Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
The Hidden Sources Behind Big Ideas
In this week’s newsletter, I want to expand on the last issue about The Myth of Originality.
I’ve decided to turn it into a series. Last week was the introduction, while this week we’re going to talk about some big names and what influenced their iconic work. Especially since I’ve talked about that nothing is truly original.
It’s important that we look at the past for references.
In all honesty, I was unsure how I would go about writing this week’s newsletter—it happens to me every week. I have an idea, even a drafty kind of title. But then, anxiety kicks in as I’m getting closer to Friday, and I’ve to write the whole thing.
And somehow, I managed to hit ‘publish’ every single week.
I believe the reason I don't dry out and miss a week (unless I get sick or something alerting happens) is because I write about what I find interesting that I think that someone of you would find interesting too.
Enough rambling—let’s cut to the chase. This is how I’m going to tackle it: one entrepreneur, one artist, and one inventor.
I’ve got Steve Jobs lined up for entrepreneurship, Picasso when we talk art, and for invention. The Wright Brothers.
All right, let’s get started.
We know Steve Jobs as the visionary entrepreneur who transformed the tech industry, introducing innovative technologies such as the Macintosh computer back in the day to today’s iPhones.
What most people don’t know is that Jobs wasn’t a magician who just happened to pull groundbreaking products out of thin air, leaving people in awe. Since we didn’t have direct access to his thought patterns.
But thanks to the internet, we’ve had the opportunity to scroll through the past and understand what influenced a man like himself to do what he did.
One of the reasons Apple, as a company and its products, are so heavily focused on simplicity and minimalist aesthetics is because of Jobs's own journey to India in his teenage years.
After dropping out of college, Jobs was working for Atari. While working at Atari he got the opportunity to travel to India at his own request. He was in search of inspiration and longed for enlightenment.
In India, Jobs was introduced to Zen Buddhism. He experimented with fasting and learned a lot about intuition and introspection from the local spiritual leaders.
“The people in Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do ,they use their intuition and their intuition is more developed than the rest of the world .”
Though Jobs dropped out of college, he only managed to take one course—calligraphy. Might sound crazy. But it did come in handy when he founded Apple later on.
“I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to [learn calligraphy]. I learned about serif and sans-serif typefaces, about varying the space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful. Historical. Artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture. And I found it fascinating. None of this had any hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would never have multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them.”
When Jobs was a young boy, his adoptive father gave him advice that deeply influenced Apple’s design philosophy:
“You’ve got to make the back of the fence, that nobody will see, just as good looking as the front of the fence. Even though nobody will see it, you will know, and that will show that you're dedicated to making something perfect.”
This was told by Isaacson, an author who wrote the biography of Steve Jobs at Job’s own request. This mentality that he got from his adoptive father influenced the way Apple products were being made. It even shaped the culture and mentality of the company.
“Look at the memory chips. That’s ugly. The lines are too close together.”
Steve Jobs believed that beauty, art, and aesthetics were just as important as the technology itself. It shouldn’t only work and function but also be aesthetically pleasing to the eye.
Another interesting thing is that Steve Jobs was a huge fan of Edwin Land, the co-founder of Polaroid who pioneered instant photography.
It’s kinda crazy how much Land and Jobs had in common.
They were both intense about their visions—sometimes to the point where others found them hard to handle.
They were both college dropouts and had a deep passion for the intersection of art, science, and business.
And… both of them were even forced out of their own company they founded. Crazy, right?
"You know, Dr. Edwin Land was a troublemaker. He dropped out of Harvard and founded Polaroid. Not only was he one of the great inventors of our time but, more important, he saw the intersection of art and science and business and built an organization to reflect that. Polaroid did that for some years, but eventually Dr. Land, one of those brilliant troublemakers, was asked to leave his own company—which is one of the dumbest things I've ever heard of. So Land, at 75, went off to spend the remainder of his life doing pure science, trying to crack the code of color vision. The man is a national treasure. I don't understand why people like that can't be held up as models: This is the most incredible thing to be—not an astronaut, not a football player—but this."
