Connecting the dots, looking backward.

When I watched Steve Jobs’ historic Commencement speech he gave in 2005 at Stanford University, I got truly impressed and inspired by the authenticity of his story. For those who don’t remember or who haven’t heard that speech yet, here it is.

One part touched me very deeply. When Steve Jobs talked about connecting the dots, he shared how certain events, choices and experiences in his life that seemed to have no meaning when they happened, turned to be of priceless value later on.

In his words:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. 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. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

I have become a huge admirer and user of the approach of connecting the dots. It helps me to clearly observe and clarify some patterns in my own life. However I am not sure if I totally agree on what he says next:

Again, 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.”

Connecting the dots

Connecting the dots, looking forward.

Is it impossible to connect the dots looking forward? The answer is obviously yes. Nobody can predict the upcoming dots the future may bring. And do I come out here as a very naive fool (in the best case)?

Maybe I do, but I’ve continued reading on and experimenting with using the approach of connecting dots when trying to look forward. Let me share my findings with you.
I read this blog by Subroto Bagchi commenting on Job’s words:

Here is a man I know who can connect the dots looking forward. Captain Gorur Gopinath came out of the Army and wanted to become an organic farmer – he actually did that. During his farming days, he happened to meet an old buddy, an ex-helicopter pilot, who had quit the army and unable to find any job on the civilian street, had become a manager in a courier company. DOT.

Then one day, Gopi was leading a delegation of farmers to China. On the way, he read about a young Vietnamese lady – she had fled the US occupation, migrated to overseas, grown up to become a helicopter pilot and one day, she came back to see her motherland, she cried upon seeing the devastation. She wanted to help rebuild. But what could she do? The only thing she knew how to do was fly a helicopter. But then a country like Vietnam needed infrastructure and access and there were hardly any airfields. So, she decided she would start a helicopter company there. DOT.

Gopi was very deeply stirred by the story and then it occurred to him that in many ways, India was no different than Vietnam – we had not been bombed but we had the same poor infrastructure and lack of access-ability; if Vietnam needed a helicopter company, so did India and you know what? His Army buddies, who had flown the choppers all their lives, were becoming managers in courier companies! DOT. Gopi connected them all and that is how Deccan Aviation was born.

One day, he was flying a chopper to Goa from Bangalore and asked the pilot to fly low so he could see the ground below. As the bird whirred over the vast land, Gopi saw something you and I easily miss. In every hamlet over which he flew, he saw television antennas.

Again, he was seeing the DOTs

It occurred to him that a billion Indians were not waiting to be fed and subsidized. A billion Indians could fly! The DOTS were connecting one more time, of economic liberalization, surging middle-class and the capacity of the ordinary Indian, even those from rural India, to fly a plane at least once in a life time.

When we do connect the dots looking forward, we build “memories of the future”. When we succeed, we actually live in them!

Again I was deeply touched, because the phrase memories of the future matches exactly what I discovered in another great work: Otto Scharmers’ Theory U, that literally quotes leading from the emerging future.

It is not about leading towards the future as many of us try to do, but about leading from the future that is already partly present and emerging, in the present.

Let’s return to the dots. Some of the dots occurring in the present are indicators for other dots that will emerge later on. So how can you know which dots are relevant and to be connected with future ones, and which are not ?

Attending and presencing.

The key answer to this question lays in attention, Scharmer says.

What we pay attention to, and how we pay attention is key to what we create. What often prevents us from attending is our blind spot, the inner place from which each of us operates.

A very important part of the U-process lies in the realm of presencing. This term was coined by Scharmer that combines the present with sensing. Here we are able to clearly see our own blind spot and pay attention in a way that allows us to experience the opening of our mind, our heart, and our will. This holistic opening constitutes a shift in awareness that allows us to learn from the future as it emerges. It also allows us to realize that future in the world. It enables us to very consciously see the relevant dots when they appear, and not to waste any time with the irrelevant ones when they appear on their turn. It really enables to connect the present with the future and the future with the present in a very clear and conscious way.

Coming into that state of presencing requires going through the U process. One blog is of course not enough to explain this process and presencing in detail, but I strongly recommend you to read into Scharmers’ work.

Steve Jobs was probably right that the most obvious way of finding clear connections is by looking backward, but I think you can also see and create a glimpse of the future by clearly being present in the present. The future is already here in some kind of emerging form. You just need to see it.

Connecting dots

Karl Van Hoey

Karl Van Hoey

Karl is Senior Consultant and Certified Coach (PCC) @talentogrow, specialized in transforming leaders and leading transformations. He stimulates contexts for collaboration, as a key condition for excellent performance. He is an hrchitect and social media networker.

Connecting the dots – present and future
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2 thoughts on “Connecting the dots – present and future

  • January 13, 2016 at 8:35 am

    A very inspiring article. Dots can be connected if one remembers the serendipity in our life leading to major events having profound impact in our career or life.

  • March 5, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    Very nice and inspiring writeup. About connecting the dots with future, I think it is possible when one is driven by a certain idea of what the person wants to do in life. However, only in rare cases do people develop that kind of clarity of vision in personal life….and those who do, carve out a niche for themselves.


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