The Zen of Steve Jobs

( 5 )


An illustrated depiction of Steve Jobs' friendship with Zen Buddhist Kobun Chino Otogawa and the impact it had on Jobs' career

Apple cofounder Steve Jobs (1955-2011) had such an enormous impact on so many people that his life often took on aspects of myth. But much of his success was due to collaboration with designers, engineers and thinkers. The Zen of Steve Jobs tells the story of Jobs' relationship with one such person: Kobun Chino Otogawa....

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An illustrated depiction of Steve Jobs' friendship with Zen Buddhist Kobun Chino Otogawa and the impact it had on Jobs' career

Apple cofounder Steve Jobs (1955-2011) had such an enormous impact on so many people that his life often took on aspects of myth. But much of his success was due to collaboration with designers, engineers and thinkers. The Zen of Steve Jobs tells the story of Jobs' relationship with one such person: Kobun Chino Otogawa.

Kobun was a Zen Buddhist priest who emigrated to the U.S. from Japan in the early 1970s. He was an innovator, lacked appreciation for rules and was passionate about art and design. Kobun was to Buddhism as Jobs was to the computer business: a renegade and maverick. It wasn't long before the two became friends—a relationship that was not built to last.

This graphic book is a reimagining of that friendship. The story moves back and forward in time, from the 1970s to 2011, but centers on the period after Jobs' exile from Apple in 1985 when he took up intensive study with Kobun. Their time together was integral to the big leaps that Apple took later on with its product design and business strategy.

Told using stripped down dialogue and bold calligraphic panels, The Zen of Steve Jobs explores how Jobs might have honed his design aesthetic via Eastern religion before choosing to identify only what he needs and leave the rest behind.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
At one point in this graphic novel biography, the titular icon states his design philosophy in a succinct phrase: “What you leave out will shape the whole.” This also describes the philosophy driving this book. While not a conventional biography, this book uses a nonlinear mosaic structure to give the reader glimpses into Jobs’s relationship with Zen roshi Kobun Chino Otogawa, whom he met following his ouster from Apple. Melby starts with the near collapse of Apple Computers in 1985 and then jumps around a time line that covers decades. Each scene connects loosely to the next, sometimes showing the origins of ideas Jobs would later employ in redesigning Mac, sometimes connecting only through the relationship between the priest and his student. Melby portrays Jobs as an aggressive egotist as much as an innovator, and particularly later in the book, he is shown to be careless with his friends. The artwork uses shadow and color to indicate form in a way that is deliberately reminiscent of early iPod commercials. A fascinating section in the back matter details the artists’ process in finding that aesthetic. Overall, the drawings and the sparseness of the narrative work together to shape a fine story, one perhaps too large to be told in one volume.(Jan.)
Library Journal
This innovative graphic novel unveils a less publicized part of Jobs: his flirtation with Zen Buddhism and friendship with Kobun Chino Otogawa, as iconoclastic a Zen priest as Jobs was a computer guru—and how Jobs' tinge of Zenitude affected Apple products. Drawing on extensive research, Melby reimagines their relationship as a push-pull between action and letting go, between substance and space, between perfection and mistakes. The final image depicts Jobs crowing "Perfect" at his own calligraphy of the kanji character for "mistake." Kobun's final mistake was attending to meditation rather than to his young daughter, which led to their joint drowning. The art is fluid, two-color washes, abetted by insightful extras that supply context. VERDICT Drawing on two famous figures, Melby raises many of the Important Questions: how to live one's life? What is substance and what is background, and how can they dance together? What will be left as legacy? An intriguing readalike for teen and adult readers of Isaacson's bestselling Jobs biography plus other geeks and geek-curious.—M.C.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781118295267
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 1/3/2012
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 80
  • Product dimensions: 6.80 (w) x 9.80 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Caleb Melby is a Forbes contributor and a native of Mankato,Minnesota, a town known as the site of the nation's largest masshanging. It is otherwise a very nice place. Prior to writing TheZen of Steve Jobs, Caleb wrote for the Chicago Tribuneand the Times of South Africa. He currently lives in avariety of places with no wives and no children.

Since its founding in 1917, Forbes has been providinginsights and information that ensure the success of those who arededicated to the spirit of free enterprise. Its flagshippublications, Forbes and Forbes Asia, reach a worldwide audience ofmore than 6 million readers and its website,—theleading business site on the Web—attracts an audience thataverages more than 21 million people per month. Forbes alsopublishes ForbesLife magazine and licensed editions in morethan 18 countries around the world.

JESS3 is a world-renowned creative agency thatspecializes in data visualization. Through the mastery ofillustration, information design, animation, and engineering, JESS3brings beauty to complex concepts, issues, and data sets. Inaddition to working with Forbes on The Zen of Steve Jobs, JESS3 isdedicated to the craft of storytelling for vanguard brands thatinclude Google, Nike, Intel, MTV, Twitter, Samsung, Facebook, andNASA. JESS3 also has a dedicated labs division, which funds andlaunches its own products and initiatives.

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Interviews & Essays

The Zen of Steve Jobs Q&A

1. Why did you choose to focus on this one period in Steve's life and his relationship with Kobun Chino Otogawa?

All considered, a full-length biography was out of the question. Jesse Thomas of Jess3 had talked with Forbes managing editor Bruce Upbin back in the spring of 2011 shortly before I arrived in New York City, wanting to do a collaborative story that looked at the development of Steve's design aesthetic. That focus really got at the heart of both Steve and Apple, without requiring a more comprehensive longitudinal narrative.

