What Zen Taught Silicon Valley (And Steve Jobs) About Innovation

Several new books explore the relationship between Silicon Valley innovation and Eastern philosophy. So can ancient principles help spark modern breakthroughs?

Was the revolutionary circular scroll wheel on the Apple iPod inspired by kinhin, the Zen practice of walking in circles while meditating? There’s no hard evidence, but a new book, The Zen of Steve Jobs, suggests a connection. The illustrated and partly fictionalized book, which focuses on the real-life relationship between the late Apple co-founder and a Zen Buddhist priest, juxtaposes the lessons Jobs learned from his Zen master with design breakthroughs in his products. In so doing, the book picks up and expands on a theme also discussed in Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Jobs: that the great innovator was, himself, greatly influenced by Zen principles and practices.

Which raises a question that may seem crude, aggressively Western, and not at all Zen: Can the rest of us boost our innovation mojo by applying some of these centuries-old principles to modern-day challenges?

It’s an idea that’s in the ether these days. A recently published title from Wiley, Zennovation proffers "an East-West approach to business success." There’s also a popular blog called Valley Zen that explores the synergy between Silicon Valley innovation and Zen philosophy. And according to Les Kaye, a Zen abbot based in the Valley, there’s no shortage of innovative types coming to his Kannon Do Zen Meditation Center in Mountain View—including folks from Google and Apple, along with entrepreneurs and the odd venture capitalist.

That’s not to suggest that Valley denizens who are embracing Zen are doing so for career-advancement purposes—and if they are, says Zen master Kaye, they’re missing the whole point of Zen and are probably destined to be disappointed in the results. But Kaye does say that Zen meditation can "help the innovation process by calming the mind and letting insights come through." And he acknowledges that some of the principles of Zen align nicely with the challenges faced by would-be innovators.

The "Question Everything" Mindset

Start, for instance, with the Zen emphasis on questioning. In my own research looking at how fundamental questioning can lead to innovation, I’ve found that some of the most successful innovators adopt a "question everything" mindset that could be compared to the Zen notion of shoshin, or "beginner’s mind."

This approach encourages one to step back, look at challenges from a fresh (or naïve) perspective and ask the most basic questions as a means of getting beyond fixed assumptions and conventional wisdom. According to Randy Komisar, a Zen practitioner who’s also a partner with the Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Zen practice "is about stripping away one’s biases, prejudices, blindness. It is about realizing the essence of things."

The author and Stanford University professor Bob Sutton notes that at innovation hotspots such as Ideo, the "beginner’s mind" approach plays an important role, as does the Zen notion of bringing together masters and neophytes. "At places where intense innovation happens, they often combine people who know too little and people who know too much," Sutton says. The goal is to foster tension "between massive expertise and the ability to see with fresh eyes."

Sutton also notes that there are interesting parallels between some of the principles of design thinking, as practiced at innovation-led companies and taught at Stanford’s, and various Zen principles and practices. For instance, "the Zen emphasis on listening is very design thinking-y," Sutton notes. And Zen practitioners are taught to remain attentive and "mindful," even during life’s mundane moments—an approach that also helps design researchers and ethnographers gather observations and insights on everyday behavior and needs. Even the iterative process of prototyping has echoes of the Zen idea that one learns and advances by "small steps."

Conceptualizing and Collaborating

Jesse Thomas, who runs the visualization firm Jess3—which did the illustrations for The Zen of Steve Jobs—thinks that Zen can help designers and innovators to see things from more of an outside, user-based perspective. "Conceptualizing and prototyping the path of a user’s experience takes a lot of concentration," Thomas says. "The Zen approach can help focus on the vision for the experience of the customer."

Zen practice also encourages working and thinking together in groups. "It can help individuals to collaborate better, by teaching them how to listen and ask better questions within a group discussion," says Kaye.

And if all that weren’t enough, there are the fundamental design ideals associated with Zen—including, among others, kanso (simplicity) and koko (austerity). Matthew E. May, author of the book The Shibumi Strategy, has noted that those ideals tend to yield "elegant simplicity" and "effortless effectiveness," in stark contrast to the cluttered over-design often found in the West.

To see these Zen design ideals embodied, just look at any Apple product. Whether or not Jobs’s iPod scroll was inspired by a Zen stroll, clearly his overall design sensibility was influenced by Zen ideals of austerity and refinement. But it went beyond the individual products: Jobs told Isaacson and others that Zen helped him stay highly focused and free of distraction. According to Kaye, Jobs also believed that the people working for him could benefit by learning Zen practices.

