Education Issue Extra: Advice from Steve Wozniak

Education Issue Extra: Advice from Steve Wozniak

Published on Thursday, November 14, 2013.
Steve Wozniak

Steve Wozniak; Photo: Nik Harrison

Steve Wozniak is an inventor, computer engineer, and programmer who co-founded computer giant Apple with Steve Jobs. As part of American Craft’s December/January education issue, he recently offered advice to students and emerging artists.

You’ve supported education for years. What’s one thing you wish educators would emphasize that they may be missing now?

That the best education comes from things you do on your own for your own reasons, not for grades. And that the best thinking often comes from quiet thinking – the type done by shy kids who don’t shout out correct answers first. And that grades measure how well you can repeat stuff but not how well you figure out solutions for yourself. Creative thinking means conceiving and building projects – and maybe someday, circuits or programs or books or research – that are fresh. But grades represent the opposite.

When a student leaves school, he or she may get advice such as “follow your bliss” – but come home to mostly junk mail and bills in the mailbox. What would you say to keep that young person going forward?

It depends. At that point, personality is pretty well set, and it’s a bit late to be giving this sort of advice; it’s a bit like a dentist saying, “it won’t hurt.” The best thing is for students to get in touch with what brings them happiness and to follow their own dreams, and not the plans of others.

Since the job market is tight, many students may not feel free to take chances; perhaps, they reason, they should study accounting instead of art. Are creativity and career at odds with each other in the real world?

What is important is not an income; it’s happiness in life. When you die, you’ll be able to judge your life only on that. If income makes you happy, great, but don’t be so certain that’s the only way. You have to follow what you feel, and these feelings come from early life, from movies and books and accidental encounters and your own heroes. Here’s one way to solve the creativity-career dilemma. The most important reason, once you leave school, to earn an income is to have your own place. It’s totally OK to take a job in any field or activity that is not part of your personal dreams. It gives you a holding spot. You are still young and need not throw away your free time with parties and such. You can still work on what’s important to you while your intellectual and physical energy is at its peak. On your own, you may do a lot of satisfying things that don’t lead to economic success. But each one of these steps will get you closer to a home run.

Still, you should be loyal. If what you create relates to your job, offer it to your employer first. Don’t try to be sneaky and use your job as a foundation to launch some competitive thing of your own.

Our society seems to group people into haves and have-nots, winners and losers, us and them. What does success mean to Woz, and do you think that applies to us all?

I had personal philosophies and sound values from when I was 18 or 20 years old. I do not like the inequality and how some treat others as less important and less capable. I refused to run any business at Apple because I could not take this sort of politics. I would only be on the bottom of the org chart, a scientist and engineer in the lab. When Apple went public I felt it was wrong that only a few of us at the top had huge wealth from stock so I sold a lot of mine to maybe 80 rank-and-file employees at a low price so they could make something too. It was called the “Woz Plan.” To me, success was creating new hardware and software that I wanted for personal reasons.

The world seems to be a fairly crazy place. How do you stay so positive?

Good values about happiness and my own keys to it, stemming from when I was 18 or 20. I don’t think my methods would apply to others. You have to find your own. One principle of mine is that I don’t have to win arguments. It’s OK for two people to think differently. They are likely both good people. As Dave Mason wrote, “There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy, there’s only you and me, and we just disagree.” And as  Dylan put it, “You were right from your side, I was right from mine, we’re both just one too many mornings, and a thousand miles behind.” Be pleased with your own thinking, and that’s all that is important. Let others think their way; what matters is how you judge yourself.

Bonus question: How much of life is chance, and how much is merit?

I really believe it’s all chance: what inspires you when you’re young, whether you get recognized early by teachers, things you try to learn on your own, what you do in your free time. You get skills, but they come from encounters with subjects, books, movies, shows, friends, and so forth. Eventually, almost all of us wind up where we were probably meant to be, by our own values and dreams.

Keith Lewis is a jewelry artist in New York state.