On Having the Courage to Trust the Dots will Connect
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. 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 that famous commencement speech, given to graduates of Stanford University in 2005, Steve Jobs urged the students to pursue their passions by telling three stories.
The first, was how he dropped-out of college after six months, but hung around for another eighteen. He took a class in calligraphy, which taught him about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations and about what makes typography great. This “dot” of experience, lacking any immediate practical application, connected 10 years later as Jobs designed the first Mac. The first computer to have beautiful typefaces.
We all have a Job’s typeface story, but as a passionate dot connector, what fascinates me is the question: “can we really not connect the dots looking forward?” Knowing that historically our dots have connected looking forward, can we create the conditions in the present for dot connection in the future?
Writing in the New York Times this week, David Brooks explores the structure of gratitude. He suggests that people who are dispositionally grateful (as opposed to feeling grateful some of the time, in response to a kindness) are “hyper aware of their continual dependence on others”. Individual autonomy is an illusion, because they know they are where they are today, because of their ancestors, parents, teachers and friends.
The dispositionally grateful feel richer than they deserve and believe that life is so much sweeter than it really should be. They have a “pay it forward” attitude to life that goes far beyond a paying for a cup of coffee:
Gratitude is also a form of social glue. In the capitalist economy, debt is to be repaid to the lender. But a debt of gratitude is repaid forward, to another person who also doesn’t deserve it. In this way each gift ripples outward and yokes circles of people in bonds of affection. It reminds us that a society isn’t just a contract based on mutual benefit, but an organic connection based on natural sympathy — connections that are nurtured not by self-interest but by loyalty and service.
Expressing gratitude in this way, creates ripples of dots, which might, or might not connect in the future. However, given that expressing gratitude is scientifically proven to have tremendous benefits for physical well-being, mental health and even on the quality of our sleep, it seems a no brainer for the passionate dot creator.
Here’s another way you can generate more dots that will ripple out: have a growth mindset.
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck is an expert on how our beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, can have a profound impact on nearly very aspect of our lives. One of the most basic beliefs we carry about ourselves is around how we see our personalities.
People with a “fixed mindset” assume that character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled.
A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.
Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.
At its heart, having a growth mindset is about believing things can be learned and pursuing learning, is in essence about connecting dots, and in our brains, new learning does that quite literally.
There are a variety of reasons that drive the creation of neurons connecting together in new ways, but focused learning of new information or situations we are exposed to, is one of them.
It’s like taking a new path. If every day we followed the same path through the woods, that path would become worn. However, if we decided to go off the beaten track and create a fresh path, after a few meanders along there that path too would start to become worn. This is similar to how neuroplasticity occurs in our brains as we learn something new. The more we repeat something and use that portion of the brain in a focused way new neural pathways might develop in your brain. We are literally creating new connections. Dots that might go anywhere.
The more we open ourselves to new learning, to new experiences and the more we appreciate the interconnectedness of life, the more dots we create that have the potential to connect in the first place. It’s like Dr Suess said – “the more you read the more you know, the more you read, the more places you [and your dots] go”.
Expressing gratitude and adopting a growth mindset both nurture connection between humans. Human connectedness is at the heart of a life well lived. Be a passionate dot creator. The dots will connect. There’s nothing else you have to do but trust.