Prominent Magazine in Brazil Interviews Jerry

This is the English text from a recent email interview with Jerry Walls conducted by a popular magazine in Brazil, and which was published right before Jerry did a talk for a large Human Resources association there.

What philosophers and what ideas and thoughts would you suggest to professionals that want to be successful?

I believe that true success always arises out of excellence and passion, put into action with the right ideas, and in the right way. The great practical philosophers like Lao Tsu, Confucius, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, and Ralph Waldo Emerson have advised us to know ourselves - our talents, our enthusiasms - and our opportunities, and to make the most of those opportunities each day. I would urge professional people at every level to rediscover the great practical thinkers in history, and use their ideas. One of my colleagues, Tom Morris, is bringing many people this wisdom in his books, like If Aristotle Ran General Motors, The Art of Achievement, and If Harry Potter Ran General Electric. He and I are both working hard to discover the ideas that have stood the test of time, ideas that people can use every day.

Which are the real and practical cases of VPs and directors of companies in highly-competitive segments who effectively put philosophical lessons into practice, and which were the measurable well-succeeded results? Could you give an examples?

Tom Chapell, founder of Tom's of Maine, a personal care products company (makers of toothpaste and other items) took time off from his CEO duties to get a degree from Harvard Divinity School, and uses many of the great philosophical ideas in his business. He has told the story in two books. John Alison, President and CEO of BB&T Bank, talks to all his associates about Aristotle, and asks them to read philosophically to improve and deepen their business behavior. Steve Leveen, Co-founder and President of Levenger, a major catalogue company and retailer in the US, reads philosophy all the time - especially the stoics - and uses their ideas both to move toward greater success, and to help the people around him to find their inner strength to draw on in more challenging times. A major restaurant chain in the US, Chic-Fil-A, bases everything they do on a very positive philosophy of life, and it has incredible results for them. In my own recent experience, I've just seen the European Directors and managers of the famous consulting firm, McKinsey and Company, get very excited about the philosophical ideas I'm talking about in Brazil. So we can see many companies beginning to discover philosophy and putting the ideas to great use.

In terms of measurable results, we have very strong anecdotal evidence that the wisdom of the great thinkers of the past can take people to greater heights of success in the present. Bankers and retailers don't have the time to indulge the hobby of philosophy unless it can bring them results. And yet, some of the results are hard to quantify and measure, which is why many people have neglected these ideas recently. And yet, as in life generally, it's ofte the things that are hardest to measure that are the most important for supporting those things that we can measure, like employee satisfaction and turnover rates, customer retention, and performance in highly competitive industries.

In countries like Brazil, where educational level is low, is it possible to talk about the use of Philosophy in professional life?

Yes it is. Philosophy didn't start in universities. It began with people who were curious enough to ask questions about the most important things in life. We all need wisdom in our lives. Some of the wisest people in the world aren't necessarily the most educated in a formal sense. But they are people who pay attention to what they see and experience, and who remember the lessons they've learned about life. These people respond very well to the greatest wisdom of the past. Philosophy doesn't have to be complex to be powerful. It's often most profoud where it's the most simple.

But aren't philosophical lessons the opposite from companies' short term expectations?

Philosophers value truth. It's hard to get solid results in the long term or in the short term if you aren't open to truth, and responsive to truth. Philosophers value beauty. A beautiful solution to a client's problem can create amazing results in the short term. Philosophers emphasize the importance of goodness and ethics. People who trust each other work the best together and are the most productive. A lack of goodness breeds resentment, and where they aren't well treated, people never reach their highest and do their best.

Could you make a connection between Plato's allegory of the Cave and Human Resources Management nowadays?

Plato believed that we are all like people chained in a cave, watching shadows dance across the wall, and mistaking these illusions for realities. The philosopher is a person who frees himself of those chains, climbs out of the cavern of illusion, sees the real light of day, and returns down into the cave to help free the others.

In Human Resources, as in every other business function, we do our best if we are free of illusions and understand the realities of our situation. We also hire the best people when we can find people who know how to distinguish appearances from realities. Philosophy is the great liberator. When it's used well, it can free people to be their best and do their best in any environment.

If you had to list five or ten tips based in philosophical lessons to a professional who is striving for success, which would be?

1. Set clear goals rooted in self knowledge and an understanding of what is good for others as well as yourself. Socrates said, "Know thyself." This is the foundation for proper goal setting.

2. Build a strong self-confidence based on a real personal competence in what you're doing. It's up to each of us to move confidently toward our goals. Inner attitude brings about outer results. Marcus Aurelius once wrote: "Your life is what your thoughts make it."

3. Focus your concentration on what it will take to reach your goals. And then work hard at it, starting from wherever you are. Jose Ortega y Gassett once said, "We distinguish the excellent man form the common man by saying that the former is the one who makes great demands on himself, and the latter who makes no demands on himself." In the ancient world, Publilius Syrus said, "If you wish to reach the highest, begin at the lowest."

