38 min read

Aesthetic Intelligence

Aesthetic Intelligence

Steve Jobs, the mastermind behind Apple, is a name that reverberates through the corridors of technological innovation. His genius, though, is a puzzle that isn't easily solved by the usual measurements. Consider pedigree - Jobs was a college dropout, not an Ivy Leaguer. What about IQ? Certainly high, but not enough to explain his groundbreaking influence. Emotional intelligence? Far from his strongest suit, according to those who knew him. What he possessed, rather, was a unique capacity for what Pauline Brown calls "aesthetic intelligence." This unique form of intelligence, often overlooked, was instrumental in creating enormous value, not just for Apple, but for the business world at large.

Pauline Brown has been a trailblazer in the luxury goods sector for over 25 years. Earlier in her career, she held senior executive roles at design-driven companies, including LVMH and Estée Lauder. She is currently a marketing professor at Columbia Business School, where she teaches a course on ’the Business of Aesthetics.’ With her extensive experience in businesses spanning from beauty to fashion to investment, she brings an unmatched perspective on the intersection of aesthetics, business, and consumer behavior. Her groundbreaking book, Aesthetic Intelligence: How to Boost It and Use It in Business and Beyond, is an exploration of this new form of intelligence and its impact on businesses and individuals alike.

Aesthetic Intelligence is the ability to understand and harness the power of sensory experiences to generate emotional responses and, subsequently, value. Pauline underscores how aesthetics, often neglected in the business context, can dramatically increase a company's value and create enduring connections with consumers. Aesthetic intelligence, she argues, can be a game-changer for businesses feeling the pressure of margins, scale limitations, and the rise of artificial intelligence. It is what she calls "the other AI," possibly the only human advantage left in the AI age.

In my conversation with Pauline, we take a closer look at the meaning and potential of aesthetic intelligence. We will learn how aesthetic intelligence can be the new horizon for businesses but also transform us individually as well as our organizational culture - even in fields like science. And we will explore ways to unlock and nurture this form of intelligence within ourselves. You can watch the episode below or listen to it wherever you get your podcasts. An unedited transcript follows.

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Interview Transcript

Brandon: Pauline, it's such a pleasure to have you on the podcast. Thank you for joining us.

Pauline: Thank you, Brandon. Great to be part of this conversation with you.

Brandon: Yeah, I'm a big fan of your work. And to get started, let's talk about this brilliant concept of yours, aesthetic intelligence. What is it? What do you mean by that?

Pauline: Well, I always like to say, as a former English major, I pick my words carefully. I actually care very much about specificity when it comes to words. So the word aesthetics, contrary to what most people think — and you know this, Brandon, very well — it has a more profound definition. It really isn't about beauty. It can be beautiful, but it isn't defined by pure beauty. It isn't even defined really by visual elegance, in any form.

So if I go back to the roots of it, it comes from the Greek word 'aisthetikos' which is 'perception of the senses.' It's how objects and experiences make you feel. It's not unrelated in its etymology to another word that we use quite frequently for different purposes, and that is anesthesiologist. An anesthesiologist's job is to numb the pain so when you go into surgery, you don't feel anything. And as that's job is to bring the feelings forward so that you feel a lot and generally very pleasurable things. That's aesthetics.

Aesthetic intelligence is the ability to not only know what looks and feels good to you personally, but how to deliver it for others. In essence, it's just taste. It doesn't require artistry or particular creativity, although it helps to have that orientation. It really requires more power of discrimination, a sense of self-awareness, bodily attunement, sensorial attunement, and an ability to articulate what it is you envision to get to a better state, both in feeling and in representation or image.

Brandon: That's really, I think, is a crucial set of distinctions there certainly between beauty and aesthetics. And beauty being, I think, there's probably some sort of Venn diagram there I suppose where there are forms of beauty that are perhaps not sensorial. Then there are aesthetic experiences that certainly are not beautiful, experiences of the grotesque or things that we might consider ugly but also other kinds of categories. How did you come upon the concept? What led you to develop this idea? Do you have sort of a moment of insight or a set of experiences that led you to recognize the value of this notion?

Pauline: Well, let me say, I often joke. For somebody who had the word strategy in her title several times, it was not a strategic process to get there. There were a series of epiphanies, some non-job related, where it sort of came together at the right time and in the right way. And it's still coming together. I mean, I've been on this path now since 2016. I feel like I'm still learning, and I'm still delving and probing.

