Steve Jobs: Connecting the Dots

By Peter Hata

Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Computer, passed away on October 5, 2011 and, as we witnessed on practically every news broadcast, there were global expressions of sadness and naturally, gratitude for all his cool inventions. In a LA Times feature article, there were even quotes from Apple faithful in Beijing. For example, an Elementary school teacher named Xiuqing Yang said, “Not everything from America is great, but everything from Apple is great.” And of course, outside Apple stores, many people placed candles and flowers. This kind of sentiment gets our attention since CEOs don’t normally receive such an outpouring of grief and gratitude when they pass away.

But as great as Steve’s technological accomplishments were, what I’d like to discuss is the well-known Commencement Address he gave to the 2005 graduating class at Stanford University. First of all, I think it was an unusual commencement address. Steve, after all, was a very, very successful CEO—Apple is the number one brand globally, ahead of Coca Cola, Microsoft, Google, IBM, and McDonalds. You also may have heard that, in terms of cash on hand, Apple has more than the U.S. Government—well, nowadays, that might not be so impressive!

But he didn’t really talk so much about being successful in business; his speech consisted of three short stories and was really a kind of Dharma talk. Jobs was probably not a practicing Buddhist but he and his wife were married in 1991 by a Soto Zen monk named Kobun Chino Otogawa, and Otogawa-sensei was known to be Steve’s good friend and spiritual mentor. In any case, his stories were each powerful illustrations of the core teachings of Buddhism.

His first story was called “connecting the dots,” and basically, it’s about how he dropped out of Reed College in Oregon. However, in speaking to the Stanford graduating class, he of course was not advocating dropping out but rather, the importance of “dropping in” on one’s interests. As he puts it, “After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out.” Another factor that led to his dropping out was that Reed, being a very expensive private school, was draining his parent’s limited finances. Steve states that, “It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting…I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.”

Jobs then talked about how Reed College was known for having maybe the best calligraphy instruction in the country. He sat in on a calligraphy class and learned about what makes great typography. Of calligraphy, he said, “It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.”

Interestingly, 10 years later, when the first Macintosh computer was being designed, Steve’s calligraphy experience was put into the first Mac. “It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally-spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.” He goes on to say, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

This story is interesting for two Buddhist themes it contains. One of course is what Steve called “connecting the dots,” which I think illustrates the key Buddhist teaching known as dependent co-arising. All things, including who we are, arise dependently due to myriad causes and conditions, not independently as we think. Nothing arises completely of its own power. In his story, Steve recognized that the creation of the Macintosh’s highly influential typographic innovation was not due only to his inventiveness, but due to a complex web of factors such as his parent’s inability to afford his tuition, Reed College’s unusual offering of a calligraphy class and probably, the instructor of that class, who left a lasting impression on the young Jobs.

I think the other Buddhist theme that this story references is the idea of trust. As Steve says, “You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” Isn’t it unusual for a CEO to be talking not about trusting a market analysis or financial spreadsheet, but about trusting some reality or truth entirely beyond his control? I think Steve’s understanding of how the “dots connect” reflects an appreciation of this truth of dependent co-arising—that there is an interdependent reality that is much greater than the self—and thus, I think his story in some ways expresses the Buddhist attitude of “bowing,” of realizing our ego-self doesn’t possess the kind of control it thinks it has. When Steve says, “You have to trust in something,” that “something” is ultimately a power that is beyond our self-power.

Jobs calls his second story “love and loss,” and as you’d expect, the “love interest” here is not a woman, but computers. Steve explained how this love created the Macintosh and led to the growth of Apple into a multi-billion dollar company. But then when a disagreement arose with the Apple Board of directors regarding the company’s direction, Steve got fired. He says, “At the age of 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating. I really didn’t know what to do for a few months…I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me—I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.”

“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” He explains how he started a company named NeXT (from which the Macintosh’s very successful OS X was later derived), and Pixar. Pixar, of course, created Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Cars, Finding Nemo, etc. And as it turned out, Apple without Jobs had been floundering and, about 10 years after they had fired him, Apple bought NeXT and with that acquisition, Steve Jobs returned to Apple. The rest is history; after Jobs returned to Apple, he launched one mega-success after another.

