I am in the midst of reading the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. I wanted to learn what made this charismatic, enigmatic genius tick. Where he got his creativity from.
I’m sure his creativity stems from a set of factors, but one of the major ones is probably not what you expected.
That’s right, you heard me. Steve Jobs was inspired by the synthetic drug LSD, also known as acid.
“I came of age at a magical time,” he reflected later. “Our consciousness was raised by Zen, and also by LSD.” Even later in life he would credit psychedelic drugs for making him more enlightened. “Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important – creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.”
He recounted a time when he and his then-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan got high on LSD out in a wheat field.
“It was great,” he recalled. “I had been listening to a lot of Bach. All of a sudden the whole wheat field was playing Bach. It was the most wonderful feeling of my life up to that point. I felt like the conductor of this symphony with Bach coming through the wheat.”
This really got me thinking. Aside from taking drugs, Jobs also engaged in grand pranks like creating a giant banner showing a pointed middle finger and unfurling it at his school’s graduation ceremony. His co-founder at Apple, Steve Wozniak, tinkered with all kinds of gadgets and electronics components, and managed to build a fully-functioning calculator when he was in the eighth grade (the equivalent of Sec 2 in Singapore) using one hundred transistors, two hundred diodes and two hundred resistors on ten circuit boards.
Now in Singapore, if you take drugs, you get locked up. If you unfurl a giant, obscene banner in school, you get suspended or expelled. And you probably have so much homework to do that you don’t even have time to watch half an hour of TV every day, let alone browse through electronics stores or do other things to indulge your fascinations.
Whether we like it or not, creativity (or the lack of it) is a function of culture. Creativity is highest in cultures that place individual freedom and expression above social order. But Singapore is defined by a focus on social order, stability and collective well-being. Our government is traditionally authoritarian, with little tolerance for dissent and radically unconventional behaviour or expression.
This policy has served us well up till now. However, Singapore now faces a dilemma. As emerging nations such as China and Brazil rapidly scale the value chain and close the gap with Singapore, we are forced to climb ever higher up the value chain in order to overcome our geographical disadvantage of small size and our economic disadvantages of costly land and labour. At the highest rung of the value chain is cutting-edge innovation – hence our heavy emphasis on R & D in recent years. But while we have attracted many prominent scientists from around the world to work here, and developed some top-class researchers of our own like Victor Tong and Jonathan Loh, a big question mark remains over whether our national culture is fertile for innovation. As even our research czars admit, we have not produced a ‘Big Bang’ invention despite pouring over $3 billion of government funds into R & D every year.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we loosen our drug laws in Singapore or recommending that our kids ‘drop acid’. But we could have more tolerance for playfulness in our schools and try to channel students’ wilder, more adventurous propensities in constructive ways rather than unthinkingly chiding and punishing them. We could ease up on homework and tests, even CCA, and give students some breathing space to pursue their own interests and passions which may lie outside school (including the official CCAs). Of course, we don’t want students spending that free time just playing computer games. We should mentor them and help them use their free time on healthier pursuits.
Singapore parents typically place a lot of emphasis on discipline and purposefulness in doing schoolwork, but leave their kids to their own devices once that schoolwork is completed. They don’t care very much if their child is addicted to computer games. We should teach our children to be purposeful and constructive not only in their work, but also in their play. And perhaps one day, as it was for Steve Jobs, their play can become their work. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a magical place to be.
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