A Lifetime of Actualizing Emerging Futures
I’m sure many of you have heard of the critically acclaimed book, Steve Jobs, written by Walter Isaacson. Many of you have probably read it – or read excerpts from it. The book is based on more than 40 interviews with Jobs conducted over two years. Isaacson had unfettered access not only to Jobs – but to more than 100 others, including family members, friends and colleagues. In this process, Isaacson gained deep insight into what drove Jobs to revolutionize six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing. Jobs stands out as the ultimate icon of innovation, creativity and applied imagination. Isaacson himself uniquely understands the wider dimensions of Jobs’ capacity to discover and create: he is the CEO of Aspen Institute, one of America’s premier think tanks; and has been Chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time Magazine.
The book that had the most influence on Jobs’ life and way of discovery is Autobiography of a Yogi, written in 1946 by Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian master who taught world-wide about India’s ancient practices and philosophy and its tradition of meditation. He lived in the United States from 1920-1952. He lectured and taught on the East Coast; and in 1924 embarked on a cross-continental speaking tour. In 1950, Yogananda established a stunningly beautiful nature retreat in the heart of Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles, just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean. The 10-acre site has lush gardens and a natural spring-fed lake framed by natural hillsides. Every time I go to Los Angeles, I make it a point to visit there for at least ½ day if possible.
Jobs read Autobiography of a Yogi first as a teenager and re-read it during a trip to India in 1974. He read it once a year since that time; and asked that the book be given out at his memorial.
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Jobs became deeply influenced by Yogananda’s writings and the emphasis he placed on accessing intuitive knowledge through the practice of meditation. “I began to realize that an intuitive understanding and consciousness was more significant than abstract thinking and intellectual logical analysis.” (35) Isaacson noted that “[T]hroughout his life, he would seek to follow many of the basic precepts of Eastern religions, such as the emphasis on experiential prajna, wisdom or cognitive understanding that is intuitively experienced through concentration of the mind. Years later, sitting in his Palo Alto garden, he reflected on the lasting influence of his trip to India: ‘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. That’s had a big impact on my work.’”
“‘…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 is 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. Your mind just slows down and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before. It’s a discipline; you have to practice it.’” (48-49)
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Jobs is famously admired for his capacity to sense what is wanting to emerge in the world – what it is that the general public really wants and needs – long before it even knows it. This is what made Apple the most valuable company in the world by stock market valuation, and the most profitable in the technology industry. This is the critical capacity all discovers and successful entrepreneurs possess: the capacity to sense and actualize emerging futures.
Robert Greenleaf called foresight “the central ethic of leadership”, adding that “to see the unforeseeable” and “to know the unknowable” is the mark of a leader. I have been teaching the art of this quality of leadership for over 30 years now and have often been dismayed by the resistance of managers to lay aside their over-reliance on rational, analytic thinking in favor of learning to access their intuition, enabling them to “see things more clearly”, as Jobs put it.
But I feel the tide is shifting now. I believe we are approaching a tipping point, because managers and organizations are facing such extreme complexity and profound change, their traditional way of operating is insufficient. Stories of pioneers like Jobs’ reliance on contemplative practice as a portal to discovery and new knowledge are becoming more widely known. And with that, change is in the air.