Steve Jobs: Peripatetic Businessman

Last week I published a review of Steve Jobs, the biography by Walter Isaacson.

One connection I made while thinking about the biography was something that would be more of interest to those who have studied a bit of philosophy — dare I call such people “philosophy geeks”?

It is that Steve Jobs, who was known for conducting business meetings while taking walks, might well be called a “peripatetic” businessman. “Peripatetic” refers to Aristotle’s school of philosophy, due to Aristotle’s habit of lecturing “in the Peripatos, a covered walk or loggia” at his school, the Lyceum. (Randall, Aristotle, p. 19)

That Steve Jobs liked to conduct important business meetings while walking is, taken alone, only a superficial similarity to the Greek philosopher to whom we all owe so much, but consider:

Legend has it that Aristotle chose to lecture while walking in the covered walkways, or colonnades, of the Lyceum. This Wikipedia article reports that Aristotle may have picked up this habit or technique from an earlier thinker, Hermippus of Smyrna. From what I’ve learned about Aristotle, he did not seem to be the type of person who would just unthinkingly pick up a habit of conducting lectures while walking, so I imagine it was done for a reason.

Fast-forward about 2300 years, to the time when Jobs, as Pixar’s CEO, was giving the chance to design the company’s headquarters in Emeryville, CA. Isaacson reports that Jobs purposefully designed Pixar’s headquarters in order to encourage his employees to have random, face-to-face encounters in a large, central atrium:

Despite being a denizen of the digital world, or maybe because he knew all to well its isolating potential, Jobs was a strong believer in face-to-face meetings. “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,” he said. “That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”

So the entire facility was designed to make people gravitate towards the central atrium. Jobs even tried to have “only two huge bathrooms in the building, one for each gender, connected to the atrium.” Jobs eventually compromised and allowed more bathrooms to be built, in response to complaints from employees, including one pregnant woman who “said she shouldn’t be forced to walk ten minutes just to go to the bathroom.” Jobs allowed there to be four sets of bathrooms, one set on each side of the atrium, on each of the two floors.

The new headquarters performed as Jobs had intended. “Steve’s theory worked from day one,” recalled John Lasseter, cofounder and creative force at Pixar. “I kept running into people I hadn’t seen for months. I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.”

Another parallel I recognized was in the two peripatetics’ methodologies. I recall from my study of Aristotle that the published works we have today are essentially lecture notes. And the way he proceeds in them is typically, per Randall, by starting with the general, the object of the investigation. In ethics, for example, the object of investigation is the first principles “of human conduct, the end at which man aims, acting well….” Skipping to the fourth and fifth steps (because here is where I next see the analogy to Jobs’ method), Aristotle would “find the relevant facts” and then “explain the subject matter, to exhibit the intelligible structure of facts.” (Randall, Aristotle, pp. 54-55).

In the Jobs biography, Isaacson tells the story of negotiations between Paul Otellini, president and later CEO of Intel, and Jobs, during “long walks, sometimes on the trails up to the radio telescope known as the Dish above the Stanford campus.” The description of Jobs’ methodology during these walks reminded me of Aristotle’s: “Jobs would start the walk by telling a story and explaining how he saw the history of computers evolving. By the end he would be haggling over price.” True, Aristotle probably didn’t end lectures by haggling over price! But he would have if he were a businessman, because in business price is one of the crucial facts that must be dealt with, which must be made part of “the intelligible structure of facts.” (Isaacson, Steve Jobs, Ch. 34) The CEO of Time Warner, Jeff Bewkes, said that Jobs was able to be both “a strategic thinker and a master of the tiniest details. ‘Steve can go readily from the overarching principals [sic] into the details,’ he said.” (Isaacson, Steve Jobs, Ch. 38)

And then of course there’s the breadth of the two men’s reach in terms of lifetime productivity. Says the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy about Aristotle:

His extant writings span a wide range of disciplines, from logic, metaphysics and philosophy of mind, through ethics, political theory, aesthetics and rhetoric, and into such primarily non-philosophical fields as empirical biology, where he excelled at detailed plant and animal observation and taxonomy. In all these areas, Aristotle’s theories have provided illumination, met with resistance, sparked debate, and generally stimulated the sustained interest of an abiding readership.

