Dr Todd Mei is Founder of Philosophy2u.
For those who don't know anything about you or your work, can you provide a bit of background?
Thank you for having me! I’m what’s called a philosophical consultant, who specializes in meaningful work. A lot people wonder what’s so special about the philosophical bit. I use my philosophical training in concept analysis to help individuals and businesses identify and make needed innovations. Philosophers are often good at finding hidden problems and solutions, and my background is in work, economics, ethics, and hermeneutics (essentially the philosophy of narrative and interpretation). I focus mostly on organizational and personal development in view of meaningful work.
How did I get into the consultation role?
Discontent is often one of the best motivators. My first job after college was in claims adjusting for a large multi-national firm. While not entirely naïve, I was still a bit disheartened with the workplace culture. I was surprised at how one-dimensional and uncreative the corporate culture was, despite its preeminence as the “Cadillac of Insurance Companies” (or maybe because of it!). I vowed that if I ever went back to academia, I’d do a PhD in the philosophy of meaningful work and economics to find answers to creating a genuine and beneficial work culture.
The opportunity finally came to fruition, almost due to a quirk. I never planned on being an academic, but a place was offered to me in the UK. Over ten years later, after teaching and publishing in the philosophy of work and ethics, the academic machine was starting to get to me. I decide to leave. And this was just after getting the equivalent of tenure in the UK system! I was in a small yet diverse department of 11 professors who got along despite philosophically different interests. But the move to government micromanagement of the public higher education system was taking its toll. “Publish or perish” was an understatement, and I felt that instead of researching more obscure philosophical topics, why not apply my ideas about meaningful work in the “real world”.
I had been asked to do so while being an academic, and that came off with a modicum of success.
Enter the pandemic . . . many of us used it as a catalyst for massive change. My wife and I decided to leave our tenured posts, return to the US to be closer to family, and try our hand at new careers.
I founded Philosophy2u, which began as a public philosophy forum introducing important ideas to the public, mostly via a podcast series called Living Philosophy. After two years of podcasting and being in the top 20 of philosophy podcasts, I realized that I had a knack for engaging with business and thought leaders in a creative and illuminating way. I started doing more consultation work, introducing and interweaving my theories about meaningful work in a variety of ways—direct one-to-one personal development conversations with employees, problem-solving and ideation with business owners, and technical writing and storytelling for blockchain projects trying to use decentralized and distributed platforms to benefit society. The latter is not a Philosophy2u role, but something I do as a consultant for another firm called 1.2 Labs.
The year 2023 marked the official shift of Philosophy2u from a public philosophy forum to a dedicated consultation and business resource on meaningful work. Currently, we’re a small group of academics (former and active) who bring their unique expertise to help solve problems in the organizational and cultural spheres. Our aim is to be the premier resource on meaningful work and to help change the organizational landscape to genuinely empower employees by making them more capable people (and not just more capable workers!).
Was any one person who was instrumental in helping you get from where you started out, to where you are now?
Dr. Joseph Milne was my academic mentor. He not only introduced me to some of the most insightful philosophical texts that would remain the foundation of my intellectual career, but he also taught me the art of close textual analysis and helped me to hone the virtue of courage in academic debate and argumentation. It’s not easy arguing as a philosopher, with philosophers. Eventually, I found a way to reside away from and above the fray of the worst of it (professional ego and pettiness), and find my way into some of the most inspiring and transformative discussions, debates, and investigations.
Positivity & Perseverance
I owe a lot to my wife, Dr. Patricia Baker. She’s a classical archaeologist by training and a sailor at heart. Belief in oneself is sort of a cliché in the self-help world. I think people take for granted that this kind of belief is just one thing. Have it and your good. I don’t think that is the case; self-belief is multi-faceted. I am a pretty good athlete who has been in some hairy situations in terms of competition and being at the mercy of nature. So, I have a lot of belief in myself in that regard. But in terms of starting a new business? My wife has a lot of experience in starting from scratch and being resourceful, especially when things are lean (financially and emotionally!). So, she taught me how to be resilient and how to see things through in ways with which I was not familiar. She also complements my personality well. I’m a little impatient when it comes to seeing results happen. My wife has a lot of patience and is able to steady the ship, as it were.
