Steve Jobs and the Meaning of Work

December 11, 2012

I was in the Bay Area when Steve Jobs died. When I found out it had happened, I was sitting outside a Stanford ETL (Entrepreneurial Thought Leadership) session watching the simulcast with others and checking out Twitter updates on my laptop. A couple minutes later, during the Q&A, one of the participants in the session raised his hand and shared the news with the crowd.

The next few weeks were filled with Apple Store decorations, people visiting Steve’s house in Palo Alto and leaving flowers, etc. One of my friends invited me to an event at the Kannon Do Zen Meditation Center in Mountain View that was described this way: ”Tomorrow night, the Dharma talk will be about Steve Jobs’ Zen practice at Haiku Zendo, forerunner to Kannon Do, and how his practice influenced the Apple products.”

I’ve copied out my notes from the talk below – I wanted to share them because I found the emphasis on the concept of “What is work?” to be quite interesting from one of the most famous and sucessful luminaries of our time.

  • Steve Jobs studied zen and it influenced Apple products. His marriage was a zen ceremony in Yosemite
  • He went to Haiku Zen Do (where Kannon Do started) after his trip to India (which he found disappointing but influenced his life – he returned Buddhist) and developed a close student-teacher relationship with Kobun Chino (who was related somehow to Suzuki Roshi who wrote the book Bible for Zen people) and went for long walks with him at night through the Los Altos streets.
  • When he was 20, Steve asked the speaker (a Zen priest who works at IBM) after returning from India, “What is work? What is the meaning of work? Does it have any value?” Steve wanted to find the fundamental nature of life and his place in it. They met repeatedly to explore the question of work. While other hippies wouldn’t take his advice because he worked at IBM, Steve was interested to learn from him, about his interest in expressing spirituality at work, how spirituality could exist in a competitive work environment, and about his dual career
  • Jobs left Haiku Zen Do after 1 year and then devoted himself to the tech world.
  • The speaker started a program called Meditation@Work which he tried to bring to workplaces in Silicon Valley – his steadiest client was Apple, where he met Steve for lunch. Steve liked the idea of bringing meditation to Apple and said he occasionally still practiced zen stuff but was still influenced by the teachings/practice. The speaker suggested a meditation room in Apple and Steve got very excited – they spent a few hours looking at rooms. The idea never got off the ground though (everyone was too busy), but it showed that Steve was passionate about zen.
  • Steve was in tears when Kobun died.
  • The speaker thought that Steve practiced Buddhism through design and function of products
  • Apple products integrated Buddhist concepts such as simplicity, imagination, creativity, and uncompromising quality. He wanted products to be more than 1 feature better the competition – to be the best they could be. He viewed users not as buyers but as people whose lives could be changed. He broke limits and thought outside the box with his products.
  • He answered the question of how to bring spirituality into the workplace, after asking it 20 years younger
  • Steve Jobs said in his 2005 speech, “You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path, and that will make all the difference.” – telling listeners to devote themselves to something outside themselves – something bigger
  • His statement referring to his time auditing classes, “I was like a beginner – it was one of the most creative periods of my life,” could be seen as a reference to zen beginner’s mind
  • Demonstrating the Buddhist lessons of endurance, transience and no self, he said “…almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
  • We have become empowered by the devices. They may distract us from the human in front of us. If we are not careful, products can make us less spiritual. Steve Jobs gave us gifts – it’s up to us to use them wisely, use them in ways that don’t diminish our personal relationships (don’t let their novelty/power overcome us) – this is a new collective challenge for us
  • What is work? There’s no such thing – it’s a misunderstanding. It should be an activity that you’re passionate about, that you’d do without hesitation. In an enlightened life, it should be the same for any activity. Activities should not be viewed as positive or negative but as “this is what I’m doing now”. Choosing to do it makes it work. Instead say to yourself, “I don’t care if it’s this or that, it’s just what I’m doing”
  • Steve also asked the speaker about education and made a big donation to build a new Kannan Do centre while he was running NeXT, showing that he was still affectionate about the practice even when he was no longer doing it
  • He had a “glimpse” in India and the year after.
  • Zen eliminates the unnecessary and just leaves what is important. Just like Apple products/packaging/software
  • A rumor is that Kobun told him not to be ordained but instead to go into high tech
  • Most people don’t get lucky enough to find what they love, so they just choose the best thing they can. Steve said he was lucky to find what he loves. Find what you love and put your whole heart into it. This also applies to making the most of your spiritual practice.

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