When I was in graduate school studying philosophy, our university bookstore moved locations. Amidst the chaos of the move, the store set up makeshift sections and stacked books like Jenga pieces between partially constructed wooden shelves. After carefully navigating toward the philosophy section (usually easy to identify due to the absence of living souls), I was immediately presented with one of the most profound sentences I had ever read. Undoubtedly penned by a store clerk to bring order to the chaos, two signs simply read: Mathematics ends and Philosophy begins.
I immediately snapped a picture of the sign that has remained as my phone’s wallpaper, even several years later when working as a management consultant. One day at work, the phrase got me thinking about the nature of consulting. We use mathematics to help businesses address complex problems. Businesses struggle each day with tremendous uncertainty as they are routinely confronted with the unknown. They call upon hard calculations to predict end results. History has shown, however, that mathematics alone cannot predict the success or failure of companies.
When studying for consulting case interviews, one inevitably reads about AT&T’s cell phone mishap, and the details came rushing back to me. In the early 1980s, AT&T turned to management consultants to decide whether or not they should enter into the cell phone market. Using mathematical forecasts, the consultants anticipated cell phones being a niche market and not one AT&T should waste its time with. Like the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) of the 1960s, who wrongly predicted that there would never be a demand for personal computers, AT&T miscalculated one of the most important technological and commercial innovations of our time. This was due to their exclusive reliance on mathematics. Mathematics tells us how to build a phone but it struggles to tell us what a phone is and why somebody would pay money for it. In other words, mathematics ends.
I then began to explore alternative approaches to solving complex business challenges and reached the same conclusion as the book store clerk: when mathematics ends, philosophy begins. There are a host of organizations that assist businesses in their answering of questions that begin with how, and I was part of one. But I struggled to find an organization that helps companies engage with equally important questions that extend beyond logistics. Given the rapid increase of globalization and the exponentially faster development of technology, businesses will need both mathematics and philosophy to adapt and thrive in the 21st century. Had any manager at AT&T read the DEC case study coupled with the works of Jules Verne, for example, perhaps AT&T would have anticipated our collective fascination with futuristic technology.
So, armed with this knowledge, I left management consulting and partnered withDr. David Brendel, a pioneer in the neurohumanities space. Together, we formed a company that uses the humanities and cognitive science to help organizations operate more effectively. We use philosophical training to build high-performing cultures and, with the help of Dr. Paul Zak, we use mathematics to measure the very real effects of our training. Our recipe for creating and sustaining such high-performing cultures is the collective enhancement of skills embodied within Theory of Mind.
Theory of Mind is broadly defined as the capacity to understand what is going on in the minds of other people; its synonyms being empathy and emotional intelligence. Possessing advanced Theory of Mind skills means being able to conceptualize what others think and feel; to form hypotheses about why others act as they do; and to appreciate complex emotional and behavioral dynamics in groups. It often leads to increased levels of strategic thinking, collaboration, leadership, and trust within organizations. Businesses are starting to recognize the incredible importance of Theory of Mind in professional settings; so much so, global executives recently agreed these skills are the most critical for professional success.
Recent research also suggests that the most effective way to develop and further enhance one’s Theory of Mind is to read and discuss great humanities texts. (Now, thanks to the people who didn’t study philosophy, the neuroscientists, I can finally explain to my parents why I did). The humanities - of which philosophy is a part, along with literature, history, art, and music - are broadly characterized as the study of human experience and culture. Effectively, they serve as case studies, much like the cases I pored over when interviewing to become a management consultant. However, instead of evaluating the mathematics of AT&T’s cell phone miscalculation, the humanities delve a bit deeper, ultimately developing superior interpersonal and analytic skills within the reader, far more so than the calculative case studies of business school. The humanities help us see the bigger - and often more complex - picture. As written in the Harvard Business Review: “[Business] knowledge can be acquired in two weeks...People trained in the humanities... have learned to play with big concepts, and to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in conventional ways.”
As more and more businesses start recognizing the prosperity enjoyed by companies that leverage both mathematics and philosophy, they will see that possessing the ability to understand what is going on in the minds of other people uniquely positions them for future success. Professionals will now be able to augment mathematical calculation with the cognitive calculations found within the likes of Plato, Shakespeare, Austen, Verne, and Sun Tzu. Some leaders are ahead of the curve. Jack Bogle, founder of Vanguard, often relied upon poetry for guidance when building his company. He told me during a recent phone call that Shelley’s Ozymandias remains on his desk to this day.
And that is why I left management consulting to start a philosophy company: to help those who have not yet leveraged the power of the humanities to secure the continued success of their organization in our globalized, highly technical economy.
This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.