Steve analyzes the turn of events this way: “I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love…Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”

There is a very important Buddhist theme here, which Steve alludes to when he states, “The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything.” I think we can assume that Apple’s Board meetings must have at times been quite contentious and Steve seems to admit that his firing was not entirely unjustified. But most importantly, in his Stanford address, he says, “It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it.“ When things don’t go our way, the tendency of our ego is to blame it all on other people. But Steve accepted his responsibility. And actually, as Buddhists, don’t’ we also need to see ourselves as “patients” in need of life’s “medicine?” Because of seeing his true self, being fired turned into a positive thing because it freed him to enter a new creative period of his life, to have the “lightness of being a beginner again.”

He realized he still loved his life’s work, or maybe we can say, it was because he was fired that he was able to clearly see what he was really meant to do. Often, the most devastating, negative experiences can also lead to new energy and creativity. This expresses the twofold working of impermanence; only when the self is negated do life’s unlimited possibilities unfold. This is experiencing a new life. Re-discovering his love gave Steve the energy to start all over again.

And of course, Jobs’ advice, “Don’t settle,” is priceless wisdom for all young people; you must discover what it is you truly love doing. The reason is that, if you truly love what you do, you will be a lifelong seeker and student. Even if you should reach a point of being considered an “expert,” you continue to possess the attitude of a student. And, as is often stated in the field of education, “The best teachers are also the best students.”

Jobs’ third story is probably his most well-known. It concerns death. As most of you know, in 2004, a year before he gave his Stanford address, he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, one of the most deadly forms of cancer. His doctor told him he had three to six months to live. As Steve says, “My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for ‘prepare to die.’ It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months…It means to say your goodbyes.”

But later that day, his doctors did a biopsy and discovered he had a rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. Steve did have the surgery, and at the time of this speech, he thought he was cured. As it turned out however, the cancer came back because, in the years following this speech, not only did it become apparent he was not in perfect health—he began to look very thin in his public appearances at Apple events—it also seems the apparent cause of death was related to his earlier cancer. But nonetheless, having come so close to dying, his words to the Stanford graduating class regarding his brush with death were very powerful and to the point: ”No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.“

Here, Jobs is of course sharing the Buddhist teaching of impermanence. Impermanence is a negative teaching; this is the truth of constant change that negates our ego’s desire to resist aging, illness and death. As Steve said, “No one wants to die.” However, impermanence is also ultimately a positive teaching if we can accept this truth and live awakened to it. If we can accept this truth, the Buddhist teaching of impermanence becomes a wonderful gift, because it enables us to truly appreciate and enjoy each moment of our lives, and live life to the fullest.

I think all three of Steve’s stories relate in one way or another to core teachings in Buddhism. Thus, “connecting the dots” really means understanding we do not live separate lives but are actually all part of an interdependently co-arisen, ever-changing reality. And that, in order for this dynamic and creative truth to energize our lives, we often need to be “hit in the head with a brick.”

Because he had a realistic view of death, I hope that Steve Jobs found it easier to accept his own death towards the end. He lived life fully, and therefore, he did not have to say, “If only I had created this or that.” He could calmly let go. In his short time after returning to Apple, his creativity was amazing: the iMac, iPod, iTunes, MacBook, iPhone, and iPad. Essentially, I think Steve lived a life awake to the truth of his mortality. Living with that truth energized his creativity.

But as great as all his technological achievements at Apple were, I wonder what his lasting legacy will be, say, a generation, or two, or three from now. Personally, given the truth of impermanence, I think it’s possible that eventually Apple will be replaced by a new young startup company that will create the next “Big Thing.” That’s just the way it goes. But I also think it’s possible that, long after Apple Computer ceases to exist, Steve Jobs will be remembered for his Stanford Commencement Address. In this talk he shared the Buddha-dharma itself.

The Buddha-dharma is the truth that is eternally working to bring us to buddhahood, to live awakened to the impermanent and interdependent nature of all life. All we have to do is listen to it; all we have to do is, “connect the dots.”

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