ATARI AND INDIA
Zen and the Art of Game Design
In February 1974, after eighteen months of hanging around Reed, Jobs decided to move back to his parents’ home in Los Altos and look for a job. It was not a difficult search. At peak times during the 1970s, the classified section of the San Jose Mercury carried up to sixty pages of technology help-wanted ads. One of those caught Jobs’s eye. “Have fun, make money,” it said. That day Jobs walked into the lobby of the video game manufacturer Atari and told the personnel director, who was startled by his unkempt hair and attire, that he wouldn’t leave until they gave him a job.
Atari’s founder was a burly entrepreneur named Nolan Bushnell, who was a charismatic visionary with a nice touch of showmanship in him—in other words, another role model waiting to be emulated. After he became famous, he liked driving around in a Rolls, smoking dope, and holding staff meetings in a hot tub. As Friedland had done and as Jobs would learn to do, he was able to turn charm into a cunning force, to cajole and intimidate and distort reality with the power of his personality. His chief engineer was Al Alcorn, beefy and jovial and a bit more grounded, the house grown-up trying to implement the vision and curb the enthusiasms of Bushnell. Their big hit thus far was a video game called Pong, in which two players tried to volley a blip on a screen with two movable lines that acted as paddles. (If you’re under thirty, ask your parents.)
When Jobs arrived in the Atari lobby wearing sandals and demanding a job, Alcorn was the one who was summoned. “I was told, ‘We’ve got a hippie kid in the lobby. He says he’s not going to leave until we hire him. Should we call the cops or let him in?’ I said bring him on in!”
Jobs thus became one of the first fifty employees at Atari, working as a technician for $5 an hour. “In retrospect, it was weird to hire a dropout from Reed,” Alcorn recalled. “But I saw something in him. He was very intelligent, enthusiastic, excited about tech.” Alcorn assigned him to work with a straitlaced engineer named Don Lang. The next day Lang complained, “This guy’s a goddamn hippie with b.o. Why did you do this to me? And he’s impossible to deal with.” Jobs clung to the belief that his fruit-heavy vegetarian diet would prevent not just mucus but also body odor, even if he didn’t use deodorant or shower regularly. It was a flawed theory.
Lang and others wanted to let Jobs go, but Bushnell worked out a solution. “The smell and behavior wasn’t an issue with me,” he said. “Steve was prickly, but I kind of liked him. So I asked him to go on the night shift. It was a way to save him.” Jobs would come in after Lang and others had left and work through most of the night. Even thus isolated, he became known for his brashness. On those occasions when he happened to interact with others, he was prone to informing them that they were “dumb shits.” In retrospect, he stands by that judgment. “The only reason I shone was that everyone else was so bad,” Jobs recalled.
Despite his arrogance (or perhaps because of it) he was able to charm Atari’s boss. “He was more philosophical than the other people I worked with,” Bushnell recalled. “We used to discuss free will versus determinism. I tended to believe that things were much more determined, that we were programmed. If we had perfect information, we could predict people’s actions. Steve felt the opposite.” That outlook accorded with his faith in the power of the will to bend reality.
Jobs helped improve some of the games by pushing the chips to produce fun designs, and Bushnell’s inspiring willingness to play by his own rules rubbed off on him. In addition, he intuitively appreciated the simplicity of Atari’s games. They came with no manual and needed to be uncomplicated enough that a stoned freshman could figure them out. The only instructions for Atari’s Star Trek game were “1. Insert quarter. 2. Avoid Klingons.”
Not all of his coworkers shunned Jobs. He became friends with Ron Wayne, a draftsman at Atari, who had earlier started a company that built slot machines. It subsequently failed, but Jobs became fascinated with the idea that it was possible to start your own company. “Ron was an amazing guy,” said Jobs. “He started companies. I had never met anybody like that.” He proposed to Wayne that they go into business together; Jobs said he could borrow $50,000, and they could design and market a slot machine. But Wayne had already been burned in business, so he declined. “I said that was the quickest way to lose $50,000,” Wayne recalled, “but I admired the fact that he had a burning drive to start his own business.”
One weekend Jobs was visiting Wayne at his apartment, engaging as they often did in philosophical discussions, when Wayne said that there was something he needed to tell him. “Yeah, I think I know what it is,” Jobs replied. “I think you like men.” Wayne said yes. “It was my first encounter with someone who I knew was gay,” Jobs recalled. “He planted the right perspective of it for me.” Jobs grilled him: “When you see a beautiful woman, what do you feel?” Wayne replied, “It’s like when you look at a beautiful horse. You can appreciate it, but you don’t want to sleep with it. You appreciate beauty for what it is.” Wayne said that it is a testament to Jobs that he felt like revealing this to him. “Nobody at Atari knew, and I could count on my toes and fingers the number of people I told in my whole life. But I guess it just felt right to tell him, that he would understand, and it didn’t have any effect on our relationship.”
One reason Jobs was eager to make some money in early 1974 was that Robert Friedland, who had gone to India the summer before, was urging him to take his own spiritual journey there. Friedland had studied in India with Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaj-ji), who had been the guru to much of the sixties hippie movement. Jobs decided he should do the same, and he recruited Daniel Kottke to go with him. Jobs was not motivated by mere adventure. “For me it was a serious search,” he said. “I’d been turned on to the idea of enlightenment and trying to figure out who I was and how I fit into things.” Kottke adds that Jobs’s quest seemed driven partly by not knowing his birth parents. “There was a hole in him, and he was trying to fill it.”
