Aristotle’s relevance for startups

According to him, happiness consists in achieving health, wealth, knowledge and friends that collectively lead to a life worth living.
Aristotle’s relevance for startups

Ten years after working in the corporate world and running startups, I decided to pursue an advanced degree in Philosophy at the University of Oxford. One may wonder why, and why now.
Let me share the larger rationale with the help of Aristotle, a philosopher who helped me figure out some of the most pertinent questions about life and work. Born in 384 BC in Greece, he grew up to serve as the tutor of Alexander the Great, who soon after went out and conquered the known world. He was fascinated by first-principles thinking and exploring how things work. One of the questions that piqued his curiosity was exploring what makes human life meaningful with society as a whole. Aristotle attempted to answer four big questions:

1. What makes people happy?

2. What is art for?

3. What are friends for?

4. How can ideas cut through in a busy world?

According to him, happiness consists in achieving health, wealth, knowledge and friends that collectively lead to a life worth living. This requires us to make difficult trade-offs. Reading philosophy helps us figure out how to make tricky choices at work and in life.

Aristotle saw theory as practice. His questions didn’t have preordained answers; they had to be explored through micro-experiments and deliberate analysis. In this regard, he was more of a scientist or a startup founder, trying to validate or negate his hypothesis.

Being a community builder and teacher at heart, he knew that both individuals and groups need to allow for time for answers to reveal themselves and become accepted broadly. Entrepreneurs would call it finding the product-market fit.

Learning starts with asking the right questions and philosophers like Aristotle began there. That is another commonality with entrepreneurs—they attempt to address stuff society hasn’t quite figured out and complement it with solutions that have the potential to scale.

Mark Twain said, “To a man with a hammer, everything seems like a nail.” This explains the origin of all biases in our society, and also why some entrepreneurs develop great solutions, but struggle to explain the problem they are solving.

Studying Aristotle is an interesting way to train yourself to fight the ‘man with a hammer’ syndrome. Exploring his foundational message on experimentation and theory as practice helps uncover blind spots and enables discussions rooted in facts and observations, not dogma. Unlike present-day religious preachers or politicians, he was more interested in figuring things out as opposed to overlaying an existing point of view on new things that emerge.

What makes Aristotle interesting is his emphasis on figuring out important truths by engaging with society. In this regard, he seems a lot more like an anthropologist and an entrepreneur than a traditional philosopher who dispenses wisdom sitting in the ivory tower of knowledge.

Aristotle founded a research and teaching centre called the Lyceum; French secondary schools, lycées, are named in honour of this venture. He liked to walk about while teaching and discussing ideas. His followers were named Peripatetics, the wanderers. His many books are actually lecture notes and these lectures were far from being monologues. He trained his students to combine logic with observation to come with general causal claims.

Aristotle enabled observations to be dissected for clarity. Unlike the contemporary education system, Aristotle was not optimising for conformity. Through his methods, he made thoughtful disagreement a core component of learning.

Philosophy should be a core component of school, college and life curriculum. Engaging with the likes of Aristotle helps us figure out what matters most to us and why. Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland concludes with: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” The ultimate role of Aristotle is of a life GPS. He has been giving us direction for more than two millennia and will continue to do so. We just need to be intentional about carving the time and space for him.

So why read philosophy? Simply put, to put things in perspective, sharpen critical thinking skills and learn to deliberate what really matters and why. These aspects of life can’t be figured out with viral tweets and motivational videos. Despite everything going on in my life, I am glad to have embarked upon this journey. Even if you don’t enrol in a full-fledged degree, consider making philosophical ruminations part of your daily life.

Utkarsh Amitabh

CEO, Network Capital; Chevening Fellow, University of Oxford

Twitter: @utkarsh_amitabh

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