Steve, throughout his life, dabbled in numerous modes of self-improvement and self-actualization. He experimented with drugs and, for a time, he only ate fruit, believing that doing so would keep him from sweating (talk about devotion to perfection). Zen Buddhism stuck with Steve the longest, and Kobun was Steve's mentor, in both Buddhism and design. The Buddhist priest was so influential in Steve's life during the mid-80s that Steve named him NeXT's spiritual guru. But what really got me was the strong parallels in their worldviews - they are both rule-breakers and innovators. The idea of telling those stories in tandem really excited me.

2. What's the most interesting piece of information you found out during the research for this story?

The overarching narrative about perfection was, and still is, the most perplexing theme I encountered while researching this. I wanted to know what the "Buddhist" perspective on perfection was. Now, to talk about "Buddhism" is kind of like talking about "Christianity." There are numerous sects with their own schools of thought and particular traditions. I'd ask my sources: "What does Buddhism say about perfection?" They all laughed at me. I guess I'm kind of revealing my doctrinal Catholic roots, but I expected a clear-cut answer. There wasn't one.

Steve believed in perfection. Kobun didn't. He believed in self-betterment, sure, but he also believed in achieving peace within oneself and with one's surroundings. Perfectionists are never at peace. In popular culture, we like to think of Buddhist priests as being these absolutely serene and wise individuals. But Kobun's life was filled with tumult. In the end, that's what drives these two men apart. One of them wants to be the perfect innovator making perfect products on a massive scale. The other is working to achieve peace with himself, his family and his surroundings. When Steve starts kicking ass again in the 90s, he and Kobun no longer see eye-to-eye. Perfection is the nail that drives that splinter.

3. What didn't make the cut that you really wish you could have found room for?

I've mentioned before that I drew inspiration from Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson when writing this. I wanted to focus on the relationship between Steve and Kobun, like Watterson did with Calvin and Hobbes, which meant actively excluding scenes that would introduce characters that would bog down the development of that relationship. So a lot of scenes didn't fit. Laurene Powell was incredibly important to Steve, and Kobun officiated the couple's marriage. But I couldn't introduce Laurene only to make her disappear. Their marriage is one of the best-documented public interactions between Steve and Kobun, but I had to let it go.

4. Why tell this story through a graphic depiction rather than in words?

The written style of the book is kind of epigrammatic. It mirrors the style of the koan, a storytelling and learning device used largely by Rinzai Zen Buddhists (Kobun was a Soto Zen Buddhist himself). It's pithy. This style fits better with Steve's actual mode of conversation than it does Kobun's. Steve is a dramatic, direct speaker. Kobun was wise beyond measure, but he was also something of a rambling lecturer. Had I not edited down those talks, they would have crowded the beautiful illustrations that Jess3 created. But there were wonderful kernels at the center of Kobun's lectures. So that was the point, to get to the essence of Steve and Kobun in such a way that the story could largely be told through images. In the end, this is an inherently visual story. The meditating, the calligraphy, the aging are all innately visual. It's also a book about design. You can write about design, or you can illustrate design. This is a story that was meant to be told graphically.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2013

    Agree! Avoid!

    Dont buy on an ereader! It's worthless! You cant read the words!

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  • Posted May 30, 2012

    Overview “The Zen of Steve Jobs” is a graphic novel

    “The Zen of Steve Jobs” is a graphic novel by author Caleb Melby that is a must read of any Steve Jobs, or Apple fan. It’s short at only 60 pages and manages to fit in a lot of details about the life of Steve jobs during the mid-1980s when he was booted out of Apple and started another new technology company called NeXT. The novel focuses on Jobs’ interactions and relationship with a Zen Buddhist priest named Kobun Chino Otogawa. The novel is a re-imagining of the friendship between Jobs and Kobun. Like Jobs was to technology, Kobun was a rebel and nonconformist to Buddhism. This was the main trait that formed their decades-long relationship. Although the book is set in the period after Jobs left Apple and began intensive studying with Kobun, there are frequent flash-forwards in time all the way up to 2011. Melby uses this style of writing to show how Jobs applied what he learned from Kobun in the product design and business strategy of Apple which is responsible for making the company as successful as it is today.

    Critique of content
    “The Zen of Steve Jobs” gave me a completely new new perspective towards religions. In the past, I refused to care about religions because I did not like the idea of praying to a being that did not exist or no longer does. Reading this graphic novel made me realize that Zen Buddhism is actually very unique and its teachings can help you develop in life in a very special way. I particularly like how the author used flash-forwards to different times of Steve Jobs’ life where he applied the teachings that are talked about in the book.

    Learnings about Zen Buddhism
    Zen Buddhism focuses on the essence of understanding the meaning of life directly, without the distractions of logic or language. In the graphic novel “The Zen of Steve Jobs”, Kobun teaches Jobs the importance of meditation and focus. Meditation teaches focus and the ability to understand and appreciate simplicity and life itself. Practicing Zen Buddhism can help you do discover yourself and appreciate yourself, rather than to spend the effort to devote your life to a mythical or historical being like other religions. As someone who was exposed to Zen Buddhism for the first time after reading this novel, I can truly appreciate the uniqueness of this practice and it has dramatically helped me understand where Steve Jobs got his motive to do what he did in his life.

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  • Posted January 29, 2012

    Buy the hard copy; I couldn't view any of the text on my iPad.

    Being this is a cartoon style book, I couldn't read any of the text on my iPad - even when enlarging it. I'm curious to hear if others are having this problem. I'd like to get a refund, but haven't had the time to check into it yet.

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  • Posted January 14, 2012

    Highly Recommend

    This a lighthearted look at appreciating the space around us and at the same time profound thought provoking with its simplicity, will lighten your thoughts and bring a smile to your face. Well done!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2011



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