When Jobs told the folks at Atari that he was quitting to go search for a guru in India, the jovial Alcorn was amused. “He comes in and stares at me and declares, ‘I’m going to find my guru,’ and I say, ‘No shit, that’s super. Write me!’ And he says he wants me to help pay, and I tell him, ‘Bullshit!’” Then Alcorn had an idea. Atari was making kits and shipping them to Munich, where they were built into finished machines and distributed by a wholesaler in Turin. But there was a problem: Because the games were designed for the American rate of sixty frames per second, there were frustrating interference problems in Europe, where the rate was fifty frames per second. Alcorn sketched out a fix with Jobs and then offered to pay for him to go to Europe to implement it. “It’s got to be cheaper to get to India from there,” he said. Jobs agreed. So Alcorn sent him on his way with the exhortation, “Say hi to your guru for me.”
Jobs spent a few days in Munich, where he solved the interference problem, but in the process he flummoxed the dark-suited German managers. They complained to Alcorn that he dressed and smelled like a bum and behaved rudely. “I said, ‘Did he solve the problem?’ And they said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘If you got any more problems, you just call me, I got more guys just like him!’ They said, ‘No, no we’ll take care of it next time.’” For his part, Jobs was upset that the Germans kept trying to feed him meat and potatoes. “They don’t even have a word for vegetarian,” he complained (incorrectly) in a phone call to Alcorn.
He had a better time when he took the train to see the distributor in Turin, where the Italian pastas and his host’s camaraderie were more simpatico. “I had a wonderful couple of weeks in Turin, which is this charged-up industrial town,” he recalled. “The distributor took me every night to dinner at this place where there were only eight tables and no menu. You’d just tell them what you wanted, and they made it. One of the tables was on reserve for the chairman of Fiat. It was really super.” He next went to Lugano, Switzerland, where he stayed with Friedland’s uncle, and from there took a flight to India.
When he got off the plane in New Delhi, he felt waves of heat rising from the tarmac, even though it was only April. He had been given the name of a hotel, but it was full, so he went to one his taxi driver insisted was good. “I’m sure he was getting some baksheesh, because he took me to this complete dive.” Jobs asked the owner whether the water was filtered and foolishly believed the answer. “I got dysentery pretty fast. I was sick, really sick, a really high fever. I dropped from 160 pounds to 120 in about a week.”
Once he got healthy enough to move, he decided that he needed to get out of Delhi. So he headed to the town of Haridwar, in western India near the source of the Ganges, which was having a festival known as the Kumbh Mela. More than ten million people poured into a town that usually contained fewer than 100,000 residents. “There were holy men all around. Tents with this teacher and that teacher. There were people riding elephants, you name it. I was there for a few days, but I decided that I needed to get out of there too.”
He went by train and bus to a village near Nainital in the foothills of the Himalayas. That was where Neem Karoli Baba lived, or had lived. By the time Jobs got there, he was no longer alive, at least in the same incarnation. Jobs rented a room with a mattress on the floor from a family who helped him recuperate by feeding him vegetarian meals. “There was a copy there of Autobiography of a Yogi in English that a previous traveler had left, and I read it several times because there was not a lot to do, and I walked around from village to village and recovered from my dysentery.” Among those who were part of the community there was Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who was working to eradicate smallpox and who later ran Google’s philanthropic arm and the Skoll Foundation. He became Jobs’s lifelong friend.
At one point Jobs was told of a young Hindu holy man who was holding a gathering of his followers at the Himalayan estate of a wealthy businessman. “It was a chance to meet a spiritual being and hang out with his followers, but it was also a chance to have a good meal. I could smell the food as we got near, and I was very hungry.” As Jobs was eating, the holy man—who was not much older than Jobs—picked him out of the crowd, pointed at him, and began laughing maniacally. “He came running over and grabbed me and made a tooting sound and said, ‘You are just like a baby,’” recalled Jobs. “I was not relishing this attention.” Taking Jobs by the hand, he led him out of the worshipful crowd and walked him up to a hill, where there was a well and a small pond. “We sit down and he pulls out this straight razor. I’m thinking he’s a nutcase and begin to worry. Then he pulls out a bar of soap—I had long hair at the time—and he lathered up my hair and shaved my head. He told me that he was saving my health.”
Daniel Kottke arrived in India at the beginning of the summer, and Jobs went back to New Delhi to meet him. They wandered, mainly by bus, rather aimlessly. By this point Jobs was no longer trying to find a guru who could impart wisdom, but instead was seeking enlightenment through ascetic experience, deprivation, and simplicity. He was not able to achieve inner calm. Kottke remembers him getting into a furious shouting match with a Hindu woman in a village marketplace who, Jobs alleged, had been watering down the milk she was selling them.
Yet Jobs could also be generous. When they got to the town of Manali, Kottke’s sleeping bag was stolen with his traveler’s checks in it. “Steve covered my food expenses and bus ticket back to Delhi,” Kottke recalled. He also gave Kottke the rest of his own money, $100, to tide him over.
During his seven months in India, he had written to his parents only sporadically, getting mail at the American Express office in New Delhi when he passed through, and so they were somewhat surprised when they got a call from the Oakland airport asking them to pick him up. They immediately drove up from Los Altos. “My head had been shaved, I was wearing Indian cotton robes, and my skin had turned a deep, chocolate brown-red from the sun,” he recalled. “So I’m sitting there and my parents walked past me about five times and finally my mother came up and said ‘Steve?’ and I said ‘Hi!’”
They took him back home, where he continued trying to find himself. It was a pursuit with many paths toward enlightenment. In the mornings and evenings he would meditate and study Zen, and in between he would drop in to audit physics or engineering courses at Stanford.