Most of us rarely want to wade through all the emails we expect, let alone the ones we don’t ask for. But those in search of inbox zero might find some contrarian advice from Apple CEO Tim Cook. In a new interview, Cook says he appreciates his unsolicited emails. In fact, he reads all of them.
“We can all perform at 90%, but you want people to get to 100,” he tells GQ in a new cover story. “And to get to 100, you have to be inspired by something.”
For Cook, that inspiration comes from reading customer emails. While you might expect the head of the world’s most valuable company to wall off all access to his inbox, Cook takes pride in keeping it publicly available. The resulting influx of emails from customers forms the foundation of his morning practice. “I religiously start looking at customer notes every morning, starting around 5 am or so,” he says. It’s not uncommon for him to forward them to other Apple employees, the feedback having sparked an idea.
Listening to strangers can kick-start our creative process
Whether intended or not, Cook’s routine for reading emails from strangers reflects some of our human tendencies in listening. For one, studies have shown that we may actually listen better to strangers than the people we’re close to—including those at work.
Researchers term this tendency the closeness-communication bias. In one experiment demonstrating the phenomenon, researchers paired participants with spouses or friends for a conversation, then repeated the exercise with strangers. As it turns out, participants were more likely to have correctly understood what strangers were saying. The conclusion: The more we know somebody, the less likely we are to listen to them carefully. In contrast, we listen to people we don’t know more attentively.
As it turns out, communicating with strangers can help us be more creative, too. Research has found that when we consult with people that we don’t know well, rather than ones we do, we’re able to brainstorm more and better ideas. And while the science focuses on spoken conversations, perhaps we can pick up a few lessons for what we gain from written communication as well.
But for those of us who might try adopting Cook’s routine, know that there may be limits on just how many emails you can scan before tapping out. “Reading is like any other type of task we might do,” says cognitive psychologist Erik Reichle, who studies the brain and body processes of reading, in an interview with Macquarie University. It’s just like how far we can walk, he adds, or how high we can jump.
But for Cook’s part, early-morning inbox time forms an essential portion of his leadership practice. “I’m curious, and I’m curious about how things work,” he tells GQ. And for those of us looking to adopt a more creative routine, it might be a style worth borrowing.