Inspiration is everywhere. Following his cancer diagnosis, Apple founder Steve Jobs visited his childhood home and took along his biographer, Walter Isaacson. Jobs showed him the “smart, cheap and good” Eichler-designed houses there, which displayed what he described as “clean design and simple taste.” Isaacson recounts in Jobs’ biography how this was “the original vision for Apple… what we tried to do with the first Mac… what we did with the iPod.”
Jobs found inspiration in his surroundings, in mind-altering drugs (LSD “reinforced my sense of what was important — creating great things instead of making money”), calligraphy and literature, with a reading list influenced by spirituality, meditation and Eastern philosophy. He isn’t the only one. Microsoft’s Bill Gates is a voracious bookworm who promotes inspirational reads in viral-worthy videos, while Donald Trump credits Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking with inspiring him to carry on in business when several billion dollars in debt.
But inspiration isn’t only found in books and buildings. For many chief executive officers (CEOs) the endorphin rush of exercise is equally effective. Richard Branson leaves his bed at 5:00 a.m. to work out which, he says, puts him “in a great mind frame before getting down to business,” while for Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey it’s a quick workout early in the morning. Even this looks tardy compared to Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, who famously rises before the sun so he can hit the gym and on off-days cycles and hikes. Recent releases of Macintosh operating systems are named after inspirational landmarks in California, and with the Apple Watch — which Cook credits with helping him lose 30 pounds — Apple has gone from a standing start to market leader. It sold more than 8 million units in the closing quarter of 2017, despite arriving late in the market.
Productive downtime like this doesn’t come naturally. Early-rising CEOs restructure their working days — indeed, their lives — to accommodate the mental buffer zones they need to take their businesses forward.
Sports aren’t always the answer. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella turned to technology only when sports turned against him. He told GeekWire that while he’d grown up wanting to be a professional cricketer, “at a certain point, I realised that I had reached my limit and luckily discovered my next passion in engineering and technology.” Microsoft’s share price reached an all-time high under Nadella’s leadership after he changed its whole approach to business. Why? Because he’d been inspired, not by the sport he loved, but by literature. It was Carole Dweck’s book Mindset which helped him understand that Microsoft needed to reconsider some of its longest-held assumptions.
Whether it’s sport, reading, architecture or something altogether different, business leaders find inspiration in the real world and make it part of their corporate culture and the products they produce. It proves that, used well, downtime needn’t be lost time — but a source of inspiration that has a direct impact on the health of any business.