Edwin Land once told me that those people who can stand at the intersection of the humanities and science…are the people who can change the world.”

Walter Isaacson quoting Steve Jobs

I am here to stop your heart…. I am here to make you think…. I am not here to make pretty pictures!”

–Mark Rothko, in Red

Our reaction to Steve Jobs’s passing is uncanny for two reasons:

First, we’ve never before expressed so immense a grief for someone in the field of technology. We’ve seen emotional reactions to the passing of icons like Princess Diana and Michael Jackson, but it’s hard to imagine similar reactions for technology innovators. Could you picture the same reaction to the passing of Sergey Brin, even though our lives would be significantly different without the search engine he invented?

Second, most of the reaction has been laudatory, despite what we know of the man’s darker side. For every striking, almost hypnotically satisfying new invention he gave us, there were five stories about how he would embarrass, crush, humiliate, deride, browbeat, or publicly fire those around him. These stories were never denied or even mitigated. Given this very strong aspect of his nature, our elegies seem like cognitive dissonance on an epic scale.

It turns out that this seeming disconnect does not come from some irrational or misguided place. It comes from the frame in which we think about this man, and what he actually represents to us.

Steve Jobs may have founded a computer company, but he was not, fundamentally, a technology innovator. He was an artist, whose medium of choice just happened to be technology. Seen through this lens, we begin to understand the man’s singularity.

The Silicon Valley types have similar DNA, which makes it relatively easy for us to paint people like Brin, Bill Gates, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg with the same brush. They give us tools and toys that both groundbreaking and useful. Jobs did as well, but his DNA was fundamentally different from these other men. Not necessarily better, but certainly rarer. Jobs has more in common with Mark Rothko, the expressionist artist who’s the subject of the John Logan play Red.  Both were perfectionists, temperamental to the extreme, and obsessed with making the viewer an active participant in the art.

Jobs was not a technology innovator in the mold of Brin, Page, or Zuckerberg. Jobs was a polymath – one of a few modern Renaissance Men who show mastery in several fields and who often straddle the line between artistry and innovation.

Nathan Myhrvold

Nathan Myhrvold

Nathan Myhrvold is another modern polymath. Myhrvold started college at 14, studying mathematics, geophysics and space physics. His postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge was with Stephen Hawking. He went on to by Microsoft’s chief technology officer. He also is an award-winning nature and wildlife photographer, and a master French chef.

Myhrvold now runs a company called Intellectual Ventures, which unites the smartest people in diverse fields in order to produce the next generation of cutting-edge inventions. The diversity is key. Most fruitful ideas come not from painstaking research down one particular field of study, but from connections between seemingly unrelated fields. Here’s an except from Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article on Intellectual Ventures and the orchestration of insight:

Insight could be orchestrated: that was the lesson. If someone who knew how to make a filter had a conversation with someone who knew a lot about cancer and with someone who read the medical literature like a physicist, then maybe you could come up with a cancer treatment. It helped as well that Casey Tegreene had a law degree, Lowell Wood had spent his career dreaming up weapons for the government, Nathan Myhrvold was a ball of fire, Edward Jung had walked across Texas. They had different backgrounds and temperaments and perspectives, and if you gave them something to think about that they did not ordinarily think about—like hurricanes, or jet engines, or metastatic cancer—you were guaranteed a fresh set of eyes.

There’s a reason that so much useful insight – and therefore genius work – comes from seemingly unrelated intersections: if your thought is informed by other disciplines, you have an easier time throwing out limiting assumptions that others take for granted.

In my first job where I had a mentoring boss, he was adamant that I keep a notebook of potentially helpful observations and ideas, even though I was brand new to the field. I was curious why he would care, since mostly I was listening and emulating. But it was precisely because I was brand new to the field that he cared so much. He was sensitive to his own propensity to keep doing things the way they are currently done. That’s a propensity that most humans have, with the exception of artists, poets, polymaths, and those whose DNA requires them to challenge current structures rather than simply adding to them.

