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.

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Fahrenheit 451 – by Ray Bradbury

Recently I finished reading Fahrenheit 451, penned by the late Ray Bradbury. It was his breakout work of literature that garnered him critical praise and, I, like anyone who has ever read this book, would agree that it is a thought-provoking read. The plot is set in a dystopian future where Wall-to-Wall TV has enslaved people into a life of frivolity and ignorance while any dissenting source of ideas or information is wiped out of existence clean. In this dark and matrix-like slave world, books are actively sought after, not to procure and distribute the knowledge inside them but to destroy those books by burning them to ashes. Any book found will be burned, houses with books will be burned along with the books and anyone who resists will be dealt with fatal force. There is a special group of government employees called ‘firemen’ who, instead of putting out fires like the firemen of our times, pour gas and light up the books themselves. Our protagonist – Guy Montag – is one of those firemen, skin and hair laced with dark soot, teeth and nostrils with layers of ash deposits and clothes smelling like a mixture of gasoline and burnt rubber. One day he meets Clarisse, a precocious teenager who, with her blatant curiosity and innocence, puts him on a path of a revolutionary journey. It is a story of how censorship can lead to a world where even something as essential as books can be seen as weapons of public safety and how, with proper application of brute force and nuanced coercion and distractions, even a democratic society can be subverted into a tyrannical mass of mindless drones who willingly accept, even welcome, a life of hedonistic luxuries and illusionary lifestyles and in turn give up any type of freedom that ever mattered. It is a book about all those disillusioned people and the few who saw the light of knowledge and one man’s almost maniacal journey to find that light from enveloping darkness.

Beyond the engrossing story, the writing style of Mr.Bradbury is something of a lesson for anyone who likes to read or write. The words and sentences rhyme in certain ways and there are symbolic references that are not complex but sophisticated. The recurring themes change so much that you don’t notice that they are recurring until you realize the wide swath of metaphors employed by the author. The characters that speak, mold their souls with words that seem to have been in existence specifically for that meaning and although you have heard those words before, somehow they provoke something utterly and undeniably true in the reader’s mind. Montag starts off as a simple man of simple words, talking about sky and night and trains and the ‘great salamander’ but then as he grows, or rather morphs, into this person who is so unlike the Montag that existed before, his words change, growing ever more forceful, ever more deliberate and ever more rebellious. His boss Captain Beatty is a man of great speech and cunning logic with a wily mind to boot. Their conversations are some of the best sequences of words you will ever lay your eyes on.

In one particular instance the Captain informs Montag why books are not to be depended upon, like so:

The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They’re Caesar’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.’ Most of us can’t rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book. Don’t ask for guarantees. And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore

Then Montag meets some enlightened souls cast off into the wilderness by the society that found no use for, even felt threatened by, their intellect. One of them parts this useful piece of wisdom:

You’re afraid of making mistakes. Don’t be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people’s faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn

In the end, the take away from the story is to be human, which is to be curious and lively. The freedom we enjoy is fragile and it can be taken away from us swiftly by men who wield power lest we keep a constant look out. We should not fret our precious time in chasing materialistic fantasies or shallow trivia. The point of life is to not strive to gather information as factoids, but as lessons made of life-experiences that build character and cause actions. To make an impact in life, one must be prepared to make mistakes and learn, continuously. Despite being labelled as consumers, we are creators at our core so it is up to us to create the future we want to live.

Everyone must leave something in the room or left behind when he dies,[..]. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do,[..], so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching.


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The Opposite of Loneliness

Tomorrow, I’ll be getting on a plane and begin a week of something that is the completely opposite of what I do everyday. Here in Phoenix, time travels in terms of activities; not the kind of things that come to your mind when you hear the word activities. I speak to people outside and they say they indulge in activities like going to a bar or going to the mall or going to the movies. See, my activities include, sleeping, reading a book, listening to music and podcasts and playing video games. Occasionally, I cook something and then sometimes I talk to people over the phone and in case you had not noticed it yet, all of my activities exclude the need to get out of my apartment. My common list of activities also exclude any real need for other people, which sort of explains why the phone calls I make are too far and few in between. I head out to work and then come back to my lair and stay in. Like I said earlier, I will be getting on a plane tomorrow and heading to Denver. At Denver, over the next week, I will be surrounded by people. People who are close to me and, here, I will be staying in for work and then I will head out. The opposite of what I do everyday.

Although it feels terrible, loneliness is not a grave situation to be in, since, from my observation, it simply allows one to do things undisturbed. Frankly, to be occupied with something completely while being fully aware that one won’t be interrupted – I find it to be nurturing. But then there is a different kind of loneliness, which is surely grave in its manifestation. I read an essay called On Loneliness: Art, Life, and Fucking Human Beings that gave an in-depth and slightly unsettling account of things that people do when they find themselves enveloped with isolation. These are not the kind of separation from the population that one enjoys in a library, but the kind of loneliness that arises inevitably out of a sequence of certain life choices. The essay focuses on 5 books that deal with some aspect of this subject and at the very beginning – this is what got my attention in the first place – has a reference from David Foster Wallace. Here is a quote from that essay.