One of my early epiphanies is, I came into the work world when the direction was to be professional is to be impersonal. So you don't really bring yourself into your office, particularly in a business environment. So I always compartmentalized who I am and what I do professionally and in directing myself toward what I do. I did what a lot of smart, ambitious, curious people. I went to business school. Even more specifically, after business school, I worked in consulting.

I worked for Bain up in Boston. Bain is sort of the epitome of a non-aesthetic approach to business, very analytical, very depth-driven. Everything is broken down to frameworks and systematic approaches and solutions. I thought that that was what business required. So when I left Bain, my first real job — I actually looked at it as my first real job in general, discounting Bain — was at Estée Lauder. I remember, very early on, I did everything that I had been trained to do from Wharton to Bain to think I'd be successful and impactful. I was shocked down several times in meetings — sometimes privately, sometimes publicly. I sort of came to the conclusion that at least in that business, that that way of approaching which is very clinical and very structured is very disconnected from why they're in business, why anyone buys an Estée Lauder lipstick or any of their sister brands. I had to unlearn some of the approaches in order to succeed there.

I always thought, well, that's just the beauty industry. It's its own animal, because it's all about brand and story and feeling. Real business would be more akin to what I had experienced earlier. But then, even years later, I found myself as a partner at The Carlyle Group — which, again, is much more I'd say comparable to a Bain than it would be to an Estée Lauder. And yet, when I was at my best, I brought more than any dispassionate, functional approach to problem solving. I had instinct. I understood the power of a brand, because I was investing at the time in premium brands. I had sort of an instinct for people in expression that seemed to actually generate value for the firm. Some of the deals that I was involved with at Carlyle were the best yielding returns of those portfolios. And so I came to the conclusion that, number one, what I took to do well was much more complicated and untapped than what most business people had ever been either told or taught.

The other thing that was important awakening is when I graduated from business school in the '90s. The talk of the town was Dan Goleman, who had just come out with this breakthrough book about emotional intelligence. It was the first time that anyone had ever argued, at least to large audiences, that the differentiator between highly successful people and moderately successful people was not IQ, that it was this other quotient he called EQ. The reason I'm bringing this up is I subscribe to that.

Photo by Md Mahdi / Unsplash

Then not too many years later, one of the most successful businessmen in the world comes along. That is Steve Jobs. This is a man that by all estimates had very low EQ. I would not have wanted to work with him. He probably was a monster. But he arguably changed the world of business more than any other person in the last 100 years. He created a lot of value for a lot of people, including himself and his investors. So the reason I'm bringing this up is I felt that for all the evaluation, for all the discussion about who is Steve Jobs and what made him great, nobody had ever really decoded his particular form of intelligence. And I'm going to guess. I don't know his IQ score. But if I did, that he's a smart guy but he would probably not be as smart as Bill Gates, and definitely not as Albert Einstein. We know from my comment a moment ago that he had very low emotional intelligence.

So what was his intelligence? Was it just bravado? Well, that generally doesn't work in the long term. He didn't even have pedigree. He's not like he was getting his MBA at Harvard or Stanford. He, if anything, probably besmirched it. So I kind of came to the conclusion that what he had, that really had never been coined, was what I'll now call 'aesthetic genius.' That a man who never had a craft — he wasn't a fine artist. He wasn't a trained even a graphic designer — but he had such an incredible sensibility for what looked and felt good to him, and how to mobilize thousands of people working in his service toward that vision. And so I think it's a combination of seeing this new kind of archetype in business with my own experiences in different businesses, from beauty to investing, to years later in fashion. I said there's something here that could be a new horizon for businesses that have been squeezed on margin, that can't get much bigger than the scale that they've achieved that are being overtaken by AI, which is why I like to call aesthetic intelligence the other AI. It probably in my mind is the only human advantage left.

Brandon: What do you think it was exactly that Steve Jobs was tapping into? Because people argue that taste is just purely subjective, right? He seemed to have been able to create, intuitively grasp things that, at least most people — I don't think it's just most people in North America, but people across different cultures — might find more aesthetically pleasing. The ways in which you could look at the mouse, the kinds of things that he would design or could imagine designing somehow had a resonance with something that seems almost objective or something approaching that. So, can you talk a bit about that? What is he tapping into there?

