienced a coach, teacher, boss, spouse, or parent whose uncompromising attitude made us accomplish feats that we didn’t realize we are capable of. Students even seem to like this. I notice that they reflexively take small moments in my classroom patter and blow them up into a kind of caricature of me (of course, this is how I see it). Teacher Me is the teacher who finds humans to be Jersey Shore watching imbeciles but ideas and knowledge to be fascinating and useful as a way to demonstrate your superiority over others. I don’t actually believe this, but my students seem to want me to be that teacher and sometimes I pretend to.

Still, teachers often, I think, can make a fetish of this. In my own case, I had a mental picture of John Houseman from Paper Chase going through my head for quite a few years. The difference between Jobs and Houseman is that their team pool is self-selected members who need to be motivated to operate at an elite level rather than a more heterogeneous selection of team members who are not so sure they want to be there.

That would suggest we should go elsewhere to look for models…at least for the full population.

Jobs’ strategy is only going to work at an elite level…like an Honors/AP class?

Clearly, one big difference between Jobs and a high school teacher is that Jobs can fire people. In fact, he wants to fire people. he constantly explains that A-level people only want to work with other A-level people and being nice about mediocrity necessarily results in the entire enterprise being sucked into a vortex of mediocrity.

What if we ran AP English like this? Imagine. I go to class in a black turtleneck designed by Issey Miyake and snatch up an essay from the front row and I scream “What is this? Your thesis statement is so boring as to make me want to KILL MYSELF! If your writing doesn’t tell me something new, why the hell should you bother! You’re wasting my time!”

Now, Jobs Me should be fired. However, I wonder if this type of behavior or something like it might be the only way to motivate our best students to give their best work. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, but I think that the fact that I am a supportive, helpful, humane teacher, necessarily restricts my students from creating truly transformative work.

Am I right?

Note: Some of these ideas were influenced by this post by Cliff  Kuang at Co.Design. It’s an interesting read connecting Jobs to the idea of unreasonable demands and how that might/might not be a replicable strategy.

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Steve Jobs and Creativity: aka this is shit!

I just finished the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs over the midwinter break as I visited my parents in Kansas. Long trips are, I think, one of the few methods left to me for focusing on long, involved doorstopper books. Though, it’s fair to say, that the Isaacson book is pretty easy reading. Weirdly, it seems to be organized by products: each stage in Jobs’ life is delineated by whatever product he was spearheading at the time. That isn’t to say that there aren’t chapters on his love life or his relationship with his parents–only that as it goes along it quickly becomes a greatest hits collection of Jobs and his iPhone or iPad or Pixar or NeXt box.

One aspect of the book that intrigued me was Jobs’ relationship with the creative process. Teachers would be hard-pressed to emulate his methods. Without quoting from the book, let me simulate Jobs’ ways.

Engineer: Hey, Steve Jobs! Here is my new idea for the iWidget. See how it blinks when you..

Steve Jobs: Why are you showing me this! (screaming) This is crap! Look at this! It takes 12 clicks before you can even get to the good stuff! That’s sh!@ Totally unmitigated sh!@

Engineer: (taken aback) But, but, but…

Steve Jobs: You have to decide if you are on the A team or shit. A players only want to work with A players. Are you an A player or shit? Well, what is it!

Engineer: Um (in a small voice), an A-player?

Steve Jobs: Get the hell out of here! Don’t back if you’re carrying shit! I don’t want to see your face or our shit again!

[days pass. Steve is talking to the product group and the engineer is in the audience]

Steve Jobs: …and this is why our new iWidget needs this feature. We can’t live without it. Stop what you’re doing and make this happen.

Engineer: [furtive hand up] Um, Steve, that feature was in my mockup the other day. The one, you know, that you called shit?

[Steve Jobs death-stares at the Engineer until his atoms seem to separate and his body dissolves into a puddle of protoplasm on the floor]

What I take away from this is that Steve Jobs may be one of the worst teachers in the entire world and yet he’s credited with leading some of the most creative groups ever. What gives? Is it luck? Is it the difference between business and education? Something else?


