The Zen of Intuition as Understood by Steve Jobs

I started reading Walter Isaacson‘s biography of Steve Job two days ago and, like many have said before, it is a fascinating story. There are so many interesting quotes from Jobs himself about his past experiences that seem to be more revealing for a man who was famously guarded about his personal life and philosophies. And so far, I have only reached page 49. People often talk about how intuitive Apple products are and how he had a powerful sense of  what is natural to people’s emotions. His affiliations to Hinduism and Zen Buddhism are well-known and they are often reflected in the aesthetically minimal products that he allowed to come out of Apple’s production lines. In his teenage years, young Steve travelled to India in search of a spiritual guru, only to find out upon his arrival that the guru he sought had died. Without money, the starving teenager walked to many remote spiritual places in the northern states of India, where he learned something about intuition.

“Coming back to America was, for me, much more of a cultural shock than going to India.  The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world.  Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion.  That’s had a big impact on my work.

Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic; it is learned and it is a great achievement of Western civilization. In the villages of India, they never learned it. They learned something else which is in some ways just as valuable, but in other ways is not. That’s the power of intuition and experiential wisdom.Coming back after seven months in Indian villages, I saw the craziness of the western world and its capacity for rational thought. If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is.  If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things – that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more.  Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment.  You see so much more than you could see before.  It’s a discipline; you have to practice it.

Zen has been a deep influence in my life ever since. At one point I was thinking of going to Japan and trying to get into the Eihei-Ji monastery but my spiritual advisor urged me to stay here. He said there is nothing over there that isn’t here, and he was right. I learned the truth of the Zen saying that if you are willing to travel around the world to meet a teacher, one will appear next door.” – Steve Jobs

It is a telling quote from a man who was so famously adamant about what is and what is not right for products that would be shipped to millions around the world. While so many companies strived to design for the lowest common denominator, Apple always had one choice to make – Did Steve Jobs like it ? Only with a clear understanding of his own mind and the confidence that his intuition will lead him to the right answers, he was able to command such compliance from his company men and deliver such massive successes. This explains his seemingly magical power: To be able to predict what his customers wanted before they knew what they wanted.


The Sofa has a Purpose – Steve Jobs

Has anyone read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs? I haven’t, but just by reading about it in bits and pieces on various blogs and websites I feel like I have all the salient points covered. More than direct quotes from the now best-selling book about the Apple co-founder, the insights and analysis given by commentators or the reviewers of the book seem to offer a more diverse account of what Mr.Jobs’ life and legacy looked like from the outsider’s perspective. By outsider, I mean people who were outside the circle of people who had direct access to Mr. Jobs’ mind.

The most recent review I read about the book was on The New Yorker magazine – free, online version, of course. It was a review from Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote Blink and Tipping Point, and takes a typical Gladwell-ian departure from the beaten path to paint a different picture of what Stave Jobs’ real genius was.

The most common attribute given to Mr.Jobs, when alive and upon his death, is ‘visionary’. He was able to see things far out into the future and was able to predict, often accurately, how an idea or a technology can grow and evolve. Many call him a creator and inventor, but Mr. Gladwell offers a different take. He compares him to Richard Roberts, the British man who created the automatic spinning mule. I looked up Wikipedia – a spinning mule is a mechanical device that could spin cotton and other fibers, a device which essentially revolutionized the fabric manufacturing business back in the seventies. Although Samuel Crompton, another Brit, was the one who invented the original spinning mule, the real impact of the machine did not land until Roberts came along and added his tweak – automating the machine so that entire factory floors can be run without human labor – which resulted in the first and true mass-production and industrialization of clothing. Mr.Gladwell posits, Steve Jobs was like Roberts, in that he did not invent things, he just made them magically better.

