Steve Jobs On Intuition Versus Rationalism

Steve Jobs delivered products that seemed like they had been beamed in from the future. While a lot of decisions at Apple are based on cold, hard data and facts, the overall vision and user experience that Steve imagined was one drawn from an intuition, innate and plugged in to help pull humanity in to the future.

This entire post might come across as Bohemian but I love this excerpt from the biography Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.

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Coming back to America was, for me, much more of a cultural shock than going 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.

Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic; it is learned and is the great achievement of Western civilization. In the villages of India, they never learned it. They learned something else, which is in some ways just as valuable but in other ways is not. That’s the power of intuition and experiential wisdom.

Coming back after seven months in Indian villages, I saw the craziness of the Western world as well as its capacity for rational thought. 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. 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.

Zen has been a deep influence in my life ever since. At one point I was thinking about going to Japan and trying to get into the Eihei-ji monastery, but my spiritual advisor urged me to stay here. He said there is nothing over there that isn’t here, and he was correct. I learned the truth of the Zen saying that if you are willing to travel around the world to meet a teacher, one will appear next door.

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It’s rare to find such a blend of eastern and western philosophy on the job, in leadership positions, and in life in general.

Specifically, engineers are taught and trained to be objective and completely rational, relying on unit tests and TDD. Even CEOs, marketers, “distribution hackers”, and PMs are taught to focus more and more on lean methodologies, A/B testing, hypothesis testing and the resulting data.  There is no doubt that these qualities and approaches are necessary to build a successful product.

But when thinking beyond the next bug fix or the next release, when thinking about a new product entirely, a new startup, or envisioning a new way of doing things, you’re never going to have all the data to make a completely informed decision. Intuition can be a powerful force in choosing which path to take.

The intangible, the unquantifiable, and the unmeasurable have a place in this world.