I was surprised and saddened last month when I was informed over dinner one evening that Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs had just died. He was a hero of mine, a man who had a tremendous influence on technology, business, engineering, design... even culture.
Over a period of three decades, Jobs launched a series of products that transformed entire industries. Consider, for instance:
* The Apple II, the first personal computer that wasn't just for hobbyists.
* The Macintosh, which jump-started the home computer industry and popularized the graphical user interface.
* "Toy Story" and other Pixar blockbusters, which revolutionized digital animation.
* The iPod, which changed the way we store and listen to music.
* The iTunes store, which transformed the way we buy music and rescued the recording industry from rampant online piracy.
* The iPhone, which turned mobile phones into digital assistants with music, video, photography and web browsing.
* The iPad, which launched the tablet computing revolution.
* The iCloud, which demoted the computer from its central role in managing content and allowed devices to sync seamlessly.
* And let's not forget those ever-crowded Apple stores (where business is so good no one bothers picking up the phone when it rings), which reinvented the role of a store in defining a brand.
It's a shock to consider that a single individual oversaw the creation of so many different technologies that affect the way we work and play.
Yet Jobs, a visionary thinker with a mercurial temperament, was not an easy man to understand. Biographer Walter Isaacson says he was powerfully shaped as a young man by his efforts to practice the tenets of Zen. Jobs even traveled to Asia to immerse himself in the philosophy and, over time, it became deeply ingrained in his personality.
Zen is not well understood in the West. (I personally don't use the term unless I'm describing my favorite linguine with white clam sauce.) But after reading Isaacson's biography, I looked into it a little further.
"Zen is not religion," writes Laurence Boldt. "If it means anything, it means to be awake, to bring full presence and consciousness to who you are and what you do. It comes from a deep yearning to express your inborn talents, gifts and abilities... Zen allows you to experience your everyday life as art by bringing to it the qualities of the artist - inspiration and absorption, creativity and resourcefulness, play and delight."
You could see this in Jobs' whole approach of stark, minimalist aesthetics and intense focus. While the competition churned out dull beige boxes each year, Apple introduced computers that looked like everything from translucent cubes to candy-colored space-pods.
"Zen is the integration of the spiritual and the mundane," said Japanese essayist D.T. Suzuki, "an attempt to see the sacred in the ordinary. It is what turns one's humdrum life, a life of monotonous, uninspiring commonplaces, into one of art, full of genuine inner creativity."
This was apparent in Jobs' legendary fetish for design excellence. In an early version of the Macintosh, for instance, he upbraided a designer because the circuit board was "ugly."
"But it's inside the machine," replied the engineer. "No one will see it. No one will know."
"We'll know," said Jobs. The circuit board was changed.
Jobs believed that beauty is the by-product of doing things well or, in his words, "insanely great." That could only result from aspiring to perfection.
"Think different" was, for a time, Apples' short, ungrammatical slogan. That, too, is the essence of the Zen mindset. The idea is to attain wisdom and enlightenment through an immediate, unreflected grasp of reality.
Most of us imagine our grasp of reality is just fine, thank you. But that may be part of the problem. As Christian apologist C.S. Lewis wrote, "Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them - never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?"
Zen encourages you to let go of preconceptions, to stop cherishing opinions. See the world as it is, not as you imagine it. Only then can you begin to change it... or at least change yourself.
Zen also encourages you to take responsibility for your life, to be here now, to live in the moment - and to develop a more skillful perspective. You have a choice. You can see your life as a struggle to survive, to get and to spend... or as an opportunity for a creative performance. Steve Jobs chose the latter path - and became an icon of imagination and invention.
Of course, Jobs is just one in a long line of prominent Westerners who have embraced the Zen point of view. Other diverse sages include Meister Eckhart, Carl Jung, Erich Fromm, Robert Pirsig, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, John Cage and Yogi Berra. (Perhaps especially Yogi Berra, who is famous for his Zen-like utterances, such as "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.")
The Zen approach says, "Don't waste your time in idle complaint; roll up your sleeves and get to work."
Steve Jobs did that - and the world beat a path to his door. He and his team created objects of excellence and beauty that made Apple an international symbol of quality and innovation and - with its $360-billion market cap - the most successful company in the world.
Alexander Green is the Investment Director of The Oxford Club. The Oxford Club Communique, whose portfolio he directs, is ranked among the top investment letters in the nation for 10-year performance by the independent Hulbert Investment Digest. Alex is the author of three national best sellers including, most recently, Beyond Wealth: The Road Map to a Rich Life. He has been featured on Oprah & Friends, CNBC, National Public Radio (NPR), Fox News and "The O'Reilly Factor," and has been profiled by The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Forbes, and Kiplinger's Personal Finance, among others. He currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia and Winter Springs, Florida with his wife Karen and their children Hannah and David.