Putting Philosophy to Work

How Timeless Wisdom Can Bring Meaning to Our Working Lives

Many of us feel disconnected from our work. We feel locked in dreary, uninspiring jobs for companies that lack purpose.

We are living with a crisis of purpose as we devote ever more time and ever more effort into making ends meet, let alone finding success.

Prosperity needn’t come at the cost of our collective sanity. The best business leaders understand the need to inspire and motivate their workforces, but traditional business theory is inadequate for doing so. The solution can come from an unlikely source: philosophy.

Yes, you read it right. Philosophy is not exactly a subject you’d associate with business. There are many wise cracks about the poor job prospects of philosophy majors. The subject is seen as the epitome of impractical liberal arts degrees, a qualification in over-thinking and writing jargon.

The reason why philosophy has such a dire reputation, is that it’s seen as a body of knowledge rather than what it really is – a practice. When we understand philosophy is a practice, we can improve every aspect of our lives with humankind’s superpower: wisdom.

Thinking of philosophy as knowledge immediately creates a barrier, it makes the subject seem opaque and even arcane. The history of philosophy we’re taught is, after all, a history of mostly long-dead, rich, white, European men who wrote complicated prose.

Academic philosophy doesn’t help the situation when so many tenured philosophers indulge in the worst excesses of theoretical mumbo-jumbo at the expense of the discipline’s modern-day reputation.

People believe you need an expensive degree to understand philosophical ideas, and an expensive degree requires privilege.

At the other end of the philosophy spectrum, we see philosophers misquoted all over the internet in the service of self-help influencers looking to cloak motivational puff with the prestige — but not the substance — of legitimate philosophy.

Philosophy seems torn between self-help banality on the one side, and overly-complicated — and inaccessible — academia on the other.

But the yawning gap between these poles is where philosophy is most useful to ourselves and society. Philosophy is a type of thinking that can deconstruct and reframe some of our biggest issues to find answers.

The good news is that philosophy is also slowly finding a popular audience. Writers like Alain de Botton, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson and Ryan Holiday are bringing formerly inaccessible philosophers to the masses, demonstrating how their ideas hold practical benefits for all of us.

The practice of philosophy – using reason, reflection and introspection – can help us discover a lot about ourselves, our place in the world and our problems.

In the workplace there are many persistent and complicated problems that cannot be solved with traditional business thinking. There are also huge benefits to be gained from increasing productivity and loyalty among workers by thinking beyond the usual business school doctrines.

Some of the most successful business thinkers resemble philosophers. Take Peter F. Drucker, whose business theories have influenced the wider culture and brought a bigger philosophical perspective to the field of management education.

It was The Daily Drucker, a management handbook comprising 366 of Drucker’s insights, that inspired Ryan Holiday to write The Daily Stoic, a compendium of Stoic philosophical insights for daily life.

Not only is philosophy a useful discipline in itself, it can bring a richer vein of thinking to other disciplines.

Scientists, business leaders, politicians and even military personnel have benefited from studying philosophy. Entrepreneurs Peter Thiel (PayPal) and Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn) studied philosophy and credit the field for helping them succeed.

Now there’s a new kind of practical philosopher on the scene, perhaps the first of many. Cristina DiGiacomo is an “industrial philosopher”, a term she has coined, that seeks to utilize the most practical aspects of philosophical thinking in business.

She has authored a book, Wise Up! At Work, hosts a podcast, and works as a consultant to business leaders looking for a fresh approach to their challenges.

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Cristina DiGiacomo

So what does being “Industrial Philosopher” really entail? According to DiGiacomo, it’s all about using philosophy to solve business challenges for the benefit of those who work in an organisation. “If philosophy can help us understand ourselves and our lives,” Cristina told me, “why not our work?”

The philosopher can act as an advisor, teacher and coach to enable businesses to fully realize their purpose in the world, help leaders make the right decisions, or solve workplace problems.

This is because, DiGiacomo tells me, “philosophy gives us the framework, principles, and practices to solve almost any challenge.”

Combined with DiGiacomo’s knowledge of the working world —including a stint as the creator of brand strategy for the The New York Times — and her own experience of organizational change, philosophy can be a powerful tool to allow businesses to thrive ethically, and to play a part in making a better, happier society.

Many philosophers in the academic field may have an aversion to business, but business is a fundamental fact of communal living since civilization began. Bringing philosophy to the workplace is an unusual step, but obvious when you think about it. Business is an aspect of society that touches all of us, and so too should philosophy.