Minor Myers, Jr

Minor Myers, Jr

Minor Myers, Jr. was another modern polymath. He was the president of Illinois Wesleyan University until 2003, when the lifelong non-smoker succumbed to lung cancer. His academic interests included music history, furniture, higher education during the American colonial period, and history of Revolutionary France.  He also played the harpsichord. Above all, he had a fascination with the Renaissance Man ideal.

There was one apocryphal story of Myers finding part of an original musical score by a lesser-known artist at some kind of flea market, and working with the music department to finish and produce the piece. That story is a good demonstration of the heart and nature of the man.

Myers became the president of what everyone always assumed would remain merely a strong regional university, and systematically challenged the assumption that the university would never play on a more national stage. According to The Resident:

During his reign at the school, student enrollment increased [while admission standards tightened], and he raised $137 million dollars for the college. Minor also helped with renovation and construction of many buildings on campus. He was viewed as a visionary for expanding many of the major and minor programs at the university, such as American studies, anthropology, biochemistry, cognitive science, women’s studies, environmental studies, Greek and Roman studies, international business, Russian, and Japanese studies.

In the Chicago Tribune obituary for Myers, Provost Janet McNew said, “The most important thing he did really was look at a place that was clearly a very solid, strong regional institution and he taught it to dream.”

Myers dispensed with these limiting notions in the same way Jobs dispensed with our assumptions about music players, computers and phones: how they appeared, how they arrived, how simple or complex they were to operate, and how they made you feel when you used them. Right down to how you felt when you unpacked them. This is why our grief for his passing was so uncanny: like a cultural icon, he had an emotional impact on us.

In this same polymath tradition, Nathan Myhrvold’s company is dispensing with current assumptions about nuclear reactors, mosquito-clearing, sub-cutaneous X-rays, and hosts of other prototypes.

While at Illinois Wesleyan, Minor Myers was a lifelong advocate of the liberal arts. He uniquely understood their true nature and place in the world: not as the refuge of the noncommittal and undecided, but as the cradle of the most important insights of our time. He knew that those who were truly curious and determined would have some kind of focus to their passions. His message addressed the other end of the pendulum: that poorly-rounded thought results in less-inspired solutions. It is the informing of science with other disciplines that enables genius.


Edward Gero as Mark Rothko, in the Goodman production of Red

Artistic vision, however, does not come for free. If you inform science and engineering with artistic temperament, you don’t just bring in the light, happy, and sociable traits. Artists, and by extension polymaths, may not always be sunny. However, understanding their true nature can help us come to terms with our complex feelings towards these men and women, and their legacies.

When we comprehend those artists who have affected us, we expect a certain amount of temperament. That’s not to excuse bad behavior, but it’s to understand that it often appears as a by-product of that type of fierce ability. In addition to the ofttimes-requisite narcissism and anti-social behavior, both artists and polymaths draw their energy from an inability to “settle,” right down to the smallest detail. Jobs told his biographer about battling “bozos,” and “bozo-thinking.” According to a Bloomberg article on Jobs’ biography, this battling involved, “screaming tirades, tears and perhaps the worst insult he could aim at employees, colleagues and competitors: dismissing them as bozos, worthy only of contempt.”

This nation is reaching a point in its maturity where it is now able to appreciate heroes without lionizing them. We can see this in the nature of our more recent biographies and documentaries, where we revisit the lives of great men and women with less sugar-coating of their behavior. We see now that John Adams, the most lighting-rod catalyst of revolution, was also stubborn and harmful to diplomacy, and that Lincoln, the sage who preserved the union, battled crippling depression and religious ambivalence.

It is satisfying, in a way, to be able to relate to these men through their foibles – and to see them more truthfully fleshed-out. We find that we can still respect and appreciate their tireless, sometimes genius-level work even though we would not condone or wish to emulate some of their behaviors. This type of complex appreciation is more authentic and mature than the schoolroom hero-worship of previous generations. We need examples to look up to, and in this public-facing world, we can’t help but be just as acquainted with their darker sides as with their accomplishments.

Genius can often be found with artistry, and true artistry often comes with temperament. So it will become increasingly difficult to idolize heroes unconditionally. Nor, really, should we. It’s no small thing to say, “I know you well. I appreciate your way of thinking, and though I would try to act differently from how you acted, you are an inspiration to me.”

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