Business Strategist and Philosopher Ryan Stelzer

On applied utopia and why AI doesn’t keep him up at night

A philosopher who dodged academia to lend his skills to the business world, Ryan Stelzer is the co-founder of Strategy of Mind, a company that leverages philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience to help businesses succeed. Ahead of his talk at the House of Beautiful Business we ask him about the state of the world right now and why he thinks philosophy might be the most important component of personal and professional growth in the 21st century.

What’s the best thing about the world right now?

I was visiting a historian friend and his wife, a biologist. We were chatting, and and I said to him: If you could go revisit a period of history when would you like to live? And he said the fall of Rome, I think he mentioned meeting Plato or something like that. And then I asked his wife, What about you, and she said, today. And I said, that’s interesting, no one has ever said that before, how come? And she said, well, for starters, the world is better today that it has ever been, and as a woman, she said, is better for women today than it has ever been, so there’s no period in history that I would want to return to because we’re in a better position today than ever before.

I guess the best thing about the world right now is that it’s better than it’s ever been. That doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement, but it’s in a better place than it was 100 years ago. I think social progress is coming along.

That’s a very hopeful view.

Yes, it helps me sleep at night.

How do you find beauty in your work, and how do you convince people of the value of philosophy?

There’s definitely reluctance amongst the business community to accept that philosophy is beneficial. When we first started, one of the first articles that we wrote was on LinkedIn and was called “Why I left management consulting to start a philosophy company.” About a week later we got an email from the editorial team that our article was the number one article on the site. What we discovered then was that there are people who just love philosophy, regardless of their occupation.

So that’s how I find beauty in my work — I’m extracting that inner philosopher out of everybody. Because every single person at some moment has a highly existential question. And every single person in their life, probably every day, has to decide whether an action is good or bad, and that’s philosophy. But people are scared of the term, and I understand why.

Why?
 
Well… Academia has not helped it, it’s become cloistered. In order to be a philosopher you have to have a PhD, you have to write these papers that four people are going to read. Academia wants philosophy to be overly complex and highly analytical, but professors of philosophy, they’re not philosophers, they’re historians. They’re experts on a topic or on a person. If you’re an expert on Kant, that doesn’t make you a philosopher, that makes you a historian. Socrates — the godfather of philosophy — was essentially the crazy guy in the street, whom no one really liked. So I feel academia has done a disservice to philosophy.

And how do you apply philosophy to business?

It depends on the scenario, but generally what we have found is that there are ways to make it relevant to a business that would help it succeed; communication, creativity, strategy, things like that. In my TEDx talk, I explained that there are three key components of philosophy that can help a business succeed: think, talk, create. These key elements of philosophy are relevant to about every professional scenario.

What about AI? Through your work so far, have you had any aha moment about the future as shaped by technology?

Yes. Basically this: a business makes money not because of the services, the machines, the products that it has. A business makes money because of the people that operate the machines, that sell the products, that develop the products. It is the human component of work that makes a business profitable, because people buy what people make, people buy what people sell, and so on. Work is an inherently human process.

So that’s why AI does not keep me up at night. Because people are always going to be behind the scenes, whether we like it or not. We’re not going to make humans obsolete. If anything, automation is going to make work more human.

One last thing, what’s your vision of utopia?

My vision of utopia is not like John Milton’s or even Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. I rather think of it in the following terms: If you were to apply just a general bell curve about someone’s life, and you were simply to say, “on the left side there are objectively bad things and on the right side there are objectively good things,” I feel generally people’s lives would fall somewhere in the middle of the bell curve.

So for me, a utopia is not necessarily fictional, but a world in which everyone is trying to do everything they can to ensure that the bell curve shifts to the right for other people. Because we’re often the cause of good and bad in the lives of other people.

Ryan will be speaking at the House of Beautiful Business in Lisbon, November 3–10th. Alongside start-up founders, executives, nonprofit leaders, investors, writers, philosophers, scientists, designers, technologists, and artists, we will be discussing and prototyping how to lead with purpose and passion; how to build human companies and workplaces; and how to design for deeper connections in an age of exponential change and massive societal disruption.

The House of Beautiful Business is a production of The Business Romantic Societyin collaboration with the BCG Henderson Institute and Siemens, as well as Typeform, HERE Technologies, Indeed Innovation, A Hundred Years, Caffeine, K Street Partners, Soulworx, Uberbrands, diffferent, Joint Idea, Gat Rooms, Moi Moi, and Girls in Tech.