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Why I sometimes wish I taught science instead of writing

I teach writing, which is a strange profession and one that is, I think, very different from what many teachers teach. My Dad is a science teacher in Middle School (and so deserves about 12 Congressional medals of Honor); watching him teach about volcanoes the other day, I realized that he’s really trying to implant certain Vocabulary words and conceptual ideas into his students’ heads. For instance, he holds up the word CALDERA and explains what it is. He might show a YouTube video or draw a picture of it on the chalkboard. He gives a test on it with multiple choice questions or fill-in-the-blank. The goal is to give kids knowledge and understanding of their world…which are good things.

Still, it seems as if what I do is nothing like this. On occasion, I might give quizzes over literary terms or have a test that includes plot recall questions (What was Ishmael’s last name?). Those activities seem wholly peripheral to me. I would give
up for all eternity the ability of my students to spit back a dictionary definition of metaphor or characterization or zeugma, if it meant they were able to incrementally improve their writing or their critical thinking.

But here is where the rosy fingers of envy come stealing in through the dawn. he knows how well he’s doing. A quiz on volcano vocabulary words yields data that be analyzed until it screams. 72% missed question 4. Question 4 asks students to diffentiate between extinct and dormant volcanos. Dude, you gotta go back over that.

Here’s how sonething similar would happen to me. I read 30 essays on Orwell’s On Politics and Language; as I read I’m struck by a mystifying tendency for students to simply summarize the arguments Orwell makes rather than engage in them. How many, you ask? Who does an excellent job/mediocre job/execrable job? Good Question. Do you notice me waving my hand? Isn’t that distracting? Wait, what did you ask me again?

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category: teaching    


OK, it’s been years since I’ve used this. And even when I did, I was not exactly prolific. Here’s the current plan with every understanding that I might similarly be delusional as to the true nature of my laziness.

I have a secret plan to create a website which will make millions, change the world, and demolish how we think about creativity. It will, of course, never work. But I’m excited about it and I want to explore it a bit. I’d also like to talk to people about how they see creativity.

Let me start with the Creativity entry on Wikipedia. Here’s what I notice about the first section:

First, who knew that ‘museum’ comes from Muses. Does everyone know this?

Second, I think the idea that ideas spring from the earth in a sort of impossible, crazy, magic way is very seductive. I’m pretty sure it’s wrong, too, though, of course, now that I realize I think it’s wrong I have to be careful that the implacable machinery of cognitive failures don’t (or haven’t already) kick in.

Third, I do also get the idea that muses are beautiful women who inspire us to great things. It reminds me of that infmaous Fresh Air interview with Gene Simmons when he argued that every rock star became a rock star because he wanted to get with the ladies (or they’re gay, he said). Terri should have asked him about women and why they picked up guitars.

Finally, the idea of sacrificing something to the muses is inherently attractive to me. Maybe right before I try and write something I could make a little bonfire of pencils? Although I don’t really care about pencils…Maybe an untouched perfect circle of toru sushi? Could we somehow create a website wherein one could create little virtual sacrifices before enganging in creative work?

Ok, next stop. Plato and creativity.

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Blogs I’ve abandoned

Ok, so I have no track record for blogs (except this one that shouldn’t count).  But I want to have a place where I record my thoughts and sources of inspiration for my latest attempt to write a book. Last time was a miserable failure that didn’t last a week.  Now, I’m at 8000 words and when I get to 100 real pages I’m going to believe. Believe it!  So, we’ll see.

See this if you really want to see some humiliation.

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10 Things I believe about Writing

  1. Writing is a haphazard, messy process.
  2. Good writing usually needs concentration and focus.
  3. We should evaluate writing according to its purpose and audience.
  4. Good readers need to read lots and lots of good stuff–from all genres and levels.
  5. Good grammar is about fulfilling the expectations of your readers rather than hewing to a correct form.
  6. Writing improves exponentially when you are a part of a community of writers.
  7. At a certain point in your development, imitation is good; at a later point, it’s disastrous.
  8. Writing involves a balance between personal expression and the invocation of thinking and emotion in your readers.
  9. It’s better to flamboyantly wrong than boringly correct.
  10. Writing well is really, really, really hard.