I was at a standup show a while back, where comedian Bill Burr dissed Steve Jobs for taking all credit for creating all the Apple products. This was just weeks after Mr.Jobs’ death and Mr.Burr’s point was that Jobs did not come up with all the ideas and the products that came out of Apple and that a lot of the high praise that was pouring in for him was undeserved. Of course, there was mild boos from the crowd – unsurprisingly, since most of them were holding an iPhone – but I remember thinking that Mr.Burr was very much right about that. Steve Jobs did not come up with the MegaSafe power cords on the Macs or the exquisite form-factor of the iPhone but what he did come up with was the key to the gate through which Apple products rolled out. He locked up the gate and until he liked what was shown to him by his engineers he wouldn’t open the gate. Like Gladwell says in his review, he tweaked things endlessly, and often without mercy or doubt, until there was nothing left but perfection as seen from Jobs’ eyes.

The biography has many anecdotes from Steve Jobs, including how he thought all the existing music players “sucked” before releasing the iPod, how awful he thought existing cell-phones were before coming out with the iPhone and how the iPad’s origin came from an engineer from Microsoft.

As Jobs tells Isaacson:
This guy badgered me about how Microsoft was going to completely change the world with this tablet PC software and eliminate all notebook computers…This dinner was like the tenth time he talked to me about it, and I was so sick of it that I came home and said, “Fuck this, let’s show him what a tablet can really be.”

Even more amusing and, somewhat personally comforting, was how it took eight years for Steve Jobs to get all the furniture in his house. I was honestly delighted and felt a bit assured when the book quotes Jobs’ asking ‘What is the purpose of a Sofa?’ He understood that an object, any object, has impact on everything surrounding it, including and especially humans, and it was important to make that object as impacting as one could think of. If it does not have an impact, then it has no purpose to exist. He was not going to invent the sofa, but, if he was going to use it, then he was going to make it infinitely better.

It takes a great deal of conviction and trust in one’s own taste to be that demanding. True, it can be a cause for much frustration and anguish, for himself and others, especially others – you should read about what he put through his doctors while on cancer treatment, complaining about the medical equipment design – but in the end the same thing that causes emotional toil also provides emotional rewards. That is the trade-off Steve Jobs made when it came to tweaking things around him. He was not going to settle for something less than what he thinks to be perfect, be it the title bar border of the Mac OS X window or the newly designed, soon-to-be built multi-billion dollar Apple headquarters in Cupertino. He was going to tweak them as if it was the last thing he ever did. Compared to the creative inventor story, I like this one better.

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A Rare Retraction

A few weeks ago, in January, I wrote a post about worker conditions at various factories in China that make Apple devices. One of the main catalysts for that post came from an episode of This American Life that aired on Jan 6 which excerpted the findings of Mike Daisy, a performer and self-professed Apple fan-boy, when he visited the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China. Mike Daisy adapted his trip to the Chinese factory into a one-man monologue which he performed throughout the country. The story he narrates is powerful, emotional and it raises a lot of questions about our own priorities and the compromises that we are willing to make. His monologue and his story got picked by many national media outlets and internet portals, including the New York Times and is being adapted into a Broadway show. That episode from This American Life became the most downloaded episode in TAL history.

This weekend, This American Life has taken that episode down. Visiting TAL’s site page for that episode will report that it has been retracted. Turns out Mike Daisy made up some of the things that he said he did. While he did visit the Foxconn factory and he did interview the workers, some of he specifics he mentions, like talking to a worker who confesses to him that she is 12 years old, or meeting a man whose hands shook uncontrollably due to n-hexane exposure were fabricated. The host of the show, Ira Glass, admitted that their fact-checking process slipped up and has apologized for, for what he calls, not living up to his station’s and Public Radio’s journalistic standards. For anyone who is aware of Ira Glass and the stuff that TAL produces, this is a rare occurrence. It is no accident that this was the first time in the show’s history when they had to issue a retraction.

But the follow up for this is what makes TAL an absolutely amazing show. In this week’s episode, Ira brought back Mike Daisy, and along with the show’s correspondent from China, Rob Schmitz, who, through his own investigation, revealed that Mike had lied , puts in an honest and deep conversation with him about the things Mike lied about and why he did it. The episode departs from the usual format – no segway music, zero humor and dead silence in the background – and it only enhances the uneasiness in which the men find themselves and the slow and painful noose that keeps tightening around Mike throughout the interview. I thought this particular exchange crystallized the awkwardness and frustration in the interview room.

Ira Glass: You understood that we wanted it to be completely accurate in the most traditional sense ?

