The Leading Edge—Steve Jobs

Vol. 27 No. 1

Ms. Ristino is a senior counsel with the Office of the General Counsel, USDA in Washington, D.C., and a member of the editorial board of Natural Resources & Environment. The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not the USDA’s.

Last fall, I found myself in the Georgetown Barnes & Noble checkout line clutching a copy of Walter Isaacson’s new biography Steve Jobs. I’ve never been an Apple-head; I didn’t wait with bated breath for Apple’s annual product unveiling. So, why did I detour on the way home to pick up the tome? I think it is because, in my own professional what’s-next-soul-searching, I had come to appreciate the fact that in midlife Steve Jobs had produced his best work. His products are a resounding rebuttal to the age-old question of whether volcanic creativity is the province of youth. His middle life spoke to me as I was at a crossroads both professional and personal, when the kids are deep into grade school and a person is deep into their forties. And, it just so happens, environmental law and I are about the same age.

His (very) difficult personality traits aside, what I find most interesting about Jobs’ story is that his work was an evolving refinement of his aesthetic: the drive for intuitive, seamless products—a marriage of engineering and art. His design sense was rooted in Japanese-Zen simplicity. He burned this into the DNA of Apple. Apple’s products are deceptively simple. But, in fact, each screw and user experience is labored over. The seeds of these ideas were in his youth. As he explained in his now famous 2005 Stanford commencement address, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” The experiences that seemed random at the time (the calligraphy course he took at Reed College after dropping out are the reason we have font choices in Macs and PCs) would come together at various times to inform his ideas and vision for Apple and its products.

There may be two kinds of genius: the kind of genius that births radical, creating a wholly new idea (Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, for example). The other kind is the genius of combining existing ideas in a new way, leading to new perspectives, solutions, and products. By his own estimation, Jobs fell into the latter category.

I think most people want to express appreciation for being able to take advantage of the work that’s been done by others before us. I didn’t invent the language or mathematics I use. I make little of my own food, none of my own clothes. Everything I do depends on other members of our species and the shoulders we stand on. And a lot of us want to contribute something back to our species and to add something to the flow.

(Issacson, p. 570)

The genius of middle age may be that it has the fertile potential for innovations that serve society by recombining knowledge made possible by cumulative, random experience. So, leaps forward need not be rooted in the next big idea but in a reordering or optimization of existing ideas.

And this, I think, is the path forward for environmental law as well. That leads us to the birth of this “Leading Edge” column, which will explore how ideas from multiple disciplines may be utilized to progress the practice of environmental law.

Have a comment or a column suggestion? Please email Laurie Ristino at


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