Tim Cook's Sound and Silence

From Tim Cook’s Sound and Silence:

When Cook turned the spotlight on someone, he hammered them with questions until he was satisfied. “Why is that?” “What do you mean?” “I don’t understand. Why are you not making it clear?” He was known to ask the same exact question 10 times in a row.

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from Yukari Kane’s new book Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs, and throughout the piece I was struck by how much of Tim Cook’s command over his employees was in fact a command over his own voice and the auditory dynamics of the meeting. I think there is something uniquely audacious and disarming about asking the exact same question 10 times in a row.

But he also used silence aggressively. From later in the article:

When someone was unable to answer a question, Cook would sit without a word while people stared at the table and shifted in their seats. The silence would be so intense and uncomfortable that everyone in the room wanted to back away.

My first reaction to this piece wasn’t to consider theories of listening and the voice, but to think about how innocuous most of our verbal/auditory encounters are in academic life. The portrayal of these meetings reminded me of some particularly tricky grad school rites of passage, but not in a bad way. It can be really productive to get grilled, but it also feels deeply personal—almost intrusive—which is why I think we tend to restrict it to our closest colleagues and/or use it as a weapon on outsiders (job talks, disciplinary policing, etc.)

That said, Cook’s questions are good ones to ask. I had a committee member sit me down once to extoll the virtues asking yourself “so what?”—not in the often-cliché way that we talk about that process, but on a deeper, fundamental level. “What do you mean?” “Why are you not making that clear?” I left that meeting with a sense of twin responsibilities that I’ve carried with me since: 1) generating new scholarship, and 2) making that scholarship understandable and meaningful to experts outside of your particular disciplinary sub-niche. I know I’ll never get asked the same question ten times in a row, but hopefully I’ve already asked myself many more times than that.

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