Apple CEO Tim Cook is surely one of the most accomplished humans on Earth. He’s the CEO of its most profitable company and the first openly gay CEO of the Fortune 500. He made $145 million last year. But when asked about his legacy on Wednesday (Sept. 20), he didn’t mention any of his many achievements.
“When my toes point up, if people say ‘he was a good and decent man,’ that is good enough for me. That’s my goal,” he said at the Bloomberg Global Forum in New York.
Cook’s mundane goal is a sharp contrast to how Steve Jobs, Cook’s predecessor at Apple, saw his legacy. In his 2011 authorized biography of Jobs, Walter Issacson wrote that “[Jobs’s] ego needs and personal drives led him to seek fulfillment by creating a legacy that would awe people. A dual legacy, actually: building innovative products and building a lasting company. He wanted to be in the pantheon with, indeed a notch above, people like Edwin Land, Bill Hewlett, and David Packard.”
In the same book, Jobs described his own ambition: “My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary.”
Jobs was by all accounts an extraordinary innovator and creator worth remembering (if not necessarily, by many accounts, a nice one). But psychological research suggests that Cook’s simpler understanding of a meaningful life is just as valid as Jobs’s lofty desire to join the “pantheon.”
As Emily Esfahani Smith, the author of The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness, recently explained in a New York Times opinion column, many people share Jobs’s dreams, but actually derive more meaning from mundane accomplishments.
“Today’s college students desperately want to change the world, but too many think that living a meaningful life requires doing something extraordinary and attention-grabbing like becoming an Instagram celebrity, starting a wildly successful company or ending a humanitarian crisis,” she writes.
One study Smith cites found that teenagers built a sense of purpose in doing household chores, because they contributed to their families. Another documented that cheering up a friend was an activity that created meaning in young people’s lives.
Researchers Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden interviewed 135 individuals about times when they found their work meaningful. They found mundane moments that involved contributing to some larger goal to be a common theme, and described some of them in the MIT Sloan Management Review:
A garbage collector explained how he found his work meaningful at the “tipping point” at the end of the day when refuse was sent to recycling. This was the time he could see how his work contributed to creating a clean environment for his grandchildren and for future generations. An academic described how she found her work meaningful when she saw her students graduate at the commencement ceremony, a tangible sign of how her own hard work had helped others succeed. A priest talked about the uplifting and inspiring experience of bringing an entire community together around the common goal of a church restoration project.
Jennifer Aaker, a social psychologist at Stanford who studies meaningfulness, has found that a sense of meaning is also generally attached to generosity toward other . As she explained in a 2014 interview:
In general, people leading happy (but not necessarily meaningful) lives derive joy from receiving benefits from others. In contrast, people leading meaningful (but not necessarily happy) lives experience joy from giving to others. Meaning transcends the self while happiness focuses on giving the self what it wants.
Aaker and her research partners have found that deep relationships similarly increased meaning.
Contributing to families and local communities, giving, and forming deep relationships may be quiet achievements, but research suggests they produce a real sense of purpose. Writes Smith: “A good life is a life of goodness—and that’s something anyone can aspire to, no matter their dreams or circumstances.”
Even if that anyone happens to be the CEO of the most profitable company in the world.