Catalytic Parents = Successful Children?

How did a dyslexic child become one of the world’s most celebrated designers and applied his sheer brilliance to develop products that have stood the test of time?

Mahmudul Islam  provides a perspective on the role of parenting on a particular kind of normative success for AlalODulal.org.

Jawed Karim

 Catalytic Parents = Successful Children?

1.

How will you view a man who was diagnosed with dyslexia in his childhood, was later hired by one of the world’s ultra-successful corporations that operates like a spy organization and has thereafter touched millions of lives around the world through his creations? The way he thinks and designs has resulted in immense breakthroughs. He has delivered a number of artistically designed and aesthetically radical products that not only became iconic but also utterly transformed our digital life. Jonathan Paul Ive (Jony Ive as he is called) is his name and he currently serves as the senior vice president of industrial design at Apple, a corporation that has always wowed its customers with its cutting-edge products. Apple has been named the world’s most admired company in 2013 by Fortune magazine.

But how did a dyslexic child become one of the world’s most celebrated designers and applied his sheer brilliance to develop products that have stood the test of time?

The childhood fascination

It was in 1967 in the London borough of Chingford where Jony was born. He was the first child of Michael John Ive and Pamela Mary Ive. A silversmith and educationist, Michael was a key figure in establishing design technology in core curriculum of British schools. Interestingly, Michael saw his own son developing a fascination for how objects were made at an early stage.

“I remember always being interested in made objects. As a kid, I remember taking apart whatever I could get my hands on,” Jony said.

Time passed and Jony became more intrigued by inner mechanism and functioning of a wide range of stuff. He would dismantle radios and cassette recorders to see how they were assembled. But Michael never scolded the little boy for taking a radio apart. He rather expressed solidarity with his son’s interest by constantly talking to him about design.

A supportive father teaches Design 101

Imagine a man keeping his son engaged in conversations everyday that exclusively focus on design. That’s what Michael did. He was Jony’s source of inspiration.

Michael also took Jony on tours around London design studios and design schools. He would always encourage Jony to draw by hand in advance what he [Jony] had planned to make. In his book ‘Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products’, Leander Kahney says Michael was a strong advocate of ‘teaching empirically’ (making and testing) and of ‘intuitive designing’ (get on and make it, refine as you go).

This nurturing approach and hands-on training helped Jony become a skilled draftsman. He was still in his teens but his creations were way ahead of his age. Such exceptional merit didn’t escape his teachers’ notice as one of them admitted they learned a lot from Jony just by looking at his works.

At the age of 13, Jony knew all he wanted to do in life was ‘to draw and make stuff’.

 A polytechnic education didn’t hurt

A polytechnic graduate in Bangladesh is considered less skilled than his BSc counterparts. For Jony, however, it set him on the path of design education which came in very handy in his professional life. His outstanding A-level results enabled him to apply at Oxford or Cambridge but he knew where his passion and aptitude lied.

Roberts Weaver Group (RWG), a leading design firm in London at the time, agreed to sponsor Jony’s graduation education because of his evident talent and he found himself at Newcastle Polytechnic (now Northumbria University). The institution extensively focused on project-based learning. Students were taught how to sketch, draw and manipulate materials; and how to operate drills, lathes and computer-controlled cutting machines. Learners were also encouraged to explore and adopt emerging technologies and integrate it into their designs. The education extensively helped Jony hone his design skills.

The call of Apple

In 1989, Jony, while on a visit to America, met Robert Brunner, a design star who set up the first internal design studio at Apple. Brunner was very impressed by a concept phone that Jony had built for his final-year project at Newcastle. He instantly understood Jony’s immense potential and tried several times to get Jony at Apple but it wasn’t until the third try that succeeded. In 1992, at the age of 27, Jony became a full-time staffer at the technology giant.

Apple gave Jony an environment conducive to innovate new products. He was very serious about his work since his early days. One of his colleagues described him as a calm but very deep guy who had a ferocious intensity about work. Apart from generating ideas and designs, Jony’s leadership ability was just emerging. He hired most of the members of the design team and over time, they all played crucial role in developing a string of groundbreaking and culture-shaping products like the iMac, the iPod, the iPad and the iPhone. Jony has been in charge of Apple’s design department since 1997. USA Today described him as the company’s design wizard and when you examine Apple’s products, you truly see that magic. Apple’s products manipulate people somehow, make them true fans and loyal customers who eagerly wait for the next release.

