Life is an improvisation

Life is an improvisation
”You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards“ — Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech (2005)

At the time he gave the commencement speech at Stanford in 2005, Steve Jobs was a multi-billionaire. But he started from nothing. He didn’t have a college degree. Even his parents didn’t have college degrees. How does a kid who never completed a college degree start a computer company that would go on to become the largest company on the planet?

It’s tempting to think that he had a clear vision for his life or a plan for achieving success. He didn’t. In fact, his early life was characterized by aimless wandering. He travelled across India, dropped out of Reed College and for a while he couch-surfed in the dorms, scrounging for pennies to eat.

In those aimless days at Reed College, Steve happened to take a course on calligraphy. He learned about typography and serif and sans-serif fonts. Topics that held seemingly little economic value. But in his commencement speech, Jobs explained that when it came time to design the operating system for the Macintosh, he recalled everything he learned about typography to create the first computer with beautiful fonts.

“My formula for success was simple: Do whatever is put in front of you with all your heart and soul without regard for personal results. Do the work as though it were given to you by the universe itself - because it was.” ― Michael A. Singer, The Surrender Experiment: My Journey into Life's Perfection

Like Jobs, Michael A. Singer started from nothing but went on to make a fortune. Singer's journey involved willingly surrendering to the flow of life. He stumbled his way through a series of encounters and events so incredible even he had a hard time believing they were happening to him. As the proverbial dots of his life connected, they took him from his humble roots as a meditation and yoga enthusiast, to creating a retreat center, to becoming a home builder, to becoming a software engineer, and ultimately to selling his medical software company for $5 Billion.


The reason we can’t connect the dots looking forward is because life is an improvisation. Grand plans and visions only give us the illusion of control. In reality, much of life is outside our control. We are figuring it out as we go along, as information comes in, and as we get feedback from our environment, and from the people in our life. But that’s okay because improvisation is a powerful way to engage our creativity and interact with the world.

We’re all contending with the challenges of bounded rationality. None of us have all the information we need to make perfect decisions. Instead, we make the best decisions we can within the time constraints we have, with the information that we have available to us currently, and then we improvise our way through life.

Of course, it's sensible to plan, and we can consider ourselves lucky if we have a powerful vision. But either in the absence of those things or in addition to those things, we can open ourselves up to the flow of possibilities that life continuously presents us.

Go forth with passion and energy, unafraid to make mistakes, or to fail, or to make the wrong decision, or to make a fool of yourself. Make the best decisions you can, right now. The important thing is to make your move, to act, and to experience life as a beautiful and often messy unfolding of possibilities.

You won’t always have a clear vision or a clear path forward or a discrete action plan. And due to bounded rationality, you certainly won’t have all the information for perfect decisions. Don’t let that stop you from taking action, taking bold decisions and living your life to the fullest because life is an improvisation.