Pauline: First of all, the way people express their taste is subjective. The way people experience great taste has a lot more universality than you think. By that, I mean, even people who would describe themself as maximalists, as collectors, as people who like small print patterns on their wallpaper would still look at an Apple product, an iPhone, an iPad, any Mac that came out and see its beauty. So I do think that there are standards of beauty that we all respond to. That's point number one. Point number two is, I think what made it so immersive and so transporting is it wasn't just his rethinking of what a device or a computer could look like, but it was an entire experience around it. That everything that touched what he sold was so congruent with this aesthetic principle that he built the brand on. I think for what most people marvel at, whether they want their home to look like an Apple store or not, it's the amount of originality, detail, and really perfection in bringing this 360-experience together.

The other point I'll make is, when you look at the human condition, there are certain things that we by and large gravitate to. You don't teach a child to enjoy ice cream, that sort of creamy, sweet, fatty. Our species is hardwired to like that flavor and that combination. There are certain colors that have been shown to really impact your mood. There are prisons that are putting pink on the walls in order to keep the inmates more serene. It has been known to have that effect. In hospitals, to use versions of light blue and green have curative qualities. They're anti-stress and so forth. I do think the way the body reacts to different sensorial cues is not that different. I think it's what we do with those feelings. Do I want to create a room, for example, that makes people calm, or do I want to create one that energizes you? Do I want to play music that makes me feel nostalgic or music that makes me feel I'm in the next century? Where personal taste comes in is really where our inner motivation is. I think our individual motivations, emotional motivators come into play.

Brandon: Yeah, thank you. I want to ask about your aesthetic journey starting from your childhood. We particularly attuned to the aesthetic nature of things. In your book, you mentioned a couple of objects: the Panasonic Take 'N' Tape and then the Vidal Sassoon shampoo bottle that somehow you were drawn to. Just say a little bit more about that. What were your earliest memories there?

Pauline: Let me start by saying I don't think I was born with any gifts on that front. I would say the one thing is, I probably had a little more what I'll call attunement or sensitivity to certain cues. I was observant. I still am. But I don't think I knew what to do with it. I certainly was never going to convert that sensitivity into a career as an artist or as a pure designer. But I think I remember so keenly the experience that I had of certain objects that represented much more than their utility.

One of the reasons I wrote the book is, I feel like we've come to a stage in the evolution of business where you cannot win just selling utility, or it can't win for long. Maybe if you're a pharmaceutical company and your utility is the efficacy of a certain drug treatment, until your patent expires, you can get away with it. But most companies don't have that kind of defensive positioning. Where they do win is where they establish real lasting connections, where they give their consumers some sort of reason to not just stop and look and consider, but to take pride in their association with that product or service, to want to come back to it, to associate that product or service with something that elevates them.

Some of my early personal epiphanies, I remember before I was even at an age appropriate to wear makeup, seeing those Vidal Sassoon ads, that felt so different. It was modern. What I learned years later in the beauty industry is, a well-kept secret for high-end shampoos is people gravitate to them for their fragrance. It's the smell of the shampoo that was most resonant, even though we think we're buying the shampoo or the conditioner because of how it handles our hair or how we style around it. The reality is there's a lot of other sensorial effects that are at play. So that was one. I could barely afford it. I was babysitting. It was a premium price. But I felt it worth taking my babysitting dollars to buy that. It felt precious because I had to work for it.

The grandfather of the iPod.
Photo by Florian Schmetz / Unsplash

Many, many years later — not that many, but some years later — the Sony Walkman. It was not just the matter, just the fact that I could actually listen to music from a small device sitting in my hand, but even the shape of the buttons and that taxicab yellow that was around the device in the curvatures. It was really very centrally designed. I think it was a precursor to a lot of what we're praising Apple for today. I think Sony got it right early on. I think they lost their edge. I think well before Sony or Apple, you had Braun. Braun came up with toasters and shavers and so forth, and many of the products that many years later that Johnny Ives and Steve Jobs were designing their own objects around inspired by the designs of Braun from the 1950s.

I think the reason I'm bringing this up is it would be easy to conclude that what I'm talking about matters if you're in fashion or cosmetic. But I don't think most business people realize just how much it matters in businesses where they are entirely focused on the features and functionality.

