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Consilience Over Convenience

Jonah Lehrer on Steve Jobs’ emphasis of consilience over convenience.

Perhaps the clearest demonstration can be seen in the design of the Pixar campus. In November, 2000, Jobs purchased an abandoned Del Monte canning factory on sixteen acres in Emeryille, just north of Oakland. The original architectural plan called for three buildings, with separate offices for the computer scientists, the animators, and the Pixar executives. Jobs immediately scrapped it. (“We used to joke that the building was Steve’s movie,” Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar, told me last year.) Instead of three buildings, there was going to be a single vast space, with an airy atrium at its center. “The philosophy behind this design is that it’s good to put the most important function at the heart of the building,” Catmull said. “Well, what’s our most important function? It’s the interaction of our employees. That’s why Steve put a big empty space there. He wanted to create an open area for people to always be talking to each other.”

Jobs realized, however, that it wasn’t enough to simply create a space: he needed to make people go there. As he saw it, the main challenge for Pixar was getting its different cultures to work together, forcing the computer geeks and cartoonists to collaborate. (John Lasseter, the chief creative officer at Pixar, describes the equation this way: “Technology inspires art, and art challenges the technology.”) In typical fashion, Jobs saw this as a design problem. He began with the mailboxes, which he shifted to the atrium. Then he moved the meeting rooms to the center of the building, followed by the cafeteria and the coffee bar and the gift shop. But that still wasn’t enough; Jobs insisted that the architects locate the only set of bathrooms in the atrium. (He was later forced to compromise on this detail.) In a 2008 conversation, Brad Bird, the director of “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” said, “The atrium initially might seem like a waste of space…. But Steve realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen.”

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Charlie Munger, one of the world’s best and most respected investors, also emphasizes consilience. To learn more about multi-disciplinary thinking, I recommend reading Poor Charlie’s Almanack.

If you want to learn more about Jobs, you should read his authorized biography.

Jonah Lehrer is the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist.