Last night at the University of Glasgow, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook was awarded an honorary doctorate. After the ceremony, in what the university called an intimate fireside chat (in front of 1,100 students) he discussed with me the things that matter to him.
Cook is a remarkably philosophical CEO, so that every question was met with an answer that had clearly been deeply considered. No off-the-cuff policy-making here.
And unlike most CEOs, this was no product pitch. Though he referred to some Apple products, this chat was focused on the man’s and the company’s values.
Cook once told The Independent that companies were just groups of people, people had values and so, therefore, companies should have values. I asked him what the values that defined him were.
“My philosophy is, don’t work for money, it will wear out fast. Or you’ll never make enough and you’ll never be happy. You have to find the intersection of doing something you’re passionate about and that at the same time is in the service of other people. I would argue if you don’t find that intersection you’re not going to be very happy.”
“The kind of things that we work on, the main thing that Apple always does, is provide products to others that empower them to greatness. We will touch more people doing that than anything else we do. But we also advocate for human rights around the world. Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. We very much care about our environment. We set out on a goal which seemed reckless at the time of running Apple on 100 per cent renewable energy. I’m proud to say today we run Apple on 93 per cent renewable energy and we’re going to make that extra seven.”
Cook said that he was committed to education. “We see that in the top problems in the world between haves and have-nots, generally we find that the root cause is education. Too many times, equal opportunity depends on being born in the right place, maybe to the right family. We found schools where there was no technology, where kids were coming to school hungry. We can’t fix everything but we want to do our part.”
I asked him about his recent letter to his staff about the US immigration ban, where he said that Apple wouldn’t exist without immigration. Cook turned to the students and explained, “I wrote this letter after – you probably read about it unless you’ve been living underground – the recent executive order that was issued in the United States. What we found was that the order applied to people who were caught in transit. We had employees who have work visas. They love being in the United States, they brought their families to the United States, they happened to be outside the US when the executive order was issued and all of a sudden they couldn’t get back in. Arguably, that’s a crisis, can you imagine that? Or the feeling that exists that it could occur again?”
Then he invoked Martin Luther King, whom he described as a hero of his: “Dr King said something so incredible, it wouldn’t be the actions of people that would be the problem, it would be the appalling silence of the good people. I think that’s a lesson to all of us. If we stand and say nothing, it’s as if we agree. We become a part of it.”
It’s something he feels strongly about. He went on, “Steve [Jobs] was the son of an immigrant. Our company has immigrants in it who are key to our innovation. It depends on diversity of thought, and people generally have diverse views of things if they have different backgrounds. It’s the tapestry of people of different backgrounds who are able to create the best products. We wanted to try to influence the public discourse about the ban.”
“I don’t view Apple or myself as an activist. What we do is for some things where we think we have deep knowledge, or think we do, or a strong point of view, we’re not shy. We’ll stand up, speak out even when our voice shakes.”
There was some product talk. When asked about parameters to the way Apple devices can interact with the human body, he said, “I don’t think there’s a limit. I think there are lines. For us, they are privacy lines. I visited a Glasgow hospital this afternoon. The British health system particularly is rich with data. There’s probably enough data there, about a 45-year track, of an individual’s health records and what has happened to them and their families and if you couple that with the sequencing and imaging that can be done now, you can begin to stitch together a direct connection between cause and effect. What does that mean? It means you can live longer, better.
“We’ve found with the Apple Watch that monitoring the heart is a big idea. Most people other than athletes didn’t monitor the heart and even athletes only monitored their heart in an athletic endeavour. With the Watch we found that so many people discovered they had a heart issue and if they hadn’t been wearing a watch that produced the data, they would have never gone to the doctor and if they hadn’t gone to the doctor they would have died.”
“The British health system is a great place to study this data. You have a system that everyone is in and the motivation is pure: for people to be healthy. In other countries, like the US, there are complicated insurance reimbursements and other things where companies also focus as much on how they get reimbursed. It’s an area where I’m excited about Apple’s potential contribution.”
Did he have any advice for the students about to graduate? “Think about what you’re passionate about. I did not learn something early enough: if I could go back I’d tell the younger me that there’s a big difference between loving to work and loving the work. The other thing about today’s environment is the world is full of cynics. You have to tune them out. If not they become a cancer in your mind and in your thinking. You begin to think you can’t or that life is negative. The truth is, even if it doesn’t seem like this all the time, there has never been a better time to be alive than today. It’s the best time. My advice is to tune out the cynics even if they are sitting next to you.”
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