I’ll expand this post. I’m thinking of how to convert this into a set of Keynote presentation complete with short videos.

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Having a hard time…

…finding a time for writing.

I had ambitious ideas to get a novel off of the ground, write a daily blog post, and work out.  Results?  Bad back finally getting better. 30 pages of a novel (not all bad). And an intermittent blog read by me mostly.

Still, it’s a start, Sysiphus.

I want to add to that by noting that I want to start adding to the Shorewood Teacher Resource (aka Shorewiki) and at least set up the bones so that other teachers can contribute. The question is whether anyone would be willing to devote time to something with all of the craziness that school can stir up.

Any great teacher resource wikis already out there?

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category: Lesson ideas     tags: ,

Style and the love of words

I recently read Style: An Anti-Textbook by Richard Lanham and was impressed. It doesn’t have a load of useful or immediately effective info in it, but what it does have is a clear, well-argued claim that the best way to teach writing is to instill a love of words and what they can do. Lantham indulges in a lot of snarky and very fun scalpelling of “The Books”–the traditional composition textbooks– as well as of the common bureaucratic-speak and academia fog machine prose. But he kept coming around to the idea that Style is not so much a love of clarity in the sense of limpid mountain pools but in the expressive sense of a style that attends to the purpose of the writing. In this way, even crazy, pull out your armhair and stab yourself with a #2 pencil postmodern speak has a purpose: to proclaim the writer a member of the secret Illuminati of semioticians.

What does this mean for next year?

One thing I want to work on is finding ways to introduce a sense of playfulness in language. Sometimes that can be accomplished by showing models of this (such as this review of the Hulk and this one of The Happening or even this one of the book How to Talk about Books you Haven’t Read). This I’ve done. The other is to try to play games. For instance:

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category: Lesson ideas, writing     tags: , ,

Who watches the watchmen?

The Watchmen

The Watchmen is where it all started; it’s the hulking gorilla doppelgänger to Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Both graphic novels took the form into places where adult themes and complexity were welcome. Still, where Maus was personal and rooted in memoir, The Watchmen is a superhero comic in which all of the conventions of the genre have bent, twisted, and spindled to the point of unrecognizability. Nominally, the main story follows the search for a killer of “masked avengers.” Someone, somehow has broken into the Comedian’s (a sort of anti-hero hero who enjoys death, destruction, and furthering US Department of Defense war aims) apartment and thrown him out the window. As other attempts on costumed heroes continue, Rorshach–a bitterly misanthropic vigilante with an ever shifting mask–attempts to find who is behind the killings and why.

The story careens down an ever shifting landscape of betrayal and human weakness. Events of our own time are altered to react to a what-if world of masked, betighted superheroes who fight crime. The US wins the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon escapes Watergate and rewrites the Constitution to re-elect himself several times. Interestingly, only one of the heroes actually has a superpower. Dr. Manhattan has the ability to bend matter to his will after being obliterated by an atomic test and gradually figuring out how to recreate himself into a semblance of his original form. Unfortunately for Dr. Manhattan, with great power has come overwhelming ennui and disinterest in humanity.

Alan Moore is a clever, complex writer who delights in paranoia and a sense of impending collapse. He mixes perspective, time, genre, and theme nimbly and finds ever more ingenious ways to combine storylines. Sections of the main story are layered with selections from memoir excerpts, magazine articles, pirate comics, academic journals, police reports, and magazine interview profiles. The sense that the magazine occupies an entire alternate universe is painstakingly constructed throughout.

