Steve Jobs’ obsession with the Autobiography of a Yogi, Mark Zukerberg’s visit to a temple in Nainital and the latest attempts by start-ups to ‘hack’ spirituality – what’s with Silicon Valley’s fascination with spirituality?
Perhaps the foremost example of the tech world’s fascination with spirituality is Steve Jobs’ deep appreciation of the book Autobiography of a Yogi by Parmahansa Yogananda. It was the only book Jobs downloaded on his iPad and read every year since he first came across it as a teenager. Jobs even asked for copies of the book to be distributed at this memorial service.
Mark Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com said at a TechCrunch conference in 2013 (2 years after Jobs passed away): “Yogananda…had this book on self-realization…. [Steve’s] last message to us was that here is Yogananda’s book…. Actualize yourself….I look at Steve as a very spiritual person…[Steve] had this incredible realization–that his intuition was his greatest gift and he needed to look at the world from the inside out.”
Seemingly continuing in the company founder’s tradition of an affinity with Indian spirituality, Apple CEO Tim Cook visited a famous 200-year-old Ganesha temple (Siddhivinayak) in Mumbai on his visit to India in May 2016.
It appears that Steve Jobs also inspired Facebook CEO Mark Zukerberg to visit the Kainchi Dham temple in Nainital, India. “He [Jobs] told me that in order to reconnect with what I believed as the mission of the company I should visit this temple that he had gone to in India, early on in his evolution of thinking about what he wanted Apple and his vision of the future to be,” Zuckerberg told India’s PM Modi at a town hall meeting in 2015. Google’s Larry Page and Jeffrey Skoll, co-founder of eBay, have also made the pilgrimage.
There are several other instances of the tech world drawing inspiration from the spiritual domain. Google, for example, is well-known for its mindfulness meditation training (having its roots in Buddhism) offered in-house. The tech giant has also given a platform to the views of spiritual leaders – Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev for instance recently spoke about ‘Developing Inclusive Consciousness’ at an event hosted by Jonathan Berent, Director of Customer Experience at Google.
A ‘ritual’ of sorts for tech titans like Zukerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk is the annual pilgrimage to the Burning Man festival in the deserts of Nevada, USA. According to Silicon Valley venture capitalist Greg Horowitt, “You come into Burning Man knowing that your values align with the values of the people here, and it’s all about creation and experimentation.” The festival has taken on a ritualistic reputation, almost like a religion or spiritual process for the faithful.
Coming to the new crop of Silicon Valley start-ups, there is a growing fascination with “bio-hacking” techniques. For instance, Nootrobox, a San Francisco company that makes brain supplements, has adopted a practice (what they see as a “ritual”) where the entire company collectively fasts for 36 hours every week. According to the start-up, the fast days are one of the most productive days of the week! Fasting, as we know is an ancient spiritual practice followed by almost all religions in some form or the other.
Then there’s the growing fascination with the mind and consciousness altering herb ‘ayahuasca‘ found in the Peruvian Amazon, that has been dubbed as Silicon Valley’s new craze. Apparently the psychedelic substance is becoming as ubiquitous as coffee. Its popularity with young entrepreneurs is based on its supposed ability to abate the insecurities and pressures they face in the start-up world and the fact that the Peruvian trips serve as much as a networking opportunities as spiritual retreats!
But should spiritual practices be hacked for productivity? Or should increased productivity and creativity be viewed as the beneficial side-effects of a deeper inner transformation which should be the aim? Surely some entrepreneurs’ trysts with spirituality will be more genuine than others’. One can only hope the genuine prevails.