The passing of Steve Jobs has produced an avalanche of tributes, most concerning his profound contributions to consumer technology. No doubt the man’s innovations — from personal computing to desktop publishing to portable music listening — impacted lives around the globe. But it was his view of his own life and its impermanence that I find the most interesting.
Since the news of Jobs’ death was announced, my Facebook wall has been inundated with tributes and anecdotes about the genius behind Apple. One persistent post includes a snippet of Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford:
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. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Steve Jobs was a Zen Buddhist. An early pilgrimage to India may have been the catalyst for his spiritual investigations, which he apparently continued even as he scaled the peaks of enterprise. Jobs didn’t advertise his Buddhism, but it very clearly informed his views of death (and life). I can only hope his practice brought him a modicum of peace as he transitioned out of this existence.
I am not going to sanctify Steve Jobs as some kind of technological Bodhisattva. He was a capitalist, first and foremost, and one who had an interesting relationship to control. Yet what we imagine Steve Jobs to be — aesthetic wizard or industrial authoritarian — are merely our own projections. If there is anything to be observed from his creations, it is an emphasis on cutting through the clutter. This is a uniquely Zen approach to Buddhism, which in turn can only be described as the technology of non-attachment. Interesting, then, that Jobs’ legacy is built on creating desire for mechanical devices. How to reconcile these attributes?
We will never know what it is like to have been Steve Jobs. But we can admire his views on impermanence, which seem to have motivated him to not take a single moment for granted. Perhaps his work was merely ego-fulfillment. Maybe it reflected a deep understanding of form and function within multifaceted manifestation. The important thing is to see the above as ephemeral states within an equally ephemeral continuum. And it seems as though he did.
I want you all to read a story in The New Yorker, called “How to Be Good,” which concerns the work of moral philosopher Derek Parfit. You will need a subscription to read the full article, or you can pay for one-time access. I think it’s worth it, particularly for those inclined to self-awareness but averse to mysticism. Heavy stuff, but necessary if we are to overcome the fundamental neurosis that affects our species, namely an awareness of mortality and a need to find a purpose behind our existence. Because we all die. How can we figure out how to live?
I write this post on a Mac laptop, with two mobile Apple devices next to me and a desktop iMac in the other room. I suppose that is a testament to how Steve Jobs’ innovations have become a part of my life. But that’s just window dressing. I prefer to think that he understood something more fundamental about what connects us: impermanence. No one knows but Steve, and he’s not talking. I suppose he already has.