There are days when it seems to me that what it is to be a fucking human being is to be lonely; to be in this state of deep sadness and estrangement, and to know that there is something terribly wrong about this loneliness on the one hand, and on the other (in knowing the wrongness utterly), something also potentially beautiful.

The books listed in the essay deal with a range of emotions that people go through when they experience terrible isolation and they also focus on the coping mechanisms that they devise which are fascinating and seem to make them even more vulnerable. There is the book about Jeff Ragsdale, who felt so lonely, that he stuck up a few fliers with his phone number in New York City asking other people to call him to just talk about anything. Think about that for a second. Most of us consider our time to be too precious to even talk to people in our own lives and Jeff asked total strangers to call him up anytime of the day to just talk. As crazy it seems, it is also comforting to know, that he got so many calls and texts and emails that he was able to print a book about it. There is also this book about an author, Miranda July, who after getting stuck in a writer’s block, started interviewing random people she found on newspaper ads. Her story about how even though she found them fascinating they also made her feel creeped out, wanting to forcefully get away from them.
These real stories may seem like a drab on life as we expect it, lets face it it is not what is shown in any TV shows or movies, but for anyone who is willing to look beyond the average person or the normal adult life, these are examples of how people manage to pass the hour and days, weeks and years, one at a time. They simply find curious and creepy ways to make themselves vulnerable to get some degree of human contact which everyone craves for to a certain degree. This seems to be a universal aspiration at a primal level-to exist and to be known by others, to be really understood who they are. As often as it is the case, George Orwell was right when he said,

Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.


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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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Benjamin Franklin’s To-Do List

Deep from the vaults of Lists of Note, comes this peculiar set of virtues from one of the most famous founders of the USA. Benjamin Franklin is easily my favorite among the white wigged men who drafted the US constitution simply because of his intellectual capacity which often seems boundless. The pot-bellied inventor, who was also an accomplished scientist, musician, philosopher and a diplomat, was also an excellent wordsmith, which, no doubt, came in handy when he was editing the drafts of the original constitution. Long before he became the 18th century version of the Dos Equis guy, he was a young adult figuring out how to make himself better. At the age of 20, is when he came up with this list shown below which he published in his auto-biography. He decided to dedicate one week for each item in the list practicing and mastering them as he grew up to become a renowned statesman. Given his physical size, it is easy to guess that ‘Go to Gym’ was not part of his list but the things he had in them sure make it a powerful one.

1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

9. MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.

11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.


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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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Bannished Words Of 2011

Lake Superior University in Michigan has been doing an amazing work for the last 36 years by identifying and banishing the most overused and useless words from the English language. Of course, over the past three decades or so, they have cast away a ginormous number of words, like the word czar in 2010 and the word gitmo in 2007. We have to accept the fact that every year a whole slew of words get added to the English vocabulary and many of them do end up in print form. Soon those words become the new normal word for whatever they are describing and through over use, wrong usage and an utterance from Lady Gaga these words eventually loose any and all meaning they possessed in the beginning. Here is where, LSU [Lake Superior University] acts as the pet parent for all the word aficionados, if words can be considered as pets. You may ask , why do this anyway ? Well, words occupy our minds and our minds produce ideas which often have impact in real-life. If we want to win the future, in whatever sense you want to imagine it, we need to be able to think with the right words. In the out set these words seem innocent, but they are not. They are like little baby bumps which have the potential to turn into serious melanoma and removing these wasteful words is like zapping cancerous cells with radiation. You may feel bad for the people who came up with these words, even expect some kind of blow back from the political and financial clout some of them have. But we cannot be deterred. These words need to removed and kept at bay for the sake of humanity. We must keep our vigil and not allow these words to re-renter out word stream in any morphed form using some diabolical trickeration. This is a shared sacrifice we must all take part in if we hope to advance as a human race and win the future for our children. We should all take a moment to thank LSU for being our source of courage and enlightenment for this cause over the years and I would personally like to thank you in advance for your moral and possibly financial support for this endearing mission. Thank you.

Umm, also Man Cave.

Here is the list of words from 2011 banished by LSU

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I am on a blog-a-day-for-a-year crusade. Keep me motivated with your comments. Or tell me how I could have included man cave into the main paragraph.

Note: For some reason the you-tube video I posted for yesterday’s blog failed to show up properly. I have uploaded the Ball drop anf Fireworks at Times Square video again, and not it seems to be working. Yesterday’s blog has been updated accordingly.