Mike Daisy: Yes, I did.

Ira: You put us in the position of going out and vouching for the truth of what you were saying and all along in all of these ways you knew these things weren’t true. Did you ever stop and think ‘Ok, these things aren’t true’ and you have us vouching for their truth?

Mike: I did, I thought about that lot.

Ira: And, What did you think?

Mike: I felt really conflicted. I felt trapped.

Ira: Did you worry that I would say ‘Well, not enough of this is true in the traditional way that we need it to be verifiable in a way so that we could run it’ or did you worry that you would accidentally end up with two versions of the story and that would raise a question about what happened?

Mike: The later. I worried about the later a lot more.[long silence] After certain point, honestly…
[really long silence]

Ira: Wait, after a certain point what?

Mike: I started a sentence and my nerve failed me and I stopped talking and that’s what you saw. So..I’m working on it. It’s coming.

The whole interview is a show case on how powerful and raw an interview can be without being dramatic, insulting or pompous. It’s weird how an episode about the show’s possible failure can wake you up to why you liked it in the first place.

The episode can be streamed for free here.

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Conflict Free iDevice From Apple

It’s no secret that Apple is one of the most coveted brand names in the world. Their products are instantly recognizable and they transcend every day consumer electronics genre to create objects of artistic beauty and innovative spirit. Apple, already a giant among personal electronics makers, is still growing at blurring speed, raking in massive profits – this last quarter the company made more than $13 Billion in sales profit alone, one of the largest profit margins is corporate history. This is great news for everyone – stock holders see their value increase greatly and the company gets to build a massive cash hoard which can be used to buy emerging and exciting technologies and further fuel innovation. Best of all, consumers get even more inspiring and beautiful products at cheaper price.

And that last bit is where there is a slight annoyance. Actually its more of a moral obligation that if ignored amounts gross ignorance to every bit of ethical responsibility that is expected from a company as evidently esteemed as Apple. Many of us who follow Apple and tech industry closely have known for a while that all this cool and crafty devices are built on the backbones of minimum income workers toiling away in a factory at Shenzhen or Chengdu or some other distant impoverished village. But in recent times numerous reports have surfaced that, in some detail, paint a vile picture depicting an environment that is harsh and outright exploitative. The New York Times published an article today detailing how poor ventilation at a Foxconn factory caused an explosion due to excessive aluminum dust which killed two people and injured dozens. The same article also reports how the workers endure excruciatingly long working hours, inadequate health services and poor living conditions. Recently Public Radio’s This American Life focused an entire show on the experiences of a self-identified Apple fan boy’s visit to Foxconn and his meeting with the workers and labor rights activists in Shenzhen.  These articles and stories succeed in detailing the abuse and mistreatment that the workers experience to produce our coveted iWhatevers.

To be fair, many tech companies including Dell, HP, Motorola and Sony also engage in similar practices. Given the frantic pace at which these companies desire to produce, manufacture and sell their products the last thing that’s on their minds is worker’s welfare. But this is especially painful for Apple enthusiasts since we regard Apple at a much higher stature. Although Apple has taken a number of steps like yearly auditing and monitoring of working conditions, there is much to be improved. Surely the company that pays so much attention to detail for its products should also focus on the people who make those products. With their hands and bodies, battered and weak, these workers are pretty much subsidizing our seemingly insatiable craving for the latest and greatest and Apple has to make sure that the iPods and iPhones don’t become the vehicles of social abuse and violence like African conflict diamonds.

A current Apple executive said in one of the articles

“You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper..”
“And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.”

That is troubling and unnerving to say the least. I think I would be OK with paying a bit more so that workers can get a fair deal. Hopefully, we will see some real action from Apple.

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Design Principles From A Visionary

StumbleUpon is a wonderful tool to discover great articles, especially ones that are interesting and informative. Just today, I stumbled (wink) onto this slightly older story about the design principles that were at the core of Apple’s products. Since Steve Jobs‘ death, there has been a mountain of text written about his works and style, a lot of which are insights derived from his biography by Walter Isaacson called Steve Jobs. This article draws a picture of what were the underlying principles that governed Apple’s product design and, in some places, why were they so adamant about form over function.

