Famously irreverent toward traditional philosophies, Bay Area entrepreneurs are finally taking note
The Practitioner of Philosophy
“I would trade all of my technology for one afternoon with Socrates.” – Steve Jobs
With a weathered face and shoulder-length hair, Andrew Taggart, 38, looks more like a surfer bro than a philosopher. Yet he earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin in 2009, with a thesis on what signifies a successful life in modern times.
Taggart is no ordinary philosopher. He self-describes as a “practical philosopher.” Instead of dedicating himself to thorny issues like metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, or politics, he helps his clients to redefine their ideas of “happiness” and “success” using Skype—his medium of choice to respond to my questions in his hypnotizing voice.
“At the beginning of the session, we take a moment of silence to meditate, or at least cut ourselves off from the rest of the day. We begin by speaking at a set time. However, we don’t know how long the conversation will last. It ends when we’ve reached a natural conclusion. Each conversation is a debate of ideas, and that requires concentration, mutual interest, and respect. We touch on all possible, imaginable subjects under the sun. We thereby establish a friendly, philosophical relationship.”
Like a psychologist, a “practical philosopher” can cost $100 an hour. But Andrew Taggart lets his clients pay “what they can, when they can.” His clientele seems fairly well off. It includes several executives of high-tech companies in the Bay Area.
“They come to me because they feel confused, like something isn’t working in the life they’re living,” he explains. “I help them ask the right questions. Instead of asking, ‘How to be more successful?’, you have to ask, ‘Why have success?'”
According to him, their manner of measuring their relationship to the world through work, transactions, and productivity can lead only to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. “That’s what I call the instrumentalization of the world. Once you notice this pattern of thought, you realize it’s at work everywhere. For example, when a company offers its employees meditation classes, it’s not to make them feel better. It’s to make them more productive. What hell.”
Some of Andrew Taggart’s clients made dramatic changes following their conversations. Jerrold McGrath, for example, quit his job, became a stay-at-home dad, moved, and created his own consulting firm, Intervene Systemic Consulting. He tells me that he met the philosopher four years ago, through a friend. “At the time, I had my dream job, but I was less happy than I was before I got it. I told myself I was proud of myself, but it wasn’t true. Talking with Andrew made me understand that I’d led myself astray.”
For him, the transformation process was both “painful” and “extraordinarily gratifying.” “The questions Andrew pose are quite painful. They make you see past short-term satisfaction. In changing my career, I lost friends, ones who only cared about my social position. But I gained other more significant ones. Generally speaking, I’m more emotionally present. And not only for my partner and my daughter.”
It’s also a long process. Jerrold McGrath had a meeting scheduled with Taggart a few days after our interview.
Andrew Taggart is far from the first Silicon Valley “guru.” Ten years ago, the engineer Chade-Meng Tan launched a personal development program at Google, the Bay Area’s most emblematic company. Called Search Inside Yourself, the program consisted of learning to concentrate, understand oneself, develop new mental habits with various identification exercises, and share one’s emotions. It was followed by hundreds of Google employees, anxious to restore meaning to their endless quest for recognition.
As for the tech world’s preeminent thinker, Steve Jobs, he scrupulously followed the teachings of legendary yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. This was how he wanted to be remembered, if you witnessed his October 2011 funeral. Steve Jobs had planned it himself and had asked that each guest be given Yogananda’s book as a farewell gift. “Steve’s last message to us was: ‘This is Yogananda’s book. Use it,'” Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, says. “I consider Steve a highly spiritual person. He understood really well that this intuition was his greatest gift, and that he needed to observe the world from the inside.”
Still, Silicon Valley has long been indifferent to philosophy. It has even been somewhat derided. In September 2007, Paul Graham, cofounder of the startup incubator Y Combinator, wrote he had chosen to study philosophy in school because it was “impressively impractical.” “Sort of like slashing holes in your clothes or putting a safety pin through your ear, which were other forms of impressive impracticality then just coming into fashion.”
Quite a few Silicon Valley executives actually took a similar path. “Studying philosophy taught me two things,” admitted Stewart Butterfield, cofounder of Slack and Flickr, to Forbes in July 2015. “I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings.” And still others in the Valley are able to link philosophy to other disciplines. That’s the case of Peter Thiel, cofounder of PayPal, of Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, of Reid Hoffman, cofounder of LinkedIn, and of Mike Krieger, cofounder of Instagram.
They all followed Stanford’s program Symbolic Systems. Created in 1986, it combines neuroscience, logic, psychology, artificial intelligence, IT, and contemporary philosophy to try to answer questions like “Does intelligence require a spirit?”, “How is the spirit linked to the brain?”, or “Does intelligence require a biological brain?” And for good reason. The originator of the term “symbolic systems” was the mathematician Alan Turing, who predicted the coming of intelligent machines.
Google seems determined to realize that prediction. In an October 2016 article in the internal journal of the project Google Brain, its two researchers Martín Abadi and David Andersen showed that some of their artificial intelligences were already capable of doing their own encryption. That sowed panic in the field of journalism, which saw it as the beginning of the end of human dominion over machines. It also seemed proof that philosophical analysis was vital in the work, research, and missions of the high-tech companies in the Bay Area.
It’s worth asking what the current of thought is like in Silicon Valley now.
As surprising as it might seem, a book on many entrepreneurs’ nightstands promotes a Greek, 3rd-century-BCE philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium: stoicism. It’s called A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Its author, a philosophy professor at Wright State University named William Irvine, is taken aback by its success. “When I wrote it, nobody cared about stoicism, and I was certain that no one would read it,” he told me over the phone. “Much less tech entrepreneurs!”
Stoicism encourages the development of four virtues: courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. This wisdom supposes that we can tell the difference between what depends on us and what doesn’t depend on us. It also asks its practitioners to determine what truly has value in life. “And what has the most value is spiritual peace. That doesn’t mean ‘feeling nothing,’ but having a shield against negative emotions like hatred and fear.”
According to Quartz, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs use this complex and multisecular philosophy as a tool for personal development. William Irvine has no problem with that. “In a certain way, that’s really what stoicism is about, a tool for personal development.”
As an example, the professor uses different techniques used by stoics to reach spiritual peace, such as negative visualization. “If your job wears you out, imagine you lose it. If your partner gets on your nerves, imagine he or she leaves you. You’ll realize that things are not going so bad, and you can better accept them.”
Accepting doesn’t mean doing nothing. In fact, one of stoicism’s great thinkers was a politician: Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE). “He simply took care not to let his immense power make him an unhappy man,” says William Irvine, who recommends reading Marcus Aurelius’ “intimate journal” Meditations. “He didn’t want to record everything that, in exercising his power, hurt him. He wrote down legitimate strategies so that it wouldn’t hurt him again.”
Will the powerful today have such wisdom? That, William Irvine doesn’t know, but he fears that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs aren’t using stoicism for the right reasons. “It would be terribly ironic if a tool designed to make you into someone who has no regard for making a billion dollars was used to try to make a billion dollars!”