The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 28, 2011

Meditation on Jobs: Mankato grad writes graphic novel on Zen influences of former Apple CEO

By Tanner Kent
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — Though he only graduated from Mankato West in 2008, and from Northwestern University this year, Caleb Melby can now add “published author” to an already lengthy resume in journalism.

He delivered The Free Press as a youngster, started a radio show at KMSU in high school and edited the high school newspaper.

In college, he served as executive director of the school’s news web site and wrote editorials for the Chicago Tribune. In the spring of 2011, he worked as a reporter for The Times of Johannesburg, South Africa, and landed an internship with Forbes Media in the summer of 2011 — an opportunity he parlayed into a full-time job as a wealth reporter beginning next month.

But on Jan. 3, Melby’s latest journalistic venture will arrive in bookstores across the country.

While working as an intern at Forbes, Melby authored “The Zen of Steve Jobs,” a not-quite-factual “re-imagining” of the late Apple CEO’s experiences as an understudy to Kobun Chino Otogawa, a revered Buddhist priest.

“It’s been great,” said Melby, who is visiting home for the holidays before returning to his Brooklyn apartment in January. “It was this hybrid of journalism and creative writing that I’m not sure I’ll ever get to experience again.”

The opportunity to contribute to the swiftly growing Steve Jobs canon presented itself shortly after Melby began interning at Forbes.

Forbes editors had already been meeting with JESS3, a creative agency that specializes in “data visualization,” about a book on the brilliant, but mercurial, co-founder of Apple. Melby said he was assigned to begin the research and reporting for the book — which was focused on the oft-cited, but scantly researched, portion of Jobs’ life where he explored Buddhist teachings.

After spending nearly two months talking with Buddhist priests (and others) who knew of the relationship between Otogawa and Jobs, Melby started working on a manuscript. His editor liked what he saw and gave Melby the task of finishing the graphic novel in collaboration with illustrators from JESS3.

“I was able to push the boundaries of storytelling in a way that is kind of controversial,” Melby said. “We’re telling stories that we’re not sure happened the way we portrayed.”

What is fact is that Jobs forged a relationship with Otogawa during the time of his painful departure from Apple in 1985.

It is well-documented that Jobs leveraged his Zen experiences to help transform Apple into the technology powerhouse it is today. What isn’t well-documented is the conversations and interactions between Jobs and Otogawa that later manifested in the simple designs and clean aesthetics that have become hallmarks of the Apple brand.

“At the end of the day, this is a re-imagining,” Melby said. “What actually happened when they were alone, we can’t be sure.”

The book illustrates how Buddhist principles shaped Jobs’ corporate philosophy and vision for Apple products. The book also illustrates how Jobs’ relentless pursuit of perfection eventually fractured his relationship with his mentor, who believed such obsession was antithetical to Buddhist teachings.

In the end, Melby said, the two were quite similar. Both Jobs and Otogawa were renegades in their field and both held strictly to personal philosophies.

“Both were innovators and mavericks,” Melby said, adding later: “I’d like to hope people will gain a more complex understanding of (Jobs). ... It’s not our goal to take anything away from him, but help people understand the man — as opposed to Steve Jobs, the Tech God.”

The graphic novel is being published by John Wiley & Sons and will be available online and at most major bookstores.