Christopher J. Winfree, MD, FAANS
Department of Neurological Surgery, Columbia University
New York, NY
Neurosurgeons devote their careers to hours of patient care, much cocooned in the operating room. During national neurosurgical annual meetings, speakers are invited from outside the field to stimulate thought and discussion among the audience. So when it was announced that Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computer Inc., was the Walter E. Dandy Orator of the 2016 Congress of Neurological Surgeons Annual Meeting in San Diego, the response was uniformly positive. Woz, as he likes to be known, strode confidently across the stage wearing a black sports coat, jeans, and, of course, sneakers. Wearing the equivalent of formal wear for computer-types, Mr. Wozniak received enthusiastic applause. The session departed from the usual lecture format in that former CNS president Douglas S. Kondziolka MD, FAANS, and then CNS president, Russell R. Lonser, MD, FAANS, interviewed Mr. Wozniak onstage. The format was both different and refreshing, as the week was otherwise filled with a plethora of traditional lectures. Mr. Wozniak has gained cult status for many of us who are Apple Macintosh users. Even those who do not use Apple Macintosh computers, appreciate the contribution to our culture, technology and everyday lives he has made.
Over the course of thirty minutes, we were entertained with anecdotes from his amazing and successful journey. He exuded palpable enthusiasm as he spoke. For example, recollections of early efforts using spare parts to build his first computers are filled with child-like giddiness that most of us experience early in our careers. Sadly, many of us lose that, but Woz still has it, in abundance. Watching him tell these stories is like watching my four-year-old daughter walk into Sesame Place for the first time. The sense of pure wonderment is something we usually see in children, not adults later in their careers.
One of the striking and special concepts we witnessed was the impact of staying true to one’s dreams. Mr. Wozniak was asked by one of the interviewers if he had changed over his decades-long career. His response, “No, not at all.” Typically, when somebody says this, I immediately think they are either deluded or just lying. How can success, wealth, time and fame not change a person? His words and demeanor, however, convinced me he hadn’t changed at all. Perhaps by maintaining his curiosity and wonderment with the world, he has essentially stayed true to himself. Had this interview occurred thirty years ago, it is entirely possible that his answers would have been almost identical.
His current work is equally impressive. One could easily imagine a middle-aged tech wizard, especially one challenged by interpersonal relations, becoming insulating from society after accruing significant wealth. Instead, Mr. Wozniak’s life mission now is ensuring his local schools are outfitted with state-of-the-art computers, software and other equipment to maximally enhance education. Not only does he still love to learn, tinker and figure things out, but he is providing the next generation of students the opportunity to do the same.
Hearing Steve Wozniak speak was entertaining and rewarding. He revealed a life so well-lived, so rich in experiences, so replete with wonderment and so devoid of any jadedness or bitterness that often accompanies experience. Mr. Wozniak helped launch the company that eventually revolutionized communication technology with smartphones, which has changed so much for so many. On a personal level, those who had the pleasure to hear the 2016 Walter Dandy Oration were enriched and inspired by the continued enthusiasm, generosity and awe of this great innovator. It is easy to get lost in the daily grind of all the things that compete for our attention to our patients. Mr. Wozniak’s talk served as a reminder that great things can come from retaining and perhaps stubbornly maintaining a youthful enthusiasm and drive for discovery that keeps inspiring everyone around us.