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In charting their life’s course, today’s youth might better stay foolish

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

Why is this generation of young people in Japan so self-absorbed and seemingly unconcerned, to the point of distracted apathy, about the social and political dilemmas facing their country today?

I have been trying to put my finger on the pulse of this generation for several years now, but the apparent weak flow of blood through their veins has made its discovery elusive.

Then, a few weeks ago, I had a revelation. It was all thanks to a speech that Steve Jobs, the charismatic co-founder and CEO of Apple Inc., made to the graduating class of Stanford University in California in 2005.

I had chosen that speech as a model of personal choice and social commitment for students on our new course in Human Potential at Tokyo Institute of Technology where I teach. But I didn’t really cotton on myself to its significance until I was asked a question by one of the students.

“What does Steve Jobs mean by the phrase ‘connecting the dots’?”

I explained that he meant bringing together unrelated things to form a big picture. Jobs went to Reed College, a small liberal-arts university in Portland, Oregon. But, after only six months there, he dropped out. “This,” he told that class of 2005 at Stanford, “is the closest I have ever gotten to a college graduation.”

He did stay on at Reed College, however, to take a course in calligraphy; and this proved crucial to his life’s successes.

“Ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. … If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. … Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards 10 years later.”

It dawned on me. That’s it! I looked out over the classroom of students of our Human Potential course and told them, “You guys are studying everything for a purpose, generally to get into a first-rate company, because your parents and society have told you to stick to the straight and narrow.

“But you should be walking not the straight and narrow, but along the curving and wide roads of life.”

I then noticed that they were all looking at me quizzically. Was I recommending them to drop out of university and take a course in calligraphy?

Of course not, but I did want them to put themselves into the shoes of a great innovator and cultural entrepreneur like Jobs, who devised the Mac computer in a garage with his buddy Steve Wozniak. Bill Gates also had his epiphanies in a garage.

Could it be, I asked the students, that young Japanese are not making earth-shattering inventions because they live in houses without garages? No, it had to be something else.

One of the students asked me about my own path in life; what choices I had made, what kind of dots I had connected?

“Well,” I said at the outset, “I would rather that you imitated Jobs than me. But in my life, too, I was only able to connect the dots after I had left them behind.”

I had studied Russian and Polish at university, but innocent involvement in a spy scandal in the late 1960s had ruined my chances — or so I thought — of pursuing a career in things related to Eastern Europe.

So on a whim I chose to go to Japan in 1967; and landed a job teaching Russian and Polish at a Japanese university.

How could I have known that my studies of those languages were to have been for the purpose of settling me in Japan, where I have lived most of my life since? Yet it was my obsessive love of Russian poetry and Polish theater that became the decisive elements in my becoming a writer — a career I had never contemplated as a student.

To my Jewish parents, the three sacred professions were doctor, lawyer or accountant, in that order. Anything else, even rabbi, was sacrilegious. And when I finally decided on my path in life — to pursue a career teaching and writing outside the blessed boundaries of the United States of America — my parents were so upset and hurt that they often asked their friends, as I heard from one of them, “Where did we go wrong?”

Sadly, they blamed themselves for my extraterritorial apostasy.

I told the students that in this era of Japan’s development, where there is a certain degree of shared affluence, they shouldn’t make decisions too early about what to do with their lives; that they should spread the net of their curiosity as widely as they can; that they should “drop in,” to use Jobs’ expression, on what they loved to do.

If they didn’t know what they would really love to do, as is the case with so many young people, I suggested they should read fiction, go to museums, see plays, go to movies, travel and the like. Find the love you have inside by going outside yourself, I urged.

Sound frivolous? Absolutely. Unfocused? You bet. However, that’s precisely what the great creators and innovators of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) and of the postwar boom years did.

Young Japanese people may not be aware that those generations of men and women were highly literate in world culture. I saw the tail end of it in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when students would spend hours in cafes discussing the works of French author Albert Camus or Russian painter Marc Chagall. They crowded into tiny used book stores to read Russian short stories and German poetry. They filled theaters that put on experimental plays from Japan and overseas.

Such explorations are the building blocks of the edifice we call “human potential.” Staying at home working your files and personal messages is one type of fun. But, to plant your dots far and wide, you must (to paraphrase a bon mot of playwright Shuji Terayama), “Throw away the electronic devices and get out into the city … or country … or some other country.”

Steve Jobs’ message to the Stanford graduates was: “Stay hungry, stay foolish. … Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

The old economic model of growth for growth’s sake has been smothered in Japan under a blanket of ominously spreading radiation. Why, then, take the previous generation’s advice on how to build your country?

The old social model of “unique” spiritual preparedness in any disaster was shaken and destroyed forever on March 11 this year. Why trust those allegedly wise men and women of a generation who perpetrated this falsehood on a nation?

You cannot connect the dots before they are cast and planted. They can only be connected later. Be frivolous and unfocused. That may be just what eventually leads you to discovering your own personal human potential.