Brandon: Yeah, I think there's a lot there. Even to just our attunement to the ways in which these aesthetic aspects shaped our childhoods, I think, is really crucial. I think the experience that comes to mind for me is encountering the He-Man toys. I don't know if you've ever seen these, but they were a world apart from the Legos and the GI Joes that I had until I came across these in, say, 1987 or something like that. They've just rebuilt so differently. They were larger. They had these really muscular characters, very intricately designed. They had a different functionality where you could turn the character around. It would snap right back. As a seven- or eight-year-old kid, it was really quite an extraordinary experience to hold this thing and to see how it operated. Then my parents wouldn't buy it for me. So I started stealing them. That led me to an early life of crime for a few years until I got into a lot of trouble and had to stop. But yeah, I think those tactile, even sensory aspect of reality is vital to us. I think it lingers throughout our lives and shapes us in ways that we should care about.

Pauline: What's interesting is, I do a lot of work with my students on understanding the root of their particular tastes. Even people who grew up in the same families have different preferences. We all know it's some combination of culture, time, place, personal influences or familial influences. There is a genetic component. We have a marker for people who like cilantro and people who don't. Most of it, though, is not really genetic. I think there's a lot more of the environmental and cultural. But the reason I'm bringing it up is, cultural influences can also have a negative effect in a lot of what we grow to like over time. In the book, I talked about, for example, in the 90s when I was still in the formative stage stylistically, grunge was big. Grunge music, grunge style was sort of a new wave coming out of Seattle, in Portland. I never liked that sloppy look. Until this day, I don't like that. I could have easily embraced it as that is what's cool of that generation looks and feels like. I just didn't.

Then I think of other things. Oftentimes, when people go back deep enough into their personal archives, they see that there are certain family members that become iconic influences. My grandmothers, both of which they had a very different style and a very different aesthetic, but they were both old world in a way. One was from Vienna. She liked things very detailed. She was very precise and very elegant. The other one was born in Frankfurt, lived most of her adult life in Cape Town. She was very flamboyant. She likes things big and bold, and she was adventurous. I sort of took a little bit from each of them. Much more than I did, to this day, I'm very close to my mother, but she was not a style influencer or an aesthetic influence for me.

Brandon: Yeah, I suppose we are shaped in so many different ways. How much of it do you think is driven by something like mimetic desire? Simply, this is this idea that the things we desire are not because the object itself is intrinsically desirable in some way, but rather because other people desire it. So the things that become really seen as markers of taste are simply the kinds of things that most people seem to find desirable. And so in order to be like the cool kids, we desire the things that they desire. I have some of those memories as a kid of the things that I wanted to wear, which today you might look at some of those outfits and say, "That's poor taste even for the 1980s." But the cool kids were wearing it, and it was a fad that lasted a short amount of time. So I'm curious. What do you think is the role of that kind of mimetic subconscious, a desire to imitate what other people are doing?

Pauline: Well, to me, that's not really an aesthetic movement. That's a trend. So the way I would put it, for example, when JUUL cigarettes, e-cigarettes came out and it was marketed as a healthy alternative to tobacco products, traditional tobacco products, it looked cool. It had enticing flavors and colors. The association that people had, that, to me, was a trend. But the minute we found out as a society that their claim that they were healthy alternative is actually not true — they were arguably as unhealthy just in different ways — it's very hard for anyone to look at that with the same aesthetic appreciation.

I can give you many examples in business, of brands where we embraced it for a while. I think Victoria's Secret is another one. We embraced it a while because it was part of the zeitgeist. But the minute that it fell out of favor because it's somehow conveyed a value system that we no longer admired or appreciated, we don't look at it with aesthetic appreciation. Does that mean it was an unimportant brand? No, it was in its time. But it means it was non-sustainable. It was like junk food. Junk food is tempting in the same way that some of the clothes that you wore to validate your popularity or your social connections back in the day. But it nourished you just about as much as junk food does. What your style is today and what has transcended that is much more profound than any one trend that you were exposed to, and maybe even pray to at some point.

