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Steve Jobs, The Calligraphy Theory, and Fancy Toys

Steve Jobs, The Calligraphy Theory, and Fancy Toys

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
3 min read

This is the story of my fancy toys.

But it didn’t start out that way.

The first fancy toy I ever had was a computer when I was just a kid. This was in 1988, so it was really weird for a young kid to have a computer. My dad and step-mom built and sold computers, and were insistent that I had one. “Everyone will need to be good with computers,” they said.

The first order of business was to learn how to type. I protested, but my dad was adamant that I learn. He pushed me to become at least a proficient typist. What I learned about computers is that they’re absolutely useless on their own, but if a skilled person is telling the computer to do things in the right way, and in the right order, and at the right time, they can do amazing things much faster than we humans can. But they need a skilled pilot.

In my early 20s, I took what I knew about computers and learned how to produce music. I’d chop and bend and mutate sounds to make my own hip-hop and electronic music. I’d record myself as the vocalist – I’m a rapper, ya know – and layer it together to make complete songs. What I learned about music is that all sound is created by the movement of air, and that when it happens in time with other sounds, we hear it as music. Sometimes it’s good music, but usually not.

In my late 20s I bought an entry-level DSLR camera. It was one of the fancy cameras with detachable lenses and a hundred settings to tweak (and learn). I asked my uncle, a professional photographer, how I could become a better photographer. “Take a lot of pictures,” he said. What I learned about photography is that the basics take you most of the way there: if you understand the role of light, how your camera uses light to create images, and the basics of composition, you’ll take decent photos in no time at all.

Recently I bought a much fancier camera to improve the quality of my videos. In the last four and a half months, I’ve produced about a dozen hours of video content, and most of it isn’t very good. The information in the videos is useful, but the videos themselves need work. I’m still learning about video, but here’s what I can tell you so far: it’s the most complicated thing I’ve done. Video includes all of the variables I’ve mentioned – computers, photo, sound, lighting – plus the fact that I have to be interesting on camera. Without the other skills I’ve already developed, it’d be a much stiffer learning curve.

In his 2005 Stanford graduation speech, Steve Jobs told the story of how he took a calligraphy class at Reed College. Taking the class didn’t strictly help him build computers, but it gave him an understanding of design and aesthetic that he otherwise would’ve lacked. Fonts and design became a crucial addition to Apple computers, which attracted a more creative and design-oriented crowd. His toy – a calligraphy pen – wasn’t as fancy as mine, but ultimately contributed to the expertise he brought to bear for Apple.

When I learned about my first computer, to make music, to take decent photos, or more recently to shoot and edit video, it wasn’t strictly for business reasons. I was genuinely interested in the subjects. Because of that, I look for ways to roll my hobbies and skills into my business and the expertise that I provide.

For most of us, these become superpower, unfair advantages. So my advice: don’t give up your fancy toys. You never know how you’ll use them in the future.