Meditations on The Zen of Steve Jobs


Image courtesy of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

The Zen of Steve Jobs is a “re-imagining” of the relationship between Steve Jobs and Kobun Chino Otogawa around the period of Jobs’s departure from Apple in 1985. The book tells the story of their relationship in pen and ink drawings and dialogue that is eloquently simple. This is a relationship that Jobs cultivated on and off for twenty years of his life. No one can truly know the private reflections that were shared between Jobs and Otogawa during their long friendship. Research for the book was done by interviewing several Buddhists who studied with Otogawa and practiced meditation with Jobs. The re-characterization that Melby proposes provides an intriguing look into the possible influences Zen may have had on influencing Apple’s corporate philosophy and design during the 1980s and 1990s.

What informed Jobs’s corporate blueprint for Apple? I would call it “holistic mindfulness,” what we would call, more mundanely in the West, an “attention to detail” in all Apple products on and outside the motherboard. This is most likely what Jobs took from kinshin around the gardens of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and sitting zazen with Otogawa in the zendo. What is “holistic mindfulness”? It’s awareness of ma, awareness of the negative space around a drawing or object, as well as the space the object occupies from your consummate awareness of what that object is. To use a musical metaphor, Artur Schnabel wrote on his piano playing: “But the pauses between the notes — ah, that is where the art resides.” Jobs had the consummate awareness of the relationship of the note and the pause, of the object and the space around it. Consider the clean facade of the iPod’s control panel and the space around it.

From a historical standpoint, credit for Apple’s success as an industrial design powerhouse is shared by the legacy of the design ideation of Dieter Rams and his powerful influence on Jonathan Ive, Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple. But the impetus in pushing the designs through to completion clearly came from Jobs, who pushed to the greatest heights the novel idea that the user experience had to guide the practical direction of industrial design. Steve Silberman expressed the idea in an October 2011 post about Jobs, that Jobs encouraged user mindfulness, that people use Macs like extensions of themselves and allow their creative impulses to take flight.

In the end, there is Steve Jobs the man, and Steve Jobs the leader of the Cult of Mac. This book provides a refreshing guess into Jobs the reflector. What may have transpired in the creative strains that intertwined Jobs’s life and relationships allows us to see a more accessible, and a more fallible person. He was not a perfect man. But his ongoing search for the essence of perfection in the design of Apple products has changed our understanding of their form and function, that, fused together, can help us live more productive lives. According to the recent F.B.I. file on Jobs hat has come to light, Jobs had both both ‘integrity’ and ‘suspect’ moral character. Now there’s an unsolvable koan. He was human — just like the rest of us. And, regardless of recent discussion of what “kind” of a Buddhist Jobs was, he approached its deceptive simplicity with a dash of brio, and gave Buddhism a try. As for his private Zen practice, it’s frankly nobody else’s business.

The Zen of Steve Jobs is a thoroughly readable account of what might have transpired in one of Jobs’s most intellectually foundational relationships. The book itself is loosely conceived as a koan — a zen puzzle — that, when solved, leads to an important lesson. Pen and ink images, shadows and ink strokes mingle with dialogue to tell the story. The technique is not only visually appealing, but also has elements of the dramatic and emotional at times. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and recommend it to anyone as a catalyst for deeper study of Zen Buddhist influences on Steve Jobs thought and work.

The Zen of Steve Jobs was released by Wiley and Sons last month, written by Caleb Melby and illustrated by Jess3.

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