It has been seven years since the launch of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. And seven years since I first read the biography in 2011. Yet, it remains one of those gems that have left me with a reverence for the subjects of biographies–Jobs, in this case. I’m sure many people will feel the same after reading Isaacson’s captivating portrayal of Steve Jobs, his rise to the top, his ‘reality distortion field’, heroism, temper, and other tales from his life as a businessman. But my review of Steve Jobs is not about his strides in the business world. It’s about his spiritual quest in India as a 19-year-old–something few know about.
Isaacson takes readers into Jobs’ pilgrimage in 1974, when the future Apple founder had quit his first job to follow his calling in the East. Earlier, Jobs had heard from his friends about the uplifting journey they had taken in India and the solace they had found in Zen. At that point of time, Jobs knew very little of the country or the Buddhist religion. But that didn’t stop him from packing his backpack and setting out on a thousand-mile journey. “For me it was a serious search,” Steve told Isaacson years later during the discussions for the book. “I’d been turned on to the idea of enlightenment and trying to figure out who I was and how I fit into things.”
Jobs, with a ‘hippie’ mindset, landed in New Delhi in April of 1974. The book reveals that after spending the first few days in New Delhi, Jobs went to Haridwar, on the banks of Ganges, where he attended the Kumbh Mela. It was the first time he saw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gathered in one place, taking ritual dips in the holy river to achieve salvation. Jobs, however, explained to Isaacson that he wasn’t looking for salvation, but answers about life and inner peace, which eventually led him to travel farther north.
From Haridwar, Jobs went to Nainital and Manali to embrace a part of India’s culture and visit other holy places. He often roamed barefoot, with little money left in his pockets, Isaacson discloses in this biography. He lived in temples, dormitories, and sometimes with families in villages. His time with the natives helped him understand certain differences between the East and the West. For one, he told Isaacson, “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion.”
Jobs was right. Intuition has been mankind’s instinct since his primitive days; it’s what helped him detect and evade dangers, and ensure his own survival. Perhaps, this was what Jobs realised too. In the years to come, he relied heavily on his intuition in engineering and designing Apple products.
While Jobs learnt to be intuitive in life, he also practised mindfulness. “If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things–that’s when your intuition starts to blossom, and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more,” Jobs explained to Isaacson in his Palo Alto garden. Indeed, Jobs was hailed by his close associates for his ability to be self-aware and focussed in the present moment. In fact, it even earned him the respect of his rival and friend Bill Gates.
Jobs’ spiritual journey concluded after seven months in India. But, in that time, he learnt several lessons that stayed with him throughout his life. Isaacson has done a commendable job in bringing out this side of Steve Jobs’ story for everyone. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson will not be the last book on Jobs’ life. But it will be the only biography to narrate Steve Jobs’ life in his own words, the way he saw it with his own eyes.