Women’s clothes store
Photo by Hannah Morgan / Unsplash

Brandon: That's really fascinating. When you were talking initially about the ways in which — when you were working at Carlyle, you recognized perhaps that some of your sense of authenticity or your own instinct had somehow been trained out of you. I wonder how does that happen. How do we lose that sense of maybe our deeper aesthetic attunement, and how do you regain it? What happened in your case?

Pauline: Well, first of all, how do we lose it? We can lose it for a few reasons. I deal with this day in and day out when I teach MBAs who — I would say part of my job is to unteach you everything you've learned up to this point and then not confuse them so much that they can't go to their economics class or their accounting class and still perform. So the idea is not to take away the principles of business. It's that it has to be complimented with a very different thought process, feeling process, humanistic process. That is what brings it to life and makes it sustainable.

In my own case, I was acutely aware. I guess, going back to your question earlier about my early childhood, there's something a little different than the average. It's sort of an extra heightened sensitivity. I think I was very aware all those years in non-expressive environments, that I was leaving a big part of who I am behind and that hurt. It hurt. It's a little bit the feeling that many people would have if you find yourself in a friend group with people you just don't like, and you're aware that you don't like them. But they're your friend group, and you have a little bit of self-loathing because you're in that company and you're having to fake it. I felt that kind of separation. It was uncomfortable. I didn't know how I would reconcile. But I think, for me, I had the good fortune when I landed at Estée Lauder, even though it wasn't by design, to be in an environment that actually pushed me to become a very different side and a side that I had oppressed professionally. Because it was such a natural and maybe even pent-up need for expression and for real connection and for pursuing ideas and interesting, innovative designs and so forth, I embraced it. But I did have to unlearn a little bit what I had been trained.

Point number one is, I think a lot of people are misplaced in the way that I was, whether they're highly aware of it or not. Number two, why are people, why are we so divorced in that sense of even our professional wardrobe and what we wear on the weekend? Why are there two selves that we — why would we have different ways of expressing ourself, which is up to me also undermines our business value at times? I think it's the school system. I think the education system well before they get to my master's program at Columbia, education system is very geared toward linear logical thinking and toward a certain kind of intelligence that can be measured. It is an important intelligence. It's where a lot of our great scientific breakthroughs have come from. And so by no means would I take anything away from it. But we haven't begun to come up with ways to measure and reinforce and reward other forms of intelligence, maybe with the exception of high-performing kinesthetic or bodily intelligent in the form of professional athletes and Olympians. So when I look at somebody who — a son of a friend just won New York state track meet. He's a very ordinary student but he's a hero, at least in his small environment or for people who are following state track competitions. So I think we've come up with it because we have races, or we have tournaments. We haven't come up with ways, and I'm not saying it should be competition. But to let people know who have special gifts in other areas like what Steve Jobs ultimately at least, that they're onto something and that they should be supported.

The last point I'll make is, aesthetic intelligence or skills are like muscles. Most people come into the world with a lot more capacity than they use. Not everybody is going to be talented enough, born genius enough to become a great chef like Alain Ducasse or Daniel Boulud. There are advantages that come into the world. But if you want to be a better chef, or a better culinary critic, or a better musician, you have to work it. It's a muscle. I've been pleasantly surprised having done this now for many years. It doesn't take that long to get people to start reconnecting with that side of themself if you give them permission and some basic frameworks and some basic exercises.

Brandon: You know what? An image comes to mind, which is the show you might be familiar with, What Not to Wear, Clinton and Tracy, which my in-laws are big fans of. Whenever we go visit them, my kids just binge watch episode after episode of the show, which has this peculiar kind of premise, which is you've got somebody who's very used to a particular aesthetic, a particular way of dressing and carrying themselves. And everybody around them hates it, to the point that they send them on to a TV show that says you need to be fixed. It's this fascinating process where you've got these two hosts who are able to somehow convince that person that, actually, here's another way in which you could present yourself. Then they come to embrace it. I don't know how many people on their show end up not actually embracing that new proposed aesthetic. But the idea that they're making, I suppose, is if we show you something, you'll see that it's more you than you currently are. It won't be alien to you. It will actually enhance you in some way.

Fashion can be impressive in various ways. You can become less authentic because of trying to be like other people. But here, there seems to be a different kind of logic. I'm curious to know what your thoughts are on things of that sort, like the ways in which learning to embrace a particular set of aesthetic practices or being attentive to the ways in which you could change the way you present yourself to the world can actually make you more of yourself.

