Connecting the Dots: What we can learn from Steve Jobs, college drop-out

In his 2005 Stanford commencement address, Steve Jobs reflected upon his life: his birth and adoption, his early firing from Apple and marriage and then his scare with death after being diagnosed with cancer.  The first part of the speech was dedicated to “connecting the dots” and to his early life and college experience. Like Jobs, our most successful students are able to “connect the dots” and take important risks.

Jobs relates how his birth mother wanted to give him up for adoption but felt strongly the he should be taken care of by college graduates. Everything was set for him to be adopted by a lawyer and his wife but they backed out at the last minute, wanting a girl. His parents then were given a call, “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” To which they replied: “Of course.” However, Jobs’s birth mother refused to sign the final papers after she learned that Jobs’s eventual mother never graduated from college and that his father had never finished high school. She only relented after they promised that Jobs would someday go to college.


Seventeen years later, Jobs choose to go to Reed College, but his working-class parents struggled to pay the tuition; after six months, Jobs decided to drop out. He was scared at the time but contended that it was the best decision that he ever made. As he noted, “The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.” Jobs stayed another eighteen months at Reed, taking classes that he enjoyed. For instance, Reed was known for having the best calligraphy instruction in the country and Jobs decided to benefit from that program. He learned of the various beautiful fonts and rules of typography. Jobs did not see any practical application of taking the course at the time, but when he began to design the personal computer ten years later, he designed the fonts into the Macintosh. As he explained, “If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do.” While he did not see it at the time, Jobs’s decision to take the course had a remarkable return. As he reflected, “of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backward ten years later.” Jobs concluded the first part of his speech stressing the importance of “connecting the dots,” a rule that he has always tried to live by:

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson explained that one of the reasons he wrote the book was because of his interest in strong personalities which were able to combine the humanities and sciences since such a combination will be the key in creating future innovative economies.

Simon & Schuster, 2011

Isaacson devotes an entire chapter to Jobs’s college experience and highlights how the calligraphy class was key to Apple’s future success.  As Isaacson explains, “In all of [Jobs’s] products, technology would be married to great design, elegance, human touches, and even romance.”

Jobs’s comments regarding college represent the fears and anxieties of many students. They often fear taking the courses that they are interested in because they don’t see any clear career path attached to them. In economically challenging times and with the rising cost of higher education, students feel a tremendous burden to choose a major that will have immediate financial benefits; they have difficulty justifying “fun” courses to themselves and their parents. Taking an interesting course in college can be exhilarating, but it can also produce anxiety because of the worry that the cost, time and effort put into the class may not be worth it.

Jobs’s points resonate with me as a college professor who frequently advises students who are trying to find their calling and are in the midst of their vocational journeys. Some students are clueless on what they want to major in and what career they want to choose but feel the tremendous pressure from their parents and loved ones to make the “right” choice. On the other hand, some students come in with a very fixed idea of who they are and what they want to become making them hesitant to hear other callings and ways of life. In my experience, the most successful students are the ones who are able to do what Jobs did in that they follow their passions and interests, while being mindful of the importance of being gainfully employed. They are dynamic in that they are open to hearing multiple callings and are adaptable to the circumstances they find themselves in and willing to change majors and careers if the circumstances dictate.  The most successful students are able to “connect the dots” in that they are able to look back at the sum of their experiences, create a compelling narrative, and to produce something meaningful to themselves and the world around them.


Younus Mirza is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Allegheny College; he delivered the opening plenary on these themes at the recent NetVUE gathering, “Mentoring Students of Color for Deep Purpose,” hosted by Elizabethtown College in March 2018. This post comes from his essay, “Doubt as an Integral Part of Calling: The Qur’anic Story of Joseph” which will appear in the volume Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, edited by David S. Cunningham (Oxford, 2019).

4 thoughts on “Connecting the Dots: What we can learn from Steve Jobs, college drop-out

  1. I knew most or all of these facts (dots) about Steve Jobs. But you connected them, Younus, and in very creative ways. If all our students dropped out after six months but continued taking classes, the registrar and business office would be quite concerned, however. 🙂 Don’t think it likely happens often anymore.

    Which does bring up the ugly subject of cost. Maybe a subject for a future post? We faculty encourage creative exploration in the curriculum because we know that good students will spin wonderful webs of knowledge and even wisdom, and, in the end, most of them will find gainful employment and financial security at some level. But not all will. (I can’t get the accusations of the student Jason Mahn cites out of my head. He dropped out and had a lot of debt that led him to enlist in the military and subsequently face PTSD).

    But back to your lovely essay here. The key, it seems to me, is to help develop that internal drive to know that one potentially will love and the courage to go after it. In Jobs’s words: “You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” I can say the same thing in my life, and when I hear him speak those words, my heart leaps up. Whether this sense is teachable or not, I think it can be caught.

    So I just decided to give the cream of my morning to listening again. Other readers can find the speech here:


    • Thanks for your comments Shirley! Yes, I have been thinking a lot about cost recently, especially since many of our students cannot pay our tuition and work many hours and take out massive loans to stay in school. As I allude to, it is important to follow one’s passion but always have an eye on gainful employment. I like you statement, “The key, it seems to me, is to help develop that internal drive to know that one potentially will love and the courage to go after it.” I could not have said it better myself! All the best.

  2. This is a really interesting post, Younus! And I am really looking forward to reading your chapter in Volume 3. We have a very large Muslim student population on our campus, and I am very interested in learning more about connecting to vocation through different faith traditions.
    Jobs’s story is fascinating. I wasn’t aware of the strings attached to his adoption (or that he was adopted!). I thought it interesting, though, that even after Jobs “dropped out” he still hung around for another year and a half taking courses that were interesting. If he had been at Oberlin, he might have done what Josh Ritter did and create his own major! (A shameless plug for my previous post, “It is not love…”) In any case, there is a real tension in the academy between the academic requirements for a specific major, which can be stifling, and the type of experiences that we hope will ignite the passion and drive in our students to aspire towards great things.
    Thanks for the insights!

    • Thanks for your comments Jeff! It would be great to talk some time and learn more about your institution. Yes, balancing between academic requirements and students’ individual passions is a tough one and one that many institutions struggle with. I also find it interesting that Jobs still went to school even though it was not for credit! It would be interesting to ask our students which classes they would take if they were not required to do so. What classes truly drive them and are passionate about? Thanks again!

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