“If you build it, they will come” (parenthetical afterthought)

I didn’t think to explain my allusion in the title of my previous post.  Possibly you recognized the quote, slightly reworded, from the 1989 film Field of Dreams.  You can watch the trailer here.  Also, if you’re ever in Iowa, you can visit the movie site where filming was done, which has become a shrine of sorts.

In Field of Dreams, farmer Ray Kinsella hears a voice whisper, “If you build it, he will come.”  He realizes, somehow, that he is being prompted to plow under part of his cornfield and install a baseball diamond.  Even as bankruptcy looms, Ray doggedly chases down tenuous leads in an attempt to find the “him” to whom the voice is referring – someone who, the voice has hinted, is in pain.  The film is too complicated and magical to summarize neatly beyond this, but Field of Dreams keeps circling back to that one key statement: “If you build it, he will come.”

What captures my imagination about this quote (and film) is that, like Ray Kinsella, we can’t know where our intuition will lead.  We stumble blindly along a path lit by glimmers of the “truth” we seek.  Without any guarantee of success, we still need to build the infrastructure anyway (in Field of Dreams, a baseball diamond in a cornfield in the middle of nowhere) in order to provide a place where our ideas might show up.

In his now-famous 2005 commencement address at Stanford University (you can watch it here, complete with the excellent introduction by Stanford president, John Hennessy), the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs described how, after dropping out of Reed College in the middle of his freshman year, he stuck around campus and “dropped in” on a calligraphy class.

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 sans 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.

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.

In July I wrote a post about “Creativity and the importance of routine.”  In it I recounted writer Flannery O’Connor’s famous quote regarding her disciplined work habits and daily writing routine:

I don’t know if the muse is going to show up or not on any given day, but by golly, I’m going to be at my desk from 8 to 12 every morning in case she does.

We can’t connect the dots going forward.  And we don’t know if the muse is going to show up on any given day.  But like Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams, we can build our baseball diamond and trust that Shoeless Joe Jackson and other players will come (including, finally, “he” of the whispered prophecy/promise).

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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