So does this mean we should all assume the lotus position in hopes of being able to envision the next breakthrough gadget? Not surprisingly, Zen practitioners tend to be bemused if not appalled by this suggestion.

"I think it would be a mistake for people to think, ‘If I do Zen practice, I’ll become more creative,’" Kaye says. "It’s not a magic pill. Zen does not create intellectual muscle."

Strivers Not Wanted

Moreover, Kaye’s center cites "no striving" as a guiding Zen principle; if someone aims to be more innovative or productive through Zen practice, it would be seen as inappropriate and out of step with the overriding philosophy. As the spiritually aware venture capitalist Komisar explains, "Zen practice does not concern itself with outputs like creativity or inventiveness." To the question of, "Is a mind informed by Zen practice "better" at listening, questioning, seeing?" Komisar’s answer is, "In Zen there is no ‘better.’"

As to whether a Zen mindset can provide an edge in business, Komisar points out that Zen is about "no self. No ego. This is a very big disadvantage in business."

Of course, it has been observed that Steve Jobs managed to take from Zen what he needed—all the while maintaining a healthy sense of self and ego, not to mention ruthless competitive instincts. The Zen teacher Kaye, who once studied with Jobs at the same Zen center in the Valley, says: "Steve had an unusual relationship with Zen. He got the artistic side of it but not the Buddhist side—the art, but not the heart."

So is Kaye worried that Zen’s rising popularity in innovation circles might produce more "art without heart" practitioners like Jobs? "I guess that is a concern of mine," he says. "Of course, if they were to end up creating stuff that’s useful, as Steve did, what the heck? Not everyone can be a saint."

[Images: Olga Lyubkina, Olga Lyubkina, and sculpies via Shutterstock]

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  • Pete

    "Was the revolutionary circular scroll wheel on the Apple iPod inspired by kinhin, the Zen practice of walking in circles while meditating?"

    No. Jony Ive based it on the Braun T3 Radio, designed by Dieter Rams.

  • Sharifah Raudhah AlQudsy

    In celebration of moulding and nurturing the skill of better questions! Good perspective and much valued take on the huge concept of 'Questions". Thanks Warren! I'm certainly on the crusade for better questioning in life, at work for women:)

  • Garth2112

    I'm pretty sure that the scroll wheel was attributed to Phil Schiller.  Issacson's bio and several mac sites on the web confirm that.

    Zen and design certainly have correlates.  But that's true of most creative endeavors and zen.  The zen mind is all over the work of artists, especially writers.  I've been reading about and studying creative thinking for close to 20 years.  It's rare that I don't notice the zen mindset or some aspect of the tenets of zen in those works.  Poetry as well and poetic sensibility show up quite frequently in these works.  Natalie Goldberg's "Writing Down the Bones" is one that comes to mind for it's overt discussion of zen's influence.  

    The benefits of the beginner's play directly into the sort of unbridled ideation and nonjudgmental creative production that benefits designers and artists.  I don't really see this as revelatory, but I do appreciate the author's analysis of other aspects, such as questioning.

  • ironick17

    Love the "art but not the heart" comment.

    One zen aesthetic that I didn't see reflected in Steve Jobs (at least not in his biography) was wabi-sabi--the embrace of the impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete. To me, this is the heart of Zen, or at least Zen aesthetics.

    Objects that have wabi-sabi are old, worn, natural, cracked, utilitarian, improvised. They exhibit a kind of ugly beauty.The Apple I (which was little more than a circuit board) was definitely wabi-sabi, but nothing that came out of Apple after that had much wabi-sabi. I think of the whole open source, hacker, maker, DIY, ethos (which gave birth to Apple BTW) as being more wabi-sabi.

  • Mike Lee

    In Isaacson's book, he talks about Steve's inspiration coming partly from Braun's products. This site shows some interesting parallels between what Apple's released next to what Braun has released. www.startupsthisishowdesignwor...

    So it's possible the iPod's scroll wheel came from Zen, or it came from Braun.

    I don't feel it's useful to mention the overly mentioned ideas of Zen + Steve Jobs. The man was terrific in many ways. Many. But simplistic and 'human' design doesn't have to start with the oft-used "Zen" buzzword. And it didn't appear there were many 'Zen' ways in which Jobs went about things.   

  • Maxine Shapiro

    Zen invites me to honor the process - the present act of introducing something new. The act is the goal.  I guarantee that those who come to 'sit' to get to a goal, will be frustrated.  I was for years.  Those who stay will receive more rewards than they ever anticipated.  I suspect that if Jobs were had more time in this life...   