And that’s only thirty-one surviving treatises out of an estimated total of perhaps two hundred that Aristotle produced.

In a similar life-span, Jobs is said to have “revolutionized [at least] six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing.” Isaacson argues that retail stores might be added to that list, and anyone who has visited an Apple store might agree with him.

Jobs, according to Isaacson, had a “passion for perfection and ferocious drive.” Randall writes of Aristotle, “his may well be the most passionate mind in history: it shines through every page, almost every line.”

And then, unfortunately, we might also draw a parallel with respect to Jobs’ and Aristotle’s “Platonic” elements. For Jobs, it was his “Reality Distortion Field.” I discuss both the better, reality-oriented, Aristotelian aspects of this, as well as those aspects resembling a more Platonic, “primacy-of-consciousness”  approach, in my review. The analogue in Aristotle to Jobs’ “reality distortion field” might be Aristotle’s “active intellect.” Just as “reality distortion field” was a label used by others, not anything that was explicitly embraced by Jobs, “active intellect” does not occur in Aristotle’s own writings. Rather, it was inferred to be part of Aristotle’s thought, because of his reference to “passive intellect.” Writes Randall:

Pomponazzi and Zabarella, Italian Aristotelians of the beginning and end of the sixteenth century, of all professed Aristotelians probably the closest to the elusive “Aristotelian spirit,” held that intellect or nous….in its functioning…can rise above the body’s limitations.” (Randall, Aristotle, p. 101)

Unfortunately, as I discussed in my review, this may have been the sort of thinking that Jobs engaged in during the first several months after receiving his cancer diagnosis. Too bad Aristotle couldn’t take Jobs on a long walk and change his mind.



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5 responses to “Steve Jobs: Peripatetic Businessman

  1. I think, maybe, Steve would have been most open to a change in his thinking when he got the diagnosis. The idea being it takes a shock to the system to get people to consider, and reconsider, and maybe change their worldview. But maybe not because you have people, like Steve, who, upon learning getting the shock that he had cancer, rely on their worldview/philosophy – and in this case metaphysics. The real shock Steve endured was learning that the mystic cures weren’t working and that earlier cancer surgery might have saved his life. We don’t have to die to learn our philosophy is a killer.

  2. “We don’t have to die to learn our philosophy is a killer.”

    Sometimes I wonder… Did we (meaning the majority of Americans — or at least our leaders) really learn anything after 9/11? After the passage of the Obamacare legislation? Are we really on the road to electing a big-government GOP politician like Romey or Gingrich?

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Karl.

  3. Thanks for this interesting observation, Amy. I’ll have to take note of what you wrote about here as I delve deeper into the biography.

    As to your comment about whether Americans have learned from 9/11 and ObamaCare–I’d say, no, at least not enough, or not in any fundamental sense.

    The fact that, after the rise of the Tea Party, we’re going to get the likes of the pragmatist Romeny and the opportunist Gingrich (who is currently in America-is-based-on-religion mode) to oppose Obama, just tells me that it’s still — still — too early for any kind of fundamental change.

    For now, we’ll just have to keep on chipping away, and that means possibly voting for one of these two, if no decent emerges from the blue to vie for the Republican nomination, because Obama and thus ObamaCare must be defeated.

  4. Interesting. I’m a software developer and I often go for walks when I’m chewing on a design problem or thinking about how to debug a complex system. I’ve explicitly referred to myself as a “peripatetic engineer” in humorous comparison to Aristotle. I didn’t realize that Jobs did anything similar — I guess I’m in doubly-illustrious company!

  5. Pingback: Steve Jobs: Peripatetic Businessman « Michael Allen Sweet

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