Dr. Kate Tomas is a former academic philosopher, though her real calling is in personal development and counselling, especially for LGBTQIA+. She’s brilliant at what she does and finds ways to really identify your areas of improvement and draw on your strengths to make those improvements. She’s not shy. Her combination of positivity and brashness are unique. Throw in her training as a philosopher and her financial success, and well, you have a pretty compelling role model!
Is there a particular piece of advice you were given in the early days of your business journey that you still benefit from today?
“Good ideas don’t matter.”
As cynical as that advice sounds, I don’t take it to be. At the very least, it’s realist; and at the very most it’s smart motivation. I’ve heard it repeated to me by people who are not only successful at what they do, but are also innovative . . . and believe in and have good ideas.
The gist of the advice is that it’s not enough to come up with good ideas. They have to come ready-made and fit within an existing landscape or niche so as to appear familiar. Very few ideas succeed because of their novelty. They are usually attached to an existing form of behavior and sneak their innovation into the scheme of things. Very much a Trojan Horse approach.
I’ll just comment on two versions of this I heard recently.
Arvind Gupta is a geneticist by training. He’s now a venture capitalist and founder of Indie Bio, which funds start-ups trying to solve climate change, poverty, and human disease. So, you’d think his strong moral compass would be prominent when it comes to business decision-making—about which projects to fund and which ones to decline. When I asked him about this, he said that he absolutely did not introduce any moral views into the process. He often repeated that “no one cares” about morality. What he meant by this is that it’s near impossible to change someone’s moral outlook through business. Instead, you have to cater to their base economic needs. So the “good idea” of clean meats isn’t going to win over the majority for its moral role in relation to animal suffering; rather, it’s going to win because it’s cost-effective and tastes better. That’s what I call “sneaking” innovation into the existing landscape.
L. Sebastian Purcell is both a professor of philosophy AND a hedge fund CIO at 1.2 Capital Management. Go figure! I actually consult for his 1.2 Labs firm which, as I mentioned earlier, works with blockchain innovations. In discussing how he found his success as a hedge fund manager and cryptocurrency influencer, he commented that as philosophers we know a great deal about morality, politics, and economics. But that doesn’t matter when trying to disseminate ideas to the public. Sebastian’s version of “good ideas don’t matter”? Your good idea will work only if responds to people’s concerns about fear and happiness. Don’t get Sebastian wrong, he doesn’t exploit those concerns. He finds way to take his insights and funnel them out through those lenses. So, his blogs and articles grab your attention but then provide substantial insights into their topics. Not just “click bait”! I guess this is why he has thousands and thousands of followers on Discord and Quora!
What is the most important lesson you've learned about leadership in your business journey so far?
Successful leadership involves the right relation to vulnerability and failure.
Leadership is not about being the dominant and dominating commander. That view is ineffective in the long run, and I was surprised to see a recent Wharton newsletter tout the qualities of being certain and ditching modesty as keys to leadership. I think the Wharton approach works on the surface to get people’s attention. But the best leaders whom I have seen in business and in life are those who have a unique relation to and understanding of vulnerability.
In short, they recognize that everyone is vulnerable; everyone fails. The remedy is to “do them well”. This entails not letting them control you and how you see and affect others.
The most blatant example that is the opposite of this? Leaders who get angry at others when things go wrong. It means they are out of touch and don’t really regard the wellbeing of others as being important.
Personally, I saw the quality of good leadership in spades in Steve Edwards. He was co-creator of P90X exercise program for Beach Body, and he was himself an outstanding athlete. He was a close friend of mine, and he passed away in 2016 due to lymphoma. I had been in many situations where Steve was either leader of a project or became the leader because, well, when things get hairy and stressful, people turn to those who can lead. In the stickiest of situations, Steve had a remarkable ability to be gracious and bring out the best in others. I think he recognized that the only way to get through things is to ensure your team members are performing at their best. That what a good leader does. Instilling fear can work to some extent; but I think more life-affirming and longer-lasting is building self-confidence. We have enough fear in the world. Only life-affirming qualities can bring us together.