“If philosophy can help us understand our lives, why not our work?”

Rational thinking and logic will help managers unlock profitability but also give businesses a sense of purpose that they can communicate to workers. Millions feel disconnected from the work they do because employers are not adequately articulating purpose.

The average full time worker in America has a 38-hour work week, that’s not counting time travelling to, and thinking about, work. What we do for a living defines us perhaps more than ever.

With smartphones and portable devices it has encroached on our personal lives. Many of our most intense relationships are formed at work, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

“If the working domain is broken, unfulfilling, without reason, and lacks ideals, then everyone suffers,” Cristina tells me. The suffering is taken into homes and communities, causing more problems.

What fun can a parent be for their kids when they’re burned out by a tough day and a long commute? “Society needs industrial philosophers because society needs for work to work better, for everyone.”

Since experiencing an “Emersonian” moment of wonder as a child, Cristina had an interest in philosophical thinking. Philosophy became a passion for her in a class while reading The Apology, Plato’s account of the trial of Socrates in 399 BCE.

Socrates was a stonemason by trade and his mother a midwife. The philosopher acted as a teacher and mentor to young men and philosophised in public spaces in Athens like the Agora — the central marketplace. At the beginning of his philosophical career, Socrates was told that the Delphic Oracle had pronounced him the wisest of all men.

“I felt I met a friend, albeit a 2500-year-old one.”

He was — by his own account — bewildered by this divine blessing and sought to understand why he was so wise. He sought out exemplars of wisdom from all kinds of fields to find out what made them so wise.

The problem is that he soon discovered that these “experts”, despite thinking they were wise, were not really wise at all. They were left dumbfounded by Socrates’s lines of inquiry as he questioned their beliefs.

This made Socrates many powerful enemies. One of them conspired to put Socrates on trial for “corrupting the youth of Athens and introducing false gods”.

Socrates gave himself a dazzling defense while on trial. He was still found guilty, but refused to concede that he was wrong in return for leniency. As a result the philosopher became a martyr for reason. He was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock, a fate he accepted with equanimity.

Plato’s vivid depiction of the philosophical hero, calmly facing the punishment of death moved Cristina. Reading aloud Socrates’s “snarky passages” aimed at the hypocritical elite of Athens, soldered a connection to a man who died thousands of years ago.

“I felt I met a friend, albeit a 2500-year-old one. I realized the power of philosophy, that a 2500-year-old assassinated dead guy could give me so much joy just by reading his ideas about how to stand up for myself, the truth, and live a good life.”

Cristina describes philosophy as her “magic wand”. The subject was simply a personal passion, disconnected from work when one day she made the connection between the two. A workshop trainer asked her what her “magic wand” — a business skill unique to her — was.

“I didn’t have a clear answer and I became anxious, because it was almost my turn and I didn’t want to sound dumb.” She started to think philosophically to come up with an answer and realized it was philosophy itself that was the answer.

“That day, the trainer and I brainstormed, and Industrial Philosophy was born. The lesson for me was to get still, get curious, and not care if people thought I was weird.”

Since that day Cristina has built up her own brand and a tool-kit of ideas and concepts from history’s greatest thinkers. One of the most persistent challenges for business leaders is seeing problems from a different perspective. DiGiacomo uses Plato’s allegory of the cave to show that what we often take for reality is just a subjective take, often stuck in short-termist thinking cycles.

“[Business leaders often] see things like needing to make decisions on the fly, the interdepartmental skirmish they need to squash, the people they have to lay off, the uprising from employees about work/life balance and diversity and inclusion, they’re constantly on the move and each move is judged. So to encapsulate that, they are always in a state of movement and change. From what I see, movement and change is part of a larger picture, the leader and the organization is in a state of evolution, of becoming what it needs to be.”

Organisations, teams, leaders, managers and employees as well as us as individuals can grow and flourish if we embrace the ancient Greek imperative to “know thyself”. Knowledge of self and virtue go hand in hand. The world is filled with distractions from knowing our true selves.

The coupling of work and consumerism feels like a treadmill for many people who feel unfulfilled and inadequate. We become stressed and anxious as a result. Philosophy holds the solutions many people are looking for, and it’s not as hard to grasp as people think.

As Cristina puts it: “I believe that if people had one tenth of the exposure to philosophy and understanding on how to live it, the world would be a better place.”

Want to learn more? Click here to find out how you can get draft chapters of the book I’m writing.

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The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Say hello: stevengambardella@gmail.com

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