4. Be consistent in what you do. Consistency is a source of great power in life. Epictetus reminds us that "No great thing was ever created suddenly." It takes consistent effort over time to accomplish great things.

5. Have enthusiasm and passion for what you do. Nietzsche said, "Is not life a hundred times too short for us to bore ourselves?" Do something you love, find a way to love something you do, and then you can succeed.

6. To quote the ancient thinker Heraclitus, "Character is destiny." Unethical success is always self-destructive. Only ethical success will last. Take care in little things. Always act with integrity.

7. Cultivate a capacity to enjoy the process along the way. We are so results oriented, we forge to enjoy the process. But it's the process that produces the results. The best people in any endeavor are people who love what they are doing. As Goethe said, "Nothing is worth more than this day." So enjoy the day as much as you can!

Nietzsche used to say: belief that fulfillment must come easily is ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared. Is this a good thought to be followed? Persistance is always a synonym of success?

Persistence is always a precondition for success worth achieving. The most successful people aren't always the most talented or the smartest, but they do tend to be the people who are the most committed and the most resilient and the most persistent. Cervantes once wrote: "Diligence is the mother of good fortune." Work at anything you want, and continue to work at it with diligence. Don't give up. Nietzsche was right, and he understood the power of persistence in his own life. It's a quality we all need to have.

Is it really possible to put classical philosophy in work day and in a career management even in a world that is always changing and when are given to us a lot of information and when professionals are told that they need to do the best in short time?

We need to draw a careful distinction between theoretical philosophy and practical philosophy. Theortical philosophy requires sitting and pondering. Practical philosophy seeks to get people into action - but not just any action, wise action. In changing times, we need to base our actions on ideas that have stood the test of time. It's the values and insights that never change that can best help us to get our bearings and do our best in circumstances that are tremendously changing. The most practical of classical philosophy will give anyone an edge in business and in life, a real advantage. That's why contemporary philosophers like Tom Morris and myself are being asked to speak to so many corporations, and to people at every level. Those who have tasted the practical fruit of philosophy want more.

We can start questioning everything in search of "the truth," taking Socrates as an example. But what can be "the truth" in Business and in Human Resources? Is it possible to question everything in a company without putting your job at risk?

Questioning people are people who can discover ways to improve their work. In doing practical philosophy, we question in order to improve. We aren't just contemplating and asking questions endlessly. We want better ways, we want higher goals, and we want deeper values to base our work on. Then, in good times and in bad times, we can bring ideas of power into the workplace.

Today ethics is an important issue for companies. What can philosophers teach about this subject?

Many people misunderstand ethics. They think it's just about staying out of trouble. The great philosophers understood that ethics is all about creating strength - strong people, strong companies, strong client relationships. If we understand the true nature of ethics, we are motivated to be as ethical as possible in every situation. And at the core of the complicated subject of ethics is something as simple as The Golden Rule: Treat others the way you would want to be treated if you were in their place. This is the foundation for great work and great relationships.

Thomas Hobbes used to say that the leader in a State was moved by pride and his goal was glory, not good results for everybody. Do many executives have this kind of feeling? How can this cenario change?

Those who chase their own glory and fame in a self-serving way most often alienate everyone else around them. The best people don't want to work for an ego-maniac. And so an arrogant self-seeking person will lose the support of the people best able to help him do great things. Hobbes was pessimistic about human nature in what he thought of as a "natural state." But most of the practical thinkers of history, whether they started out pessimistic or optimistic about human beings, came to realize that a concern for others, and a sense of the importance of serving others, is one of the greatest facilitators of truly excellent results in the world.

About the book by your friend Tom Morris, If Aristotle ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business, or your talk on its ideas, "If Aristotle Ran General Motors, Or Gave You Advice": What would Aristotle have done in GM?

He would have concentrated on the four foundations of excellence: truth, beauty, goodness and unity. He would have been asking every day how to apply these things in the workplace, in product design, in selling, and in all other facets of the company. He would have been hiring not just smart people, but truly wise people. He would have been creating partnerships in new ways. He would have been a big picture thinker who took care of all the small things. And I think he would have been getting some amazing results.

Can you sugest some good books about philosophy to no-philosophers?

First, some books by the contemporary business and life philosopher, my good friend and colleague Tom Morris, some of which are available in Portugese editions, as well as English, Spanish and many other languages:

Philosophy for Dummies
True Success
If Aristotle Ran General Motors
The Art of Achievement
The Stoic Art of Living
If Harry Potter Ran General Electric

Most of my books are very academic in nature, but recently I published a collection of new essays on Basketball and Philosophy that contains a lot of wisdom from many philosophers on sports and life.

I'd also recommend that people look for translations of ancient philosophers like Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Cicero, as well as later practical thinkers like Emerson. Go into a bookstore, pick up some philosophy books off the shelf and read some passages randomly in the book. See if it speaks to you. If not, put it down. If so, take it home, enjoy it, and live the ideas you learn!

Thank you very much.


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