Was Jobs reflecting on his life while gazing at his wife, children, and the space beyond them? Was he experiencing some mystical vision of heaven, a place he told biographer Walter Isaacson that he hoped existed? Or were his last words simply the final grateful ruminations of a man many see as a creative genius?
The Apple co-founder’s philosophy and spirituality have intrigued his devotees for years, and the greatest detail into his belief system to date is found in Isaacson’s recently published authorized biography of Jobs.
The book shows new parts of Jobs’s spiritual side — a worldview that Isaacson suggests affected everything from the design of his products to his thoughts of the afterlife.
Among Isaacson’s findings: Traces of the Eastern religions have made it into the pockets of millions of Westerners thanks to the “deep influence” of Zen Buddhism in the life of the late Steve Jobs.
“Steve is very much Zen . . . You see it in his whole approach of stark, minimalist aesthetics, intense focus,” said Jobs’s longtime friend Daniel Kottke in the biography.
Among the Zen influences may have been the theme of “focus and simplicity” that contributed to the CEO’s success.
Jobs became interested in Eastern religions at Reed College among a post-sixties milieu of freedom and creativity. “I came of age at a magical time,” said Jobs in the biography. Shortly after dropping out of college, he followed the footsteps of some friends — and the Beatles, of whom he was a fan — and took a trip to India to find enlightenment.
He returned from the trip a Buddhist with an appreciation for intuition and simplicity, both of which would influence his decisions at Apple. “The most Zen of all simplicities was Jobs’s decree, which astonished his colleagues, that the iPod would not have an on-off switch,” wrote Isaacson in the biography.
A Zen view of focus informed Jobs’s strategy of saying “no” to many things so that he could lavish attention on a few. It echoes the Buddhist idea of emptiness, or the idea “that a thing is defined not just by what it is, but what it is not,” suggests Jeff Yang, columnist on Asian culture. “In order to make the iPod really easy to use” Isaacson records Jobs saying, “we needed to limit what the device itself would do.”
“I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things,” Jobs told Businessweek in 2004.
The mantra of “simplify,” Isaacson wrote, was about getting to the essence of a product. “Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service,” Jobs told Fortune Magazine in 2000.
After he was diagnosed with cancer, it was Jobs’s views on the afterlife that he said served as a major motivator. In his oft-quoted speech to Stanford University students in 2005 he said, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”
While he rejected his Christian upbringing at age 13, according to Isaacson’s biography, he later professed uncertainty as to whether or not God exists. “He admitted that, as he faced death, he might be overestimating the odds out of a desire to believe in an afterlife,” wrote Isaacson.
“I’m about fifty-fifty on believing in God,” Isaacson records Jobs saying. “I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures.”