Calling it ‘Impute’, Isaacson says, the core team in Apple believed that presentation went above all else. In a memo called “The Apple Marketing Philosophy” written and published in the beginning days of Apple, it was clearly laid out that even if they produce the best software with great features, it will not be received properly if it was not presented in a polished and creative fashion. The memo says, that an innovative presentation will impute quality in the minds of its users and anyone who has unboxed an Apple product can attest to that. Apparently, in the early days of Apple, Steve Jobs used to visit Macy’s stores to look at kitchen appliances to understand sleek design. He even told the design team to buy a microwave to study it. As a result, the products are beautiful and artistic.

Whether it was the iPhone or the Mac, every Apple device has user interface unique to Apple. The simplicity and intuitiveness these software brought to the industry were first of their kind and are one of the reasons why Apple was able to build a loyal customer base who stuck with the company even during its worst years. Once you get used to such simple and natural way of computing, its hard to even try anything less. Using real life metaphors Apple was able to develop software that made operations seem natural and straight forward.

These are just a few of the principles listed in the fastcodesign article. Today, these principles seem common place in the age of Foursquare and Tumblr, but to realize them far ahead of time and make them integral to his company was probably one of the most significant contribution from Steve Jobs. Above many other things, this truly makes him a visionary.

Original article from Fastcodesign.

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Who Owns The Scale For Greatness?

Did you read this article about Steve Jobs published in an Indian newspaper. I stumbled upon it on Facebook. The article is titled ‘Steve Jobs wasn’t great; he wasn’t even close’. If you admired Steve Jobs or if you are a fan of well thought out and logical sentences, you won’t like that article.

Click to Enlarge

It is not completely clear to me if the author was against all the glowing praises that Steve has received upon his demise or if he is angry that many other influential people who have changed lives of their fellow humans did not get a similar reception. He seems seriously upset that Steve is being put in the same place as Jonas Edward Salk, the man who invented the polio vaccine and did not patent it, simply because the world calls them both ‘great’.
I did not know that the word ‘great’ has a narrow definition and is strictly enforced. It took me a while to realize that the author did not really think about what he was writing.

He goes on about how Apple did not really invent anything, since smartphones, touchscreen, mp3 players and distributable app repositories already existed before Apple or Steve came along. That’s like saying Mario Puzo did not invent ‘The Godfather’ since all the words he used were already existing. The man has no idea how disruptive innovation works.

Perhaps the most telling segment of the article was how he refutes the idea that Steve invented the personal computer. His argument is that Steve Jobs did not invent the personal computer. Apple invented the personal computer. Steve was simply the head of the company that invented it. The exact quote from the article is ‘Any man heading the company that has a product to sell can do what [Steve Jobs] did’.

This has to be the dumbest piece of argument I have heard in a long time. He is actually saying that leadership has nothing to do with results. Its a bit funny in a sick way that the guy, who is totally ignorant about what leadership means, is commenting about the greatness of the one of the most successful CEOs of the past two decades or so.

Clearly, the article was targeted to grab attention and generate reactions. I usually don’t give too much notice to bullshit articles like this, but what got me all riled up, besides the fact that this guy got to put his fatheaded sentences in a newspaper, is the audacity with which he refutes why someone is not great. I agree that one has the right to express their opinion, even if they are just pointless gibberish, but the sheer balls of this guy to pass judgement on who is and is not great is astonishing. I mostly support non-violence, but I might relax the rule for this fellow.

I always thought you earn greatness. If you are great, people will say so. If someone disagrees, they disagree; that’s it. But that does not mean the person’s greatness is not true. Many people hate Gandhi, and many think Sachin is not that great of a player. But that does not diminish in any way the influence that these men brought and the impact that they have delivered to people’s lives.

Steve Jobs may not be the greatest man ever lived; for sure. But in many ways, he is great. He was a visionary, an artist and a true salesman. He was not great because he gave away to charities, but he was great in the way he humanized machines. He showed the world of MBAs and focus groups that the human element is what makes a great product. Above all, he showed intuition and passion are the best skills one would ever need. Two things that can make anyone great.

To quote one of his best phrases “Stay foolish; Stay hungry”.

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