What a Japanese Tea Ceremony Taught Me about Steve Jobs

July 3, 2012

11:30 am

In a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, nearly every motion is choreographed, every shape and color has a meaning, and every moment is a moment for quiet reflection.

I attended a tea ceremony last weekend, and it was like a window into Steve Jobs’s soul. As Walter Isaacson recounts in his biography, Jobs took regular trips to Japan to visit suppliers and their factories and became increasingly drawn to the Japanese style. Jobs told him:

“I have always found Buddhism, Japanese Zen Buddhism in particular, to be aesthetically sublime. … The most sublime thing I’ve ever seen are the gardens around Kyoto. I’m deeply moved by what that culture has produced.”

Design. Like Jobs, the tea ceremony places a high value on design. Guests are expected to admire the curve of the tea scoop (called a chashaku) and the design on the teacups – not by raising the cup to your face, but by bending down to examine it, so it doesn’t drop and break. As you kneel in a circle on the floor, you may also admire the pattern of the bamboo ceiling, or the kettle and brazier used to prepare the tea.

In the same way, Jobs has turned functional devices into objects of beauty. He scrapped the initial design of the iPhone after 9 months of work because he didn’t “love” it; the case was interfering with the focus on the screen. His rounded rectangles have become standard for computer displays, and he made computing visual with the emphasis on beautiful, unique app icons.

Attention to Detail. A tea ceremony can take 1 month to prepare, as the host chooses her menu, the proper utensils, and decorations. Each tea scoop has a name: it might be “Milky Way” to reflect the season, or “teardrop” to honor a lost loved one. When the day arrives, she makes sure to enter the tea room with her right foot and exit with her left, and fold her fukusa napkin a certain way. The guests may take a break to stroll in the garden, where the placement of each stone has a meaning.

Like a careful tea-ceremony host, Steve Jobs is notorious for letting no detail go unnoticed – from the rounded corners of windows and documents, to the smoothness of scrolling, to the stone used for Apple store floors. He once argued with a designer over the placement of the period in his middle initial, P., on his calling card. And early on, he would go over his Macintosh factory with a white glove to check for dust:

“I’d been very influenced by what I’d  seen in Japan,” he said. “Part of what I greatly admired there … was a sense of teamwork and discipline. If we didn’t have the discipline to keep that place spotless, then we weren’t going to have the discipline to keep all these machines moving.”

Simplicity. In the Way of Tea, another name for the ceremony and its rituals, beauty comes from simplicity. The tea room is decorated with simple, spotless tatami mats on the floor. Rather than a Western bouquet bursting with flowers, the host may put out a single flower or two. Above it hangs a simple scroll, which she may change as the guests stroll through the gardens, to give them a new sight to contemplate.

In the same way, Apple devices and software give you few distractions from the task at hand – a single button on the iPhone, or a dock of apps on your desktop that slides away when not in use. Designing the iPod, Jobs insisting on leaving out the on-off switch, and its 4 buttons were eventually removed in favor of the scroll wheel.

So next time you want to meditate, contemplate the simple beauty of the MacBook or iPhone before you.

*Facts and quotes from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs 


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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact