The Spiritual Similarities Between Steve Jobs and George Harrison

The day Steve Jobs died — Oct. 5 — coincided with HBO’s broadcast of the first part of Martin Scorsese’s documentary on the life of George Harrison, “Living In The Material World.” That conjunction of events brought to mind some interesting parallels between the lives of Jobs and Harrison. I think we can learn something of value about their life journeys — their ups and downs, their losses and transitions during their middle years and… how they handled the prospect of death.

Both moved through and beyond their young adult years along different yet similar paths. Their examples highlight the importance of deciding what you choose to live and work for; and how your choices impact the world, as you grow towards becoming a full adult.

Knowing what it means to become an adult is especially crucial once you’ve entered your 30s and the decades beyond. That’s when the core challenge of life looms large: Discovering and acting upon what has lasting value, as opposed to embracing impermanent, superficial or illusory goals. That is, awakening to what really matters to you, and then pursuing it with passion, conviction and focus.

Both Jobs and Harrison appear to have discovered what was of true value and importance to them. I want to emphasize that both were human. Neither was free of flaws or imperfections; none of us are. But their individual life paths share some themes that are visible among the most mature and productive adults today. A major one is that both men evolved away from materialism and self-interest as their primary goals; and towards a purpose larger than themselves. Each began to strip away and let go of false and distracting goals. That, in turn, opened the way for each to pursue his vision with creative energy and sense of purpose.

That theme is important to life in the interconnected world of today and tomorrow (a world that Jobs’ Apple products contributed to, as did Harrison and the Beatles through their music). Today, more are recoiling and suffering from the excess of self-serving, isolated self-interest, themes that have long-defined life “success.” We recoil because our global civilization is so interdependent and interconnected, now. That reality calls for individual and societal actions that support the public good. Those are actions that serve and sustain well-being, security and health for all people; actions that shepherd the resources of the planet that we and future generations need to sustain life.

Both Jobs and Harrison seemed to “get” that, in responding to turning points in their lives. For Jobs it was getting fired from Apple. He called it, “… the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

From that experience he realized that a life devoted to material success wasn’t going to bring fulfillment. He said, “The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work… love what you do., Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me… Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.”

The turning point for George Harrison, who died in 2001 after a struggle with cancer and a brain tumor, was the impact of his early fame and material success. “I wanted to be successful, not famous,” he said. “I remember thinking I just want more. This isn’t it. Fame is not the goal. Money is not the goal.”

Both Jobs and Harrison emerged from their experiences with new clarity and conviction about what they subsequently committed their lives to. As Harrison put it, “To be able to know how to get peace of mind, how to be happy, is something you don’t just stumble across. You’ve got to search for it.” That triggered a spiritual awakening and transformation that brought about a deep awareness of the ephemeral nature of life, of the unity of all beings. He recoiled from the limited value of an external life alone, of simply “living in the material world,” and went deeper into Indian spiritual practices.

After Jobs was fired by Apple, what he then learned during his 30s he put into play what with remarkable foresight and determination after he returned to head Apple, at 40. He concluded, “You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” Jobs conceived a creative vision that joined aesthetic design and elegance with technology — a vision of beauty on earth, via material products that enhance lives

When Harrison turned away from absorption into the fame and fortune of his young adulthood, his now-spiritually focused life melded with musical creativity, which he communicated through expressing the beauty in nature, seeing God in all things, and the power of love. He said, “It’s all love, whichever way you look at it, it’s all love. How much you can get from each other and that’s determined by how much you’re giving to each other.”

Passion for creating something of value and beauty in life emerged in both men. That is, giving something to the world; having impact and contributing to making it better for all people — not just for oneself. “I want to put a ding in the universe… a chance to change the world,” Jobs said.

Interestingly, Jobs’ and Harrison’s exposure to Eastern perspectives was a stimulus to their evolution. Jobs traveled to India when young, and studied Buddhism. The impact of Harrison’s exposure Hinduism, Buddhism and Yoga is well-known. And both have described their experience with LSD as profound. Jobs reportedly described it as “one of the two or three most important things he has done in his life.” And Harrison said, of his experience with LSD, “I felt in love, not with anything or anybody in particular but with everything.”

With the perspectives that Jobs and Harrison developed, it’s not surprising that both appeared to face death with acceptance, but not resignation; instead, with a heightened sense of appreciation for life.

Learning From Their Examples

I think these themes in their lives that I’ve described highlight what each of us face during adulthood. It’s discovering and awakening to what we really want to live and work for, and seeing how that contributes something of value to the world we’re interwoven with. And then, pursuing it with conviction and passion. As Jobs said in his 2006 commencement address at Stanford, “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.”

In my view, the pull towards that need becomes stronger after you’re about 35. But you can lay the foundation for it anytime along the way. For example, by opening yourself to learning from your life experiences, especially when loss or unpredictable events occur — whether good or bad; early success or disaster. You can learn to change your karma, in the sense of redirecting and shifting the impact of your past upon your present life. That includes dealing with the consequences of your own actions, or, what was done to you. It’s interesting, in that respect, that Jobs reconnected with the daughter he had from a previous relationship, whose paternity he had once denied, and then rebuilt a relationship with her.

Finding direction and purpose is especially crucial now, following the crash of 2008. The upside is that declining economic and financial success opens the door to turning away from the destructive over-emphasis on materialism that’s been eroding our society and personal lives. The conventional view of a successful life is that it’s defined largely by financial and self-interested criteria — getting, extracting, consuming and possessing for yourself. On the micro-level, research shows that a highly materialistic orientation erodes a couple’s relationships. Moreover, a materialistic, self-absorbed, self-interest orientation to “success” is unrealistic and out of kilter with our 21st century world, where everything and everyone is highly interwoven and interconnected.

In today’s world, individual and societal well-being rests upon shared collaboration towards sustainable lives upon a sustainable, healthy planet. It’s interesting in that respect that Jobs often cited the Beatles’ collaboration as a model for his vision of Apple, saying, “They were four guys that kept each other’s negative tendencies in check; they balanced each other. And the total was greater than the sum of the parts. Great things in business are never done by one person, they are done by a team of people.”

We’re not isolated entities on the planet, where we can takes for our personal benefit, alone. Self-sufficiency in that form doesn’t exist. We need and depend on each other for everything in life. Self-interest alone, is a non-sustainable way of life. Increasingly, people from all walks of life recognize this. For example, it’s visible in the increasing numbers of people who, polls indicate, support the Occupy Wall Street movement. They recognize that a healthy, just society requires strengthening communal values and behavior; working towards common goals, the common good. It’s also visible among celebrities who use their fame to promote finding solutions to human needs larger than one’s own, such the rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s recent blog and video about fighting hunger in Africa.

I think both Steve Jobs and George Harrison embody different yet similar ways in which all of us can grow and develop towards becoming more fully human. You know when you’re on that path — your inner self recognizes it. But it helps to heed something Jobs said, “… have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”