Sir Jonathan Ive

The year 2012 brought Jony a rare honour as he was named a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) in the Queen’s New Year Honours List for his services to design and enterprise. The KBE entitled him to style himself Sir Jonathan Ive.

“All I’ve ever wanted to do is design and make; it’s what I love doing. It’s great if you can find what you love to do,” he told The Telegraph.

Apart from the knighthood, Jony’s sense of design has brought him a $17 million home on San Francisco’s billionaires’ row, a personal fortune of $130 million, and a string of fast cars. Not bad for a once dyslexic schoolboy.

2.

On December 31 in 1978, a couple was enthusiastically awaiting the arrival of their first child. It was an interracial marriage; the bride and the groom were from countries standing almost 7290km apart. The boy came on the first day of 1979. Google was born 19 years later and as things turned out, the search engine giant paid a cool $1.65 billion in November 2006 to buy one of his remarkable inventions. The boy, who actually cofounded the project with two others, received worth about $64 million against 137,443 shares.

The acquisition was the biggest in Google’s history as of then and the boy became filthy rich at the age of 27. As you will remember, Jony had just started at Apple at this age.

But this was in fact the second time the boy had hit the jackpot. Back in 2002, he made a few million dollars when an online money transfer firm he worked for was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion. The amount was so large that it enabled him not to work for money for a single day again. But as later developments showed, he didn’t take the decision to sit on idle money.

It was, in fact, the start for Jawed Karim.

And this now 35-year-old American man of Bangladeshi-German descent has truly made his mark on the Internet by co-founding the widely-known website YouTube with Chad Hurley and Steve Chen. Today, YouTube is a wildly popular and powerful video-sharing website. Well, almost everyone knows what YouTube is!

But was Jawed destined for such success or was he nurtured for it?

When innovation centre is the playground

Jawed’s father Naimul Karim moved to Germany from Bangladesh in 1975. There he met Christine, a fellow German student, fell in love with her and they finally tied the knot.

Naimul is now a researcher at the 3M Company, an American conglomerate, and Christine is a Research Associate Professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics at the University of Minnesota.

So to what extent did a couple having science-oriented careers influence their child? Well, Christine would take Jawed to the lab she worked at and there were many physicists around. So Jawed literally had a playground where he watched professional researchers busy with experiments to produce something new. There, instead of traditional toys, Jawed got objects like magnetic stirrers to play with.

Soon the environment began to dominate the 10-year-old boy’s life and he gradually discovered his natural inclination towards experiments, scientific objects and inventions. Christine’s colleagues said Jawed was almost like a sponge and would listen and observe anything.

The idea that took the world by storm

It frustrated Jawed when he was trying to find two videos on the Internet but faced difficulty: one was of a 2004 Super Bowl show where Janet Jackson’s breast was exposed during her performance and the other was of the Indian Ocean tsunami that occurred the same year. Instead of living with the disappointment, Jawed proposed to Hurley and Chen that an effective video-sharing site could be built and the idea of YouTube was born.

The trio began working, built the site and YouTube had its official launch in November 2005. From its early stage, it took off.

These days, YouTube has become a one-of-a-kind place where you can find videos on almost any subject you can think of. From the 1960 presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon to Benazir Bhutto’s 2007 assassination to Barack Obama’s moving speech at Nelson Mandela’s memorial in 2013, it’s all there on YouTube. There are other video-sharing websites like Vimeo and Dailymotion but YouTube is unanimously the most popular among all. With more than one billion unique users visiting the site each month, over 6 billion hours of video being watched each month and 100 hours of video being uploaded every minute, YouTube has become one of the largest, if not the largest, online video treasury. And all these happened because a boy of Bangladeshi descendant couldn’t find the video of Janet Jackson’s bare breast! Ah, Jawed proved that biological desire could father a world-changing idea which in turn could pave the way for making a whopping sum, all before finishing university studies.

In an interview with Star Tribune, Jawed said the idea of YouTube was very simple.

“I basically create things that I need myself. It just so happens that sometimes other people want to use that.”

