As a biographer of Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, author Walter Isaacson has learned a lot about the difference between people who are merely smart and those who have the ability to see the world in radically new ways. He shared some of his insights Thursday during a commencement address at Vanderbilt University.
"The bad news is you're about to find out that the world is filled with a whole lot of smart people," Isaacson, who is CEO of the policy studies-focused Aspen Institute, said. "In fact, they're a dime a dozen, and they often don't amount to very much."
"What really matters is being imaginative and being creative," he said. Isaacson elaborated on the idea by relating five lessons that Jobs, Franklin, Einstein and others have taught him.
1. Combine Both Art and Science
The humanities and technology are each important in their own right, but often the most valuable outcome is achieved by connecting the two, Isaacson said. He noted how Steve Jobs almost always ended product presentations by acknowledging this.
"From the iPod all the way through the iPad, iPhone, anything else -- the last slide on that screen would be a street sign -- a street sign that showed the intersection of liberal arts and technology," Isaacson recalled.
"That's where the value will be created in the 21st century," he said.
2. Stay Curious
Einstein came up with the theory of relativity as a mere patent clerk. Time is not constant for all things, he realized, poring over scientific papers. It's relative to your own state of motion. Isaacson said that this discovery was entirely thanks to a leap of the imagination.
"It took a while for the rest of the physics community to catch up, but eventually that becomes one of the founding pillars of 20th century science. And it happened because he questioned the obvious and even questioned received wisdom," Isaacson said.
3. Creativity Is a Team Sport
In the 1960s, when research universities were tasked with creating the rules of the road for the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), which became the technical foundation for the Internet, they handed the project over to a group of graduate students.
The youngest among them, Stephen Crocker, was responsible for recording the protocols. But he wasn't keen on putting inflexible rules in place. Instead, he made sure that everyone could modify them if necessarily.
"Every time they had an idea for how to make a new thing that will make ... the ARPANET work, he calls for a request for comment. And he sends it around so they all get to look at it," Isaacson said. "It ingrained the peer-to-peer collaboration that is now the hallmark of the digital age."
4. Humility Is the Foundation of Collaboration
Franklin never actually mastered the quality of humility, Isaacson said. But he did manage to fake it, and that worked well enough. "It made you listen to the person next to you. It made you try to find out what their values were," he said Franklin discovered.
5. It's Not About Your Passion
"It ain't just about your passion. It's about connecting your passion to something larger than just yourselves," Isaacson said.
He didn't remember the speech given at his own commencement ceremony. But he did recall a sermon he heard delivered by a minister just before he graduated. The title of the talk was "What We Didn't Tell You."
"What we told you is that this is a very exclusive place and you got in," Isaacson remembered the minister saying. "But what we forgot to tell you is that it's not about exclusivity. It's about inclusivity."
"It's about bringing other people in. About having a mark on this world," Isaacson said. "Will you help others have the same advantage as you have had?"