Pauline: I'm convinced that expressing yourself authentically can make you more yourself. However, I'm not convinced that turning to other people to jolt it, to jolt yourself towards something that they think is who you are is at all effective. It reminds me in the business world when companies, they feel that they've lost ground, that their brands maybe need updating, and they hire some fancy Madison Avenue creative agency. The agency says, "Okay, you want to be more modern? You got to take this Serif off your font. You got to come up with a new tagline. We've got to find a cooler spokesperson." They have all these ideas, and none of those ideas are wrong. They are all inauthentic.

I will say the CEO is not off the hook. If I had an investor call and there was a supply chain problem, the CEO would not be able to respond to the question by saying, "Well, let me get my operations head in the room." He or she has to own it. And for the same reason, I feel like CEOs have to own where their brand expression is going and that it genuinely captures a philosophy of the company, a culture that can support it, and a reason for being that is rooted in what that company is, not in what some agency with a very different tribe of people is going to impose on them. It's why so few companies do it well.

I think the other point I'll make on the What Not to Wear — and this is true on a lot of those home renovations — is it doesn't last. If it doesn't come through a personal journey, if the individual who's being subject to being redressed isn't experimenting and almost acclimating to a new way of expressing him or herself, the minute the camera is off, they're going to go back to what they were wearing before.

Brandon: Yeah, I think this is the challenge with a lot of consulting work. You can do a transformation of a company and try to change culture and change habits. Then at what point do things regress to what they used to be like? I'm curious on that point, too, about the role of aesthetic intelligence when it comes to — I mean, you talked a lot about attunement at the individual level or to developing one's own individual sense of making aesthetic judgments, interpretation, et cetera. How does it work at the level of something like company culture? Is there a role for aesthetic intelligence at the cultural level?

Pauline: Yeah, and I'm working with a few companies. The reason I started the individual level is not because I think each individual, especially in a company with thousands of people, that each individual can bring his or her particular taste to the fore. Maybe in their own office but not much further than that. The reason I started the individual level is that I firmly believe that if people don't powerfully connect with their own tastes, they can't begin to understand what it means in the corporate context. They can't begin to empathize with others who are coming at it. It's about reestablishing not just for creative purposes but for emotional purposes, re-establishing the awareness of just how powerful honest expression is. And so the idea when you get to the corporate level or the systemic is, we have to agree what does it mean in the context of this company, and how can I further it. That's what I call aesthetic empathy.

I'll give you an example. Walt Disney, he's been dead for well over half a century. But his particular view of what defines family fun and how to create an immersive experience around all his characters or his descendants of companies’ characters, I'd say is prevalent today as when he was alive. It's very different than, for example, Lego, which does a great job aesthetically. But Lego has its own very distinct point of view of how kids like to play and construct things. They each start with a philosophy. The philosophy is not just expressed through aesthetics, but it is largely expressed through how they make what they make and how they communicate everything around what they're making. And if you go to work for one of those two companies, whatever your home style looks like, you are buying into a culture that emanates from that philosophy. And you need to understand it.

More Lego
Photo by Xavi Cabrera / Unsplash

Some of the exercises I do on the individual level, then when I take that same group of individuals to the corporate level, we go into the archives of the corporate brand. What were the influences that shaped, for example, Walt's view? Having come of age as an illustrator in the 1930s and '40s, first generation moving pictures and cartoons. My point being, and I could say the same with Steve Jobs, he was very influenced by an aesthetic I'll call mid-century California modern. If you look at houses in suburban California where he grew up in the '60s and '70s, there was a particular approach to architecture. A lot of glass, a lot have built into nature, should present like color palettes. Not much of a demarcation between inside and out. I mean, a lot of the way he came into this world and was influenced is a similar thought process that went into making his products and brand.

Again, even if you work for Apple today and you didn't grow up in a mid-century modern home as Steve Jobs did, you still have to understand the factors and the forces that shaped it and how it expresses itself in order to be effective. That, to me, is a more tangible way to capture culture. When I hear people talk about corporate culture, I know they're right. But I wouldn't know other than sort of some amorphous words how to really — like what is it, what do I look for? Let's say I'm interviewing for a job. They say, "Well, make sure it's a good cultural fit." What do I look for? It's a feeling. But if I look at aesthetics, how is the reception area set up? What's the style of people working in that office like? Look at the brand codes and the identity of the company. How does that sit with me? That, I can get my arms around. And so I think, in an ideal world, the two are not distinct. One plays off the other. But the aesthetic elements are much more tangible and concrete and identifiable than are the cultural ones.

