Are Visionaries Born or Created?

By Lane Wallace

The announcement by Steve Jobs, last week, that he was taking another medical leave caused considerable alarm among Apple's investors and customers alike. Jobs has an unusually influential role in new product development at Apple. So his absence raises the question of whether Apple can continue to have successes like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad without the day-to-day involvement of its visionary leader. 

A temporary leave by the CEO of most companies wouldn't raise as much concern. But Apple's products are consistently out on the risky, scary, leading-edge, and Jobs has developed an almost mystical reputation for hitting that edge dead-on. As a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management put it last week, "Jobs has this extraordinary ability to see into the future and instinctively see what people want." 

The aura surrounding Jobs is not without basis. Few would argue that Jobs has a knack for figuring out, without a lot of analytical supporting data, what consumers want before consumers themselves even know that they want it. But is that knack--whether you call it instinct or vision--an inborn piece of magic that nobody else could replicate? Or is it something far more attainable by the rest of us than the mythology surrounding Steve Jobs might suggest? 

For the past year, I've been researching a book that's forced me to take a closer look at that question. The book is about passion--where it comes from, where it can take us, and why it matters. And the origins of passion, I've concluded, are directly linked to this idea of "vision." For passion to take hold, we first have to have a vision of an alternate future that ignites a fire within us: a vision of a wrong righted, a community developed, a great new product made and sold, a goal achieved, or just a new relationship full of happiness and bliss. Not every vision leads to a passionate pursuit of it, of course. But in all cases where people do pursue something with passion, it's because there was a vision, first, that sparked an unquenchable flame and desire to make that vision real. 

Given that link, and given that many of us would like to find something to pursue with the passion Steve Jobs has for revolutionary personal computer technology, the question of where vision comes from becomes important. And most of the entrepreneurs, adventurers, and passionate pursuers of social change that I've interviewed so far agree that vision is not just a capricious gift of the gods; the entrepreneur's equivalent of the 98-mph fastball arm. It's also a product of environment, and the kind of thinking that different environments stimulate. 

Clearly, people like Steve Jobs have a certain amount of natural talent for looking at a spatter-pattern of dots on a wall and seeing something in them that few others see. The same could be said of superstar athletes like Michael Jordan, whose physical abilities were aided by his ability to "see" a different path to the basket than his competitors. 

So it's fair to say that superstars possess some inborn talent. As a friend of mine who's coached many sports says, "you can't coach height or speed." You can, however, coach a flexible mindset that makes creative vision come more easily to a person. How do you do that? A number of ways. Here are just a few:

K.R. Sridhar, the CEO of the innovative energy start-up company Bloom Energy, attributes his inventor's vision to four elements in his childhood: 

1) exposure to many cultures, which instilled in him a belief that just because something was done a particular way didn't mean there weren't 16 other valid ways it could be done

2) support and enthusiasm for trying new things. To imagine something that doesn't yet exist and have the confidence to pursue or invest resources in that vision, a person has to believe a) that exploration and experimentation are good things and b) that isn't just one right answer. (So kids raised in regimented households tend to have a harder time coming up with highly creative visions that challenge accepted ways of doing things.)  

3) support for failure. To imagine, share, and pursue a creative vision, a person also has to be brave enough to tolerate failure. Steve Jobs has that confidence; most people and companies do not. Hence the popularity of market research and data analysis. Companies want to ensure success, and they have an odd (and, innovation consultants say, misplaced) faith in hard numbers to do that. But visionary success is never assured. It's a risk, and requires being comfortable with risk and failure in the pursuit of the extraordinary. 

4) a belief that finding innovative ways to make the world better is important. A mind in search of better ideas, even if they sound radical, is more likely to stumble across one. 

To those elements, Tim Brown, CEO and president of the innovation consulting company IDEO, would add "being surrounded by people who have a flexible mindset." We become what we are around -- which might help explain why geographically centralized places like Silicon Valley become such furnaces of innovation. 

That's not an exhaustive list. But the point is ... visionary ability is not just something we are or aren't born with. It can be taught--or at least, nurtured, enhanced, and encouraged to grow. And while we may not all develop Steve Jobs' level of visionary talent, we can all get a lot better at it.   
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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