Indeed, the simple idea had ample ingredient in it to produce something marvelous. Maybe it was an ordinary thought but as we can see now, it was a stroke of genius.

World’s most successful immigrant

Although his brainchild earned him millions, Jawed, who loves to describe himself as a nerd and claims he always gets excited about learning, said his goal was never to top anything.

“It was just to work on something interesting. The people that I admire most are probably innovators that try something really wacky that ends up working really well,” he told the Star Tribune.

Yes, YouTube worked really well to reach an unimaginable height. It also took Jawed to an enviable stature when Bloomberg Businessweek included him on its list of ‘World’s Most Successful Immigrants’ in 2009. The list mentions 40 names, including Sergey Brin (Google co-founder) and Andrew Grove (senior adviser to Intel), who left their home countries and achieved enviable success in professional life.

Catalytic parents: The latent truth

Any eighth or ninth grader is pretty familiar with chemical reaction and catalyst. Simply put, a chemical reaction is the process of transforming one or more substances into new substance(s) while catalysts are substances that lead to an increase in the rate of that reaction. The interesting fact about catalysts is that they don’t directly take part in a reaction. Rather, their only role is to have an indirect participation in the reaction in order to facilitate it.

Both Jony and Jawed played their parts in having enormous impact on millions of lives around the world. But before they impacted lives of others, they were impacted to an incredible level by what I call catalytic parents.

Catalytic parents are parents who (Michael and Naimul) interact with human reactants (Jony and Jawed), discover what lies in their inner world (Jony, design; Jawed, technology), support their obsession, inject endless amounts of enthusiasm through encouragement and positive talks, and eventually help them turn themselves into remarkable products (designer Jony, tech developer/entrepreneur Jawed). From the outside, the role of catalytic parents is sometimes too hard to detect. But if you dig deeper, it becomes so naked that you can’t miss it.

Jawed’s parents were catalytic, for they had unwavering belief in their son’s abilities. When one of Naimul’s friends asked him about YouTube (it was still in its early days), he replied: “It’s very simple. It is going to be bought out by Google.” Naimul’s prediction did come true.

And what about Jony? “If they were walking down the street together, Michael might point out different types of street lamps in various locations and ask Jony why he thought they were different: how the light would fall and what weather conditions might affect the choice of their designs. They were constantly keeping up a conversation about the built environment and what made-objects were all around them and how they could be made better,” Ralph Tabberer, one of Michael’s colleagues who became Britain’s director general of schools, said.

At Christmas, Michael would give Jony a very personal present: complete access to his workshop. With no one else around, Jony could do anything he wanted with Michael’s support.

“My father had an incredible gift in terms of how you can make something yourself. His Christmas gift to me would be one day of his time in his college workshop, during the Christmas break when no one else was there, helping me make whatever I dreamed up.”

How many dads in Bangladesh will do these to take a child’s passion for design to the next level?

Christine attributed Jawed’s inquisitiveness to the senior Karims’ professions. “To develop new things and be aware of new things, this is our life. It’s not like Jawed just reads something – no, he’s fascinated. He thinks very, very deeply about it, and he is busy with it. He is obsessed with technology. When you are together with him, you see this as a gift, this fascination.” she said.

When you are fascinated by something, do your parents frown at you and say you’re wasting your time? Well, Christine considered such behaviour a ‘gift’ to Jawed and this led to YouTube, a gift to millions.

Naimul gave a splendid definition of catalytic behaviour: “Fundamentally, you cannot change a child. They come prepackaged with certain things. The best thing parents can do is encourage their child at a very early age. Let the child have confidence, instill ambition, then let the child do what he or she wants to do.”

Since my schooldays till today, I’ve heard numerous stories of people who have discovered what prepackaged things they came with but are constantly barred from chasing that package by their parents who act like inhibitors (negative catalysts that decelerate or prevent a reaction). Sadly, this, in an ugly way, confirms that a dreamer’s dream to do something like Jony Ive or Jawed Karim will benevolently remain a dream.

Although not all Bangladeshi parents are inhibitors, the number isn’t negligible. But we need more and more parents to stubbornly vote for the passion of their children. They say this is a thing of the West. I say for us, this will be the best. We ensure that and we’re set to write more about our own Jony Ives and Jawed Karims.

Mahmudul Islam is a journalist, freelance writer. 

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