On a business leadership note, Paula Leach is doing a great deal on this front. She’s a former business executive/officer herself (Ford Motor Company, UK Home Office, FDM Group) who has turned to education and consultation at Vantage Point, especially in view of helping young women succeed in the business world. She has been researching and developing new models of leadership distinct from the dominating approach I just mentioned.
What are the top three things you wish you'd known when you were just starting out?
1. If you don’t learn how to fail well, it will kill you. Failure is always scary and unwanted. I think we suffer from failure anxiety more than any other epoch in history due to the way social media promotes the successes we want others to see. It so pervasive, it actually gets boring after a while; it reminds of what an Eastern spiritual teacher once said, “Success is utter mediocrity.” Everyone wants it, and for the wrong reasons. The truth is that success only comes with failure. And failure actually helps to create a healthy relation to success. Being modest about success and knowing how much luck is involved are important. The aforementioned venture capitalist, Arvind Gupta, admitted how he learned this the hard way. Former poker player phenom from the UK, Sam Holden, explained to me that his success at poker playing only came with realizing how much luck determines the outcome. He debuted in the World Series of Poker in 2011 and finished 8th. He retired in 2014, in part because he wanted to learn more about the role of luck in life. He got a Masters in philosophy and now owns a pub called The Monument in Canterbury, UK.
Another example: Readers will probably be familiar with one of the most successful hedge funds in the world, Bridgewater. It only really came about because of the several moments of failure Ray Dalio suffered as a financial investor. So, I think the best thing to bear in mind is to learn how to “fail well”—that is, know failure is inevitable and find a healthy relation to it. This certainly means learning from one’s failures, but also not to trying to get rid of the sense of failure altogether. That sense of vulnerability, on my view, makes us more genuine and able to communicate and work with other people. I could go on about this in philosophical terms à la existentialism and Stoicism. In lieu of that, I’ll just say, we never have victory or success as our final moment. We all die after all. However, we can ensure that we do things well until that moment arrives . . . and passes.
2. Surround yourself with good people. Sebastian Purcell taught this to me when discussing one of his areas of philosophical research—i.e. Aztec philosophy. Apparently, surrounding yourself with good people is one of the keys to the Good Life in Aztec philosophy. “Good” is a broad word. I think the best way to parse it is in terms of character qualities, or what the ancient Greeks would call “virtues”. Post-Christianity, we tend to think of a virtuous person as one who lives by a moral code. This is not what’s entailed in the ancient Greek understanding. A virtuous person exhibits certain qualities, according to which their actions might respectively differ in any one situation—i.e. there isn’t a standard code of conduct that governs all action. Life is messy, and many sticky situations involve a significant degree of human judgement and consideration of variables. So, I think as a business, you need to decide what key qualities you are looking for in the people with whom you work. I am big on this idea and refer to it as “incorporating virtues”. As well, this can be a fun exercise because you’ll find that qualities can range far and wide, depending on the business and roles for which you’re looking. And as I know from personal experience, just because someone has had a lot of success on paper or by reputation, it often does not mean they are the best fit for a business.
There are a variety of methods and exercises that can be enlisted to help a business with this process—from typical psychology tests and bespoke interview processes, to specific practices within the business. Ray Dalio famously had each staff list their strengths and weaknesses on a “baseball card” so they could find the best fit for projects. Co-workers could see what you were good at and what you were not good at. Staff resisted this transparency at first, but actually found it to be quite useful and made things work more seamlessly.
3. The Good Life is the end goal of business. You have to be focused on the logistics, of course. But never take your eye off the fact that success in business isn’t worth much if it’s not making your life and the life of your employees better. And I’m not talking about what philosophers call “The Compensation Argument,” where you tolerate work only because it lets you do the things you want in your free time. We spend so much of our life at work. If business is also a culture, then it should be one in which we are cultivating ourselves as people (not just workers). I’ve found that when a business aligns itself with something significant in life that others can recognize, good things happen at different levels. Team work and development have a larger landscape in which they matter. Employee identity has something positive on which to build. Businesses have something substantial against which it can check its temperature and the temperature of employees. I think what’s important is aiming for this, for a start, and finding a few things that contribute to it. It’s important not to see the Good Life as an end-state that can be achieved. It’s really a work in practice, and moreover, that the practicing of it is actually living it (not my insight but Aristotle’s). I have a lot of theoretical ideas about how to do this, but I’ll save the audience from the boredom! Instead, I’ll just cite my go-to example. The outdoor retailer, REI, is not a perfect business by any means. But what it does well is foregrounding its concerns for the conservation of nature and getting people exposed to the outdoors. REI has done a remarkable job at integrating these values in how their culture functions. It has a genuine sense of doing good—not by espousing its morals, per Arvind Gupta’s comment on good ideas—but by realizing that all it takes is to help people have a good experience of nature. REI in many ways is storytelling central for this. Share your experience . . . and by the way, get equipped for your next adventure in the meantime!