However, just as in Huck Finn, students might have a hard time recognizing that the thoughts of the characters don’t necessarily represent the ideas of the writer. For instance, Rorschach has the bulk of the voice overs and he is constantly obsessing over the moral decay of society–to the point that he comes off as racist, sexist, and any other ist you might think of. There is even a copy of the right wing periodical The New Frontiersman which gives a taste of the xenophobic ramblings he obsesses over (“I’ve had it up to hear with those coked-out commie cowards…”).Teachers would need to directly remind students that the opinions of the characters might not be opinions the writer is advocating. Still, this technique neatly subverts traditional comic conventions as none of the heroes occupy the moral high ground, but neither do they lack at least some measure of sympathy.

Art Review

The art has a classic comic book style with 3-panel formats predominating. Gibbons mixes perspectives and angles well in telling the story, but there isn’t the innovative, impressionistic style that came later in graphic novels such as The Killing Joke or The Dark Knight. For students, the style’s clarity and simplicity helps tell the story and create a sense of paranoia without adding extra difficulties in comprehension.


Highly Recommended with Reservations. This is clearly a book for high schoolers and perhaps upperclassmen as well. Undoubtedly, The Watchmen is a classic of the form and excellent in its sophisticated exploration of power, authority, history, and the human condition. However, it’s also filled with graphic violence, sexual themes, controversial politics, homosexuality, and unreliable narrators. A teacher would need to be careful to explain the use of irony and to allow students to question Moore’s perspective on American history and politics. Parents should probably be asked to sign off on using it in a classroom setting.

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Influencer + Nudge = Total Control of the World!

So, in my continuing quest to control the world, I’ve been reading two books about persuasion and influence: Influencer: The Power to Change Anything by Jerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, and Ron McMillan  and Nudge by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. Together, surely, no one will be able to resist me. My Persuasion Ray is almost complete!

Influencer feels like an updated How to Win Friends and Influence People and is clearly attempting to use the very techniques it espouses in the copy of the book itself. This is a helpful look at the advantages and disadvantages of the techniques it suggests. The prose is breathless. Take a look at the title. There is much talk of Influence Mavens (or Poobahs or Gurus or Wizards) who vaguely control vast swaths of territory or who count thousands of souls under their control.  Usually, they’re stopping AIDS or meteors from crashing into Earth.  It’s when you get to the fine print you realize the suggestions break down into: 1) Show that what you want people to do is both possible and worth it 2) Look closely to see what one small change will have a big effect.  And…that’s pretty much it. It is from a set of writers who focus on business issues.

Nudge is both more humble and more useful. It comes from two academics (they blog here).  They espouse something they call libertarian paternalism–governments and other institutions using persuasion techniques to help people do things they want to do anyway.  For instance in a cafeteria, putting salads and healthy food at eye level and the desserts in a corner under a heavy blanket. This is a much more believable set of ideas but they tend to congregate in the How to convince people to save more for their retirement end of the spectrum rather than How to convince people to learn better. Still, it has a much more enjoyable prose style with just the right level of humor and irony to leaven the ideas.

What can we take from all of this? Teachers are always going to be persuaders; our power to use institutional persuasive tools (grades) is never strong enough to achieve our goals (student learning). We have to learn how to leverage persuasion and influence to convince students that hard work is worth it. Not only that writing that paper will give us an A that will get us into Harvard, but that learning itself is a pleasure and a practice that has dividends in all aspects of our lives.

Of course, it’s easier to convince someone of something if it’s actually true.  Influence reminds me that students need to be shown that it is entirely possible to do what I’m asking them to do and that the result of doing it is better than not doing it.  But that needs to be true to work. Nudge reminds me that I need to set up a classroom where the choices they face make it easier to do what will be helpful in learning rather that what will be more fun.

Both books are good choices for a class in rhetoric to analyze and explore.  Otjhers might be:

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Most Recent Post

Steve Jobs and Creativity: 2.0

Ok, so despite the fact that Steve Jobs’ go-to moves as a creativity facilitator involved insults, intimidation, taking credit for others’ work, and generally being unstable, he still clearly got results. Here’s a real quote from the Isaacson bio rather than my ham-handed pretend one: Job’s prickly behavior was partly driven by his perfectionism and […]


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