How to connect the dots (like Steve Jobs)

What to do when you're not sure what to do

Image by Jessi Frey

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. ~ Steve Jobs

It was January, the time of the year to write lofty goals and fill up the planners. I was staring at my notebooks, it was all there. The goals, the schedules, the projections. I was ready to go and crush it.

Except I wasn't feeling it at all.

Slumped on the sofa I could feel two years worth of work and hustle slowly fall through my fingers. I didn't want to do what I was planning on doing.

For a while a different voice had been talking in the back of my mind. It wanted me to go beyond the current scope. My artistic desires started come through again, and I couldn't resist them anymore. Those little voices that told me I should follow them, even if I didn't know what it all meant, and where they were going to lead me.

This quote by Steve Jobs caught my eye. It made so much sense, it really spoke to me but I couldn't quite figure out how to actually do it. I had a handful of ideas, hunches, things that pulled me, ideas that intrigued me, but I didn’t really know how to connect the dots.

I love to reverse engineer things that inspire me. That means looking at the finished thing and trace the path back to learn what the dots were and how they were connected. I love reading autobiographies from artists and business people and learn how they arrived at where they did.

Connecting the dots vs reverse engineering

Reverse engineering is, of course, the opposite of following the dots, and trusting that they will show the way. It’s tracing the way back to the beginning, trying to learn and understand from the paths of others. This is useful and very interesting, but it can also make you focus too much on what others have done, and not pay attention to the dots around you.

When the path is still ahead of us, and the dots scattered all around us, how do we go about making the connection? How do we know which dots to follow? How do we get to the point where we can look back and say “Aha! Now it all makes sense”?

Collecting the dots

I had to find those dots and somehow connect them, and the only way that I could think of how to do that was to just start experimenting.

Ok, so I didn’t know what I wanted to create, but I knew that I wanted to create something. I have many passions and interests and I started to just mess around with them. I was taking photos and playing around with them. (All the images in this post are some of the ones that I made).

I was writing. Just what came out, just ideas that came popping in my head. Most of it made no sense, but some of it stuck, and I kept going towards the direction that felt good.

I put together a Pinterest board and simply collected images that I loved. I didn’t even know what I was going to do with them. I pinned dozens of photos that I felt drawn to without much further thought of what it all meant. I just wanted to bookmark images that for some reason or another felt attractive to me.

It was only after I’d done the pinning, that I stepped back and looked at what I’d chosen and it was curious to see the themes, visuals, colours, and moods that emerged. The same themes kept repeating over and over.

You have to create it first

I looked back at the images I had been making. Just random photos of things that had felt drawn to. And there they were again. The same colours, moods and themes.

I looked at my words. The things that had been swirling in my head. The desires that had been bubbling under the surface. The ideas that had forced themselves through. I had rejected those topics so many times, diminished them in my head, brushed them on the side as not worthy of my time. But stubbornly they returned until I couldn’t ignore them anymore.

It was so obvious to see, after it was all there, side by side.

All those little pieces started to come together. All those little fragments of ideas, those little half-baked, unpublished blog posts, they all started to look like something that made sense when put together.

Those little dots all around me had started to come together and they created an entity that made sense to me. All these things that I felt deeply drawn to, but couldn’t quite match, started to fit together.

The sum of those little parts was so much greater than what I could’ve imagined in my head. I couldn’t have planned it beforehand. I had to create it all first, and I had to see it all laid out in front of me, in order to understand what it all was going to become.

That’s what that Steve Jobs quote means to me. That’s the practical application of how to connect the dots. Not just the warm rush of inspiration, but the actual steps to take.

If you're feeling lost and confused about the direction to take, try this process. Collect the dots, follow your curiosity, create without agenda and then step back. The work will show you the way.

Jessi Frey is a writer, musician, creator and crafter who blogs about personal development for driven creatives. She thrives in that crazy space between work, family and creative pursuits. How? Download the free ebook "Making time for creative work"

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