The Path to Thinking Different
How a monkey-god guru and magical stories shaped Steve Jobs’ character — and legacy
In 1975 a young Steve Jobs, accompanied by his Reed College friend Dan Kottke, wandered barefoot and hungry through India’s dusty byways on a quest for enlightenment that many call a key to Steve’s later genius.
This journey — which left Steve lice-riddled, tonsured, and gaunt — centered on meeting a fabled guru, one Steve had first learned of in Be Here Now, a book used to guide acid trips and other voyages into deeper consciousness. Upon reaching India, Steve and Dan’s hopes were dashed: the guru, Neem Karoli Baba, had died well before their arrival.
“…left His body in 1973…(yet he) visited, helped, guided, fed, and called into service so many in the last forty years.
“Maharajii never went away.”
Maharajii, revered as the living form of the Hindu diety Hanuman, showed his love for humankind in sometimes-unconventional ways. In addition to the miracles of time travel, bilocation, all-knowingness, and conjuring that illustrate his history, he was known as a force of awakening. Through words, intention, and action, he jolted his followers out of the daze, the dream, of ordinary reality he asserted most people live in.
This wasn’t always a gentle process. His teaching was, per maharajii.com, either “very subtle or literally a knock on the head.”
A notable number of high-impact cultural forces emerged from his ashram, shaped by his teaching. Luminary epidemiolgist Larry Brilliant, known for his work fighting smallpox and blindness as well as his leadership of Google.org, spent a year on Maharajii’s compound, learning from him. Harvard psychologist Richard Alpert transformed himself into Baba Ram Dass — documenter of consciousness and author of Be Here Now — under his tutelage.
Other followers include spiritual teacher Bhagavan Das, musicians Krishna Das and Jai Uttal, composer David Newman, and — long after the guru’s death — actor Julia Roberts, who converted to Hinduism largely under the inspiration she felt from viewing his photo.
CHALLENGE THE ILLUSION
Although he never met the guru, Steve knew of him well before he reached India. Aside from the introduction through Be Here Now, he had learned much about him, and of mystical teachers of similar lineage, in the pivotal time he spent at and around Reed College starting in 1972.
Much of this learning came from books. In partnership with Dan Kottke, Steve read, discussed, and learned from some 20 convention-bucking fictional and non-fiction accounts at that time. Some were timeless, some modern. Some proposed disruptive new thinking on diet, culture, and politics. Some reinterpreted noteworthy historic figures as “astral beings” ushering in a new evolution of consciousness.
And some — most, actually — challenged the line between accepted reality and a magical world free of physical and mental limitations. This was a world where fables from ancient traditions and theories from quantum physics sprang colorfully to life, whisking travelers and objects through time and space, projecting thoughts from mind to mind.
It was a world where nothing was impossible.
With deep thanks to Daniel Kottke, I’ve shared that book list here. And here’s Dan on stage at Spring 2015's Dent Conference, reflecting on how these books shaped his life and Steve’s.
Awaken from the dream, these books whispered, and you are limitless. The world will be as you shape it. Challenge what you’ve learned, they shouted, and make things better. Don’t be like everyone else, they encouraged. Break free. Evolve. Become your highest potential. That is how you will change the world.
To coin a phrase, “think different.”
MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
To understand these books is to understand something that made Steve “Steve.” They showcase his insatiable curiosity and shed light on his hard-driving focus, his intuitive brilliance, his temper tantrums, and perhaps even his purported ability to distort reality. They may even bring some context to Steve’s fateful decision to face his illness without medical intervention, a choice that ultimately became the coda in a story we all know well.
These books insist, quietly but persistently and with myriad examples, that our life experience need not be limited to what others believe is real or what we should accept. They tell us to challenge what we’ve been taught and told and to listen to the voices of truth within our hearts, intuition, and the mysteries of the physical universe.
They talk of focus, undying commitment, mercenary ambition, the power of intention, and the unconventional ways that visionary disrupters change the world.
They declare that our only limitations are those we choose for ourselves, that shout that “breaking through” is within our grasp if only we believe and commit.
Discard the myth, they say, and your potential is limitless.
A life without limitation might have seemed to a young Steve like something attainable — something that he, the “chosen” son of devoted parents, the star student rewarded for his precocity, the adolescent encouraged by HP co-founder Bill Hewlett, the teenager who got away with high-stakes pranks (and real danger) and who explored alternate realities through LSD experiences, felt was within range, maybe even his birthright.
Certainly, long before he ever planned his search for a guru, a life “set apart” already suited him better than one more ordinary. He was “after something,” to reference Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (a book Steve read, and sometimes quoted, in his later life). There was something there and he sought to understand it. And that “something” seems to be what’s on the other side of the boundary line between conventional reality and extraordinary possibility.
His late-teens girlfriend — who would become the mother of his first child, Lisa — wrote of his singular prescience and sense of being set apart:
“Steve’s relationship with time and the future — and just about everything else — was different from that of nearly anyone I ever knew. I gradually became aware that he knew his destiny in big ways and that his intuition had given him very specific information about his life way before he would live it. He knew, for example, that he would be in a relationship with Joan Baez…that he would be a millionaire…that he would die in his early forties…
“When he became a billionaire but hadn’t died, I remember him repeating ‘I’m living on borrowed time,’ as if the still-young shaman was looking to carve out a bit more future for himself.”
Seeking answers, clarity, and perhaps some sign of affirmation, Steve went to India. He missed what he came for, but connected with something more: conviction in his path. As Larry Brilliant (who became a lifelong friend) reflects:
“…as he trekked around he came face-to-face with India’s huge duality. He encountered both very holy men, and at the same time, terrible intractable poverty, suffering on a scale unimaginable at home in California.
“He also talked to people who had big phantasmagorical solutions to those problems that were monumentally impractical. I think being in India helped make him be committed to finding practical solutions — less about theories, more about practice.”
In the dust and hunger, the dazzling landscapes and mind-bending poverty, through sickness and beauty and surprise, he found his guru: a commitment to purpose. In the year after he returned to Silicon Valley and in the early whirl of founding Apple, he began to convert that commitment into reality.
A LIFELONG JOURNEY
The rest, as we know, is history. And as we consider this history, studying and learning from the things that so set Steve apart (I highly recommend Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli to anyone interested in digging deeper), there’s something about Steve’s interest in the magical, the things on the other side of conventional reality, that seem worth a closer look.
These mystical touchpoints weren’t a romantic diversion from an acid-dropping dreamer at an early chapter in his idealistic life. They were pindrops, markers on a path, for an ambitious, irreverent, hungry, different kind of thinker who valued his internal voice — one that told him there was something “more” going on here — more than he did external approval.
Larry Brilliant shares that Steve died with pictures of Maharaji near his bedside. Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff, also a close friend, was one of several hundred people who received a carefully-boxed copy of Autobiography of a Yogi as the farewell gift Steve orchestrated for his private memorial service.
And all of us received the example, if not the gift, of the extraordinary impact that is possible when someone thinks beyond conventional limitation, questions the confines of reality, and dares to reach for magic.
Want more on how to “think different?” My new book, “The Happiness Hack,” offers actionable ways to break through routines and find more of what you’re seeking in life.