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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