  • Tim Anderson

    I suspect there will be many people who know little about Steve Jobs and even less about Zen Buddhism will be in a rush to publish something. I suspect a bad mash-up for the Jobs biography, "Innovators Dilemma" and "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" will be hitting the shelves.

    What has been happening for many years now, is there seems to be some sense of  an American notion of what Zen is, and marketeers love to run with it. It is as if on one hand folks "know" but yet on the other hand they (we?) really don't know.Sue, Zen may have aspects to the practice which cater to simplicity; however, on the other hand simplicity is a notion that spans all sorts of areas. I was an analytical scientist for several years, and scientists tend to use the word 'parsimonious' to describe simple hypotheses. Then you have Occam's Razor and the K.I.S.S. principle. My point is I don't think Zen somehow has a monopoly on 'simple' concepts. Likewise, perhaps Kinhin inspired Jobs to create the circular scroll wheel. Or perhaps sometimes a circle is just a circle.

  • Ginny Whitelaw

    I don't know that Jobs missed the heart of Zen.  Neither is it the case that Zen makes one ego-free. The question is whether we use our ego or is it using us?
    Ginny Whitelaw, author of The Zen Leader   

  • Lala

    I think Jobs was just straight forward in his thoughts and communication. Doesn't mean he did what he did 'art without heart'.

  • AWOL Company

    All this talk of Zen and Design, and no mention of the singular best Zen/Design book ever published, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? That is the ONLY design book I recommend to budding designers...should be mandatory curriculum in D-schools...

  • Peter Hill

    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance is more about a philosophical approach to all life, rather than just design. Admittedly, it was mandatory reading within my Industrial Design school buddies, but not many were able to translate it into reality of  product design.

  • $5291076

    Circular scroll wheel might also be inspired by Enso (symbolizing enlightenment).  

    As for Jobs taking what he needed from Zen, yes.  We all do that, really.  Many Zen teachers are real difficult people.  It's when Zen takes from us that the practice ripens.
    BTW, walking meditation is kinhin.

  • Cygnus Buccinator

     "Many zen teachers are real difficult people......"  Rare wisdom within you playtpus to notice this.  Purest Zen Teacher: the one in the room who perturbs its energy without anybody knowing from whence it came.

  • Phil

    Jonathan Ive ought to have a bit more recognition than he does.  Without him, Job's would have a had an enormous problem communicating his intent and ideas.  In Jonathan Ives,  Jobs had someone who "got" what Job's was trying to say and do and who also subscribed to the same philosophy of design.

    Ives' approach to design is certainly not without heart.  Imagine what an iPad would look like if one of our typical tract home developers had done the design!  The trashy, fake Tuscany style-du-jour rubbish that builders convince homeowners is "design" actually has nothing at all to do with design.  It is nothing more than decorating by applying features in badly-proportioned sculpt-by-numbers game.  There is no heart in that at all - even though developers and builders will try to convince buyers they never listen to otherwise.

  • Mike

    Jonathan Ives receives plenty of credit, in fact, he has been given the honor of taking all the credit on behalf of his design team. 

    The design dna at apple was born in the 1980's and I believe Frog design was a big part of teaching German design to Jobs and company, so you could say there may be a lack of credit given to Frog and za Germans.

  • Nicolas Nelson

    Thanks Phil, well said. I hope Co.DESIGN can do a followup on Jonathan Ive and his design philosophy. It would be interesting with his views on working with someone like Jobs on someone who thinks outside the square and the approach you need to work with someone like this. Designers need these skills. Mike Monteiro  gave a great talk on this at the recent Typo Design talks in SF last week - What Clients Don’t Know (… And Why It’s Your Fault). How Jonathan Ive was able to get out of Steves head, work with his abrasive personality and then design it with heart would be a fascinating read.   

  • R. Kramer

    Phil- couldn't agree more
    with your distaste/diatribe/ informed opine
    for what passes as
    "architecture"- in the suburbs across The USA,
    which, more accurately is anything but......
    more like =
    "we-don't need-no-stinkin'-Architect-other-than-to get-these-plans-stamped",
    kinda design!

  • Cameron

    Amen. It's sad to see Ive's probable involvement in such innovations are not considered, on this web site no less!

  • Radudesign

    A bit off topic but that rant is one of the best verbal deconstructions of de facto "architecture" I have ever seen. I couldn't agree more.