Another example is the rideshare company Alto. It puts safety first and along the way is quite supportive of its employees. Unlike Uber and Lyft, drivers are employed by Alto and drive Alto-owned cars; they are also paid by the hour (not by the ride) and are eligible for health insurance (even part-time). By putting safety first, Alto sends a message about the experience of driving (another area in which we spend so much of our lives!). Safety equals pleasurable. Both are constituents of a good quality of life. Again, there are a lot of ways business can align themselves with the Good Life. Finding a core value which the business and its employees can get behind is effective but not for every business. So, there may be more specific opportunities that it can provide instead. Joe Smart, who is Head of Organizational Development at NHS Oxford (UK), is big on helping employees cultivate compassion and explore the ways in which they can get a better sense of a meaningful life. Hugely philosophical, and I love Joe’s passion for expanding how and what NHS employees think of their work.
In your experience, what is the most effective way to build a strong network of mentors and advisors to guide you in your business endeavors?
I’ve never been one for networking at social events. I’m a bit of an introvert. Even as an academic, I avoided the post-conference party scenes unless I had an official role in the sponsoring organization. (Actually, I found it easy to engage with people when I was occupying a role, like president of an academic society. I felt I had to perform, but in a good way.)
I think what has worked for me is a bit of advice you often find freelance writers utilizing. They try to offer value to the person or party whom they are pitching. It may be outlining what they can provide in terms of writing, or it may be offering them a guest spot on one of their own blogsites or podcasts. Reciprocal networking!
I have met so many interesting people through my podcast series. The great thing about podcasting is that it becomes a medium of exploration for the guest as they are asked to reflect on their lives, their success . . . and their failures! This is not only interesting and valuable in and of itself, but it helps to create a memorable bond between you (the host) and the guest.
I have asked past guests countless times for their advice on certain points. It may not be the biggest and far-reaching network, but it is certainly effective.
So, if you have the time and wherewithal, start thinking of tools and opportunities you can offer others to help build relations.
How do you determine when it's time to pivot, and what factors should you consider in making that decision?
Because the timing of a pivot is dependent on so many factors, one of the best tools for assessing whether to pivot is . . . storytelling. I don’t mean storytelling in the marketing sense, though it’s related. Instead, think of your life as a story that needs to be told. Next, break down your story into two parts. One with short-term goals (say, the next five years); and one with longer term goals (i.e. what is entailed in a good or flourishing life).
Ask yourself how your life as a story is working out between the two types of goals. If you find that they are not connecting, or that their connection is not apparent, then it may be time to pivot. Worse case: You haven’t even thought of the longer-term goals; you’re probably running yourself ragged with trying to mean the short-term ones. But the short-term goals are not going to be fulfilling. When they are not, well, that’s pretty much going to erupt in a mid-life crisis—which I prefer to think of as an existential crisis.
If the pivot concerns a business strategy, the key is to try and get a grasp on the inevitable changes that will affect your business. Don’t ignore them or think that you don’t need to change! Pivoting involves a process of transitioning and transformation so that an aspect of your business is making ready for the changes so that the rest of it can survive and adapt. Perhaps as an oil company, for example, you might be seriously investing in off-setting carbon emissions technology. Or, if in the financial sector, you might find ways to make money during a bear market. Or, if you are a coder, with the emergence of ChatGPT and the likes, you’ll probably want to think about ways you can adapt your career since AI can easily duplicate code on request.
Finally, businesses cannot forget how a pivot is going to affects its people. Change shouldn’t be made callously. William Bridges’ work on transition management was hugely influential for me since he found ways to keep the interest of employees in the foreground in meeting any necessary changes.