Business Success Can Begin at a Surprising Starting Point: Philosophy

In an age when college students are urged to choose an area of study based on financial returns, philosophy has become a much-maligned major.

But those who dismiss philosophy as something with no practical use are overlooking how studying Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and others has real-world applications in business, says Cristina DiGiacomo, author of Wise Up! At Work and founder of MorAlchemy, a leadership consulting firm that helps CEOs and executives use philosophy to tackle challenges by teaching them to think differently and see new solutions to help their companies thrive.

“One thing philosophy encourages is critical thinking, which a number of well-respected thought leaders around the country have said we could use a lot more of,” DiGiacomo says. “Not only is critical thinking a desired skill set when it comes to employers, it’s an important skill in life in general.”

DiGiacomo recently read an article about what Apple CEO Tim Cook looks for in job candidates, and she was struck by how much a philosophical mindset plays into his approach to hiring.

“He’s interested in things like whether you are willing to trust your gut and how you want to change the world,” she says. “He wants to know that the people he hires can answer these big questions. The way to answer them is to have a good understanding of Philosophy 101.”

A few reasons why studying philosophy is worthwhile for anyone, she says, include:

  • It helps employees interact better with co-workers. Hiring managers are finding that many employees who are whizzes with technical skills or coding, for example, are completely lacking when it comes to the ability to interact or collaborate with those around them, DiGiacomo says. “They often have trouble understanding other people or listening to other points of view,” she says. “One of the benefits to philosophy is it helps with how we think and how we interact in the workplace. Some people have just been taught hard skills, which are important, but they don’t equate to a well-rounded employee. Wisdom is the ultimate soft skill.”
  • It can help with career advancement. Many CEOs and others in leadership roles have looked to the wisdom of ancient philosophers as they advanced in their careers, DiGiacomo says. Lucio Tan Jr., CEO of Tanduay Distillers Inc., says the teachings of Confucious have served as a guide for his approach to leadership and life. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has used ideas expressed  by Aristotle to grow his business. “The real opportunity and the real way to excel in your career is to be this well-rounded thinker,” DiGiacomo says.
  • It is well suited for the challenges colleges face. Higher education has been deeply disrupted by the pandemic, and college students could find that a philosophy class could give them the foundation for overcoming those disruptions. “Philosophy is perfectly suited for remote learning and also offers tools and ideas that enable students to study and progress,” DiGiacomo says. “It’s like learning about something that directly addresses all the challenges they face as students to begin with.”
  • It comes with many role models. For young people pondering philosophy as a major, role models aren’t hard to find because plenty of successful people earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy. They include Peter Thiel, co-founder and former CEO of Paypal; Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard; Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia; and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, among many others.

The problem with philosophy’s reputation, DiGiacomo says, is that it conjures images of a lone figure thinking deep thoughts – but never taking action. That’s far from accurate.

“Philosophy is not meant to be taken out only when your yoga mat is unfolded or when your life is perfectly in tune with the universe,” she says. “It’s meant to be lived, used and applied.”

Cristina DiGiacomo, author of Wise Up! At Work, is the founder of MorAlchemy, a philosophical consulting firm. She also is the inventor of industrial philosophy and is the driving force behind the idea of applying philosophy in the workplace for the benefit of the leadership of organizations. DiGiacomo has 20 years of corporate executive experience at companies such as The New York Times, Citigroup, AMC Networks, and R/GA. She holds a master’s degree in Organizational Change Management from The New School. She also dedicated nine years to the study and practice of philosophy.

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