As you’ve probably noticed by now, a lot of what Apple became is deeply rooted in what Steve Jobs has been exposed to throughout his life.
Zen Buddhism, a calligraphy course, the teachings of his adoptive father, and the genius of inventions like Edwin Land—each one left a mark on him.
Steve Jobs had the amazing ability to take all of those influences and combine them into something new.
Not entirely original, but different. That’s the reason why the products Apple designed felt new to people who never knew of his influences.
There’s a whole lot more to discuss about the many influences on Jobs. But for your sake, I’ll hold back for now.
Instead, I’ll leave you with a thought-provoking quote from the man himself:
“Ultimately, it comes down to taste. It comes down to trying expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you are doing. Picasso had a saying: good artists copy, great artists steal. And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas, and I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians and poets and artists and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.”
This leads perfectly to the next person I’m going to talk about—Pablo Picasso, the artist.
Picasso was not shy about drawing inspiration from other artists. It wasn’t about plagiarism. But it was about observing what’s around and transforming those insights into something new—with his own spin on it.
One of the artists that Picasso was influenced by was Paul Cézanne. Cézanne’s exploration of form and his method of breaking down objects into geometric shapes inspired artists like Picasso.
This inspiration became clear in Picasso’s most iconic period—Cubism. It was an art movement where basic shapes were deconstructed and pieced back together in an abstract way.
There was a period from 1907-1908 known as ‘Proto-Cubism’. It laid the foundation for the Cubism movement. You can notice this evolution in this Picasso painting.
You can see that the Proto-Cubism painting made by Picasso was influenced by Cézanne:
It’s not totally the same. But what Picasso and other artists noticed during the Cubism period was Cézanne's use of geometry.
That inspired the art movement.
Notice the similarities in the eyes?
Orville and Wilbur Wright were best known for their pioneering efforts in creating the world’s first successful motor-operated airplane.
But though they were pioneers, they also had influences that had an impact on their work. One of the people who influenced them was Otto Lilienthal, a German pioneer of aviation. Wilbur Wright said this in 1912 about Lilienthal:
"Of all the men who attacked the flying problem in the 19th century, Otto Lilienthal was easily the most important... It is true that attempts at gliding had been made hundreds of years before him, and that in the nineteenth century, Cayley, Spencer, Wenham, Mouillard, and many others were reported to have made feeble attempts to glide, but their failures were so complete that nothing of value resulted."
Another major influence for the brothers was the French-born American civil engineer, Octave Chanute.
Chanute had completed a lot of successful glider flights and was happy to share his insights with anyone interested in his work. And of course, the Wright brothers took that opportunity.
They even used Chanute research paper ‘Progress in Flying Machines’ and his articles to guide their own experiments.
But what’s amazing about the Wright brothers is their observation of nature. They drew inspiration from watching birds—especially buzzards.
Wilbur noticed that the birds were able to maintain their balance in flight by adjusting the angle and position of their wings.
Though they didn’t get the desired result is funny to note that even animals have the potential to influence our work.
It reminded me of bullet trains in Japan, which was inspired by another type of bird called Kingfisher (I know I just sidetracked, but I was trying to make a point).
Also, their knowledge and understanding of bicycles gave them insights into how they could solve problems that previous predecessors couldn’t achieve.
“Our idea was to secure a machine which, with a little practice, could be balanced and steered semi-automatically, by reflex action, just as a bicycle is.”
It’s amazing to think how something as simple as the design of a bicycle could influence the invention of the airplane.
Thanks a lot for reading, as always.
I know that this issue was a bit longer than usual. I felt the need to go deeper into the whole topic of originality by drawing insights from renowned figures like Steve Jobs, Picasso, and the Wright brothers to make a point.
I wanted to uncover the influences that their groundbreaking work.
Whether we realize it or not, we often borrow concepts and ideas. But what sets the individual I talked about apart, is their ability to leverage those influences and bring something that feels “original.”
In the upcoming issue, I’ll explore the psychology behind creativity, and how how the brain form connections and synthesizes information.
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Until next time,
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