Brandon: That's really fascinating. I mean, a lot of aspects of your book reminded me of another book I recently read by Will Guidara, Unreasonable Hospitality. I don't know if you're familiar with this. But Will Guidara was — I don't know if he's still the owner of Eleven Madison. It's considered the best restaurant in the world. His claim was that what got them to this position of being considered the best restaurant in the world was a dedication to hospitality and going really above and beyond. The examples he gives are things like you've got some customers who've been to every gourmet restaurant in New York City, and they're chatting among themselves. They're saying, "Gosh, the only thing we didn't get is a dirty water hot dog," like from a hot dog vendor. So he hears that. He runs out of the street and gets one of those hot dogs. They do some gourmet stuff to it, and then they surprised their guests with this thing. They didn't have to do that. But it's going out of the way and doing things that are really above and beyond.

I've been recently trying to understand what is the beauty of hospitality. I was in Italy a couple of weeks ago. I was speaking with folks from an organization called Cometa. It's a network of foster families. They have a lot of foster kids, and they built a school for kids who are high school dropouts. They have this real commitment to hospitality, which they define as recognizing and communicating to the other the value that they have for you. So to communicate to somebody, you are immensely valuable to me. So when you think of finding a great gift for somebody, typically, that's what you want to be able to communicate. I noticed a lot of what you were talking about in terms of connection, particularly the ways in which companies can leverage aesthetic intelligence in relation to their customers, perhaps even in relation to their employees, seems to have to do with hospitality in some way. I don't know if you could comment on that.

Pauline: Well, yeah, there's a few thoughts I have. One is, the word hospitality — again, I'm a word smith — it comes from the Latin 'hospice' which actually is related to 'visitor,' or it can be used either as host or visitor. But it came about because, at that time, when a stranger came to town, it was treating a stranger with sort of kindness and grace. I know that because, number one, I've been struck by how little hospice we see in hospitalities.

Brandon: Yeah, they're the ugliest places, yeah.

Pauline: The sort of grace and kindness and comfort that is so embedded in the idea of great hospitality. But number two, in companies, you're selling to strangers. I write a lot about the importance to build meaningful relationships. A cynic could call me out on that and say, what does it mean to build a relationship with someone you really have no relationship with? They walked into your store, or they even bought something from you online. You don't even know what they look like.

I guess I am not taking relationship literally. I'm giving people the essence of a relationship, which is what we pined for, especially in this day and age where we have such a little real human connection. So I do think businesses that are here to stay will continue to double down on that grace and comfort and empathy that I mentioned earlier. It goes without saying, if you have a high-end restaurant like Eleven Madison, you better get this right. Because if not, there's no reason anyone would ever come back. Maybe they wouldn't even go for the first time. If I'm selling tires in an auto shop, you could argue that if I have the cheapest tires or I'm closer to the hub of business of someone else, they'll come whether I'm nice to them or not. You could argue that. But I would argue that even if you're selling tires, that eventually, if all you're selling is the lowest cost, most convenient, someone else will come. And they'll sell it the same price, same location with kindness. And they'll win your market. So, to me, it seems that no business is off the hook as long as humans are involved, which is most business is.

Brandon: Yeah, so how would you measure higher versus lower aesthetic intelligence? Because there are so many components, it seems, right? There's the attentiveness to various senses, and then there's also the connection, relational elements when you advise businesses and you advise individuals. What is the metric of higher and lower aesthetic intelligence that work there?

Pauline: So I've broken it down into four sub components. Each of them have different exercises and different capabilities in order to strengthen them. A little bit like if you're a great athlete, it's one thing to be limber. It's another thing to be able to have great aerobic capacity. In an ideal world, you have some combination of all of those assets working together.

The first, which is what I alluded to earlier, is what I call aesthetic sensitivity. It's attunement. It's just the watchfulness. In fact, I was being interviewed by a Russian publication. I said there's a word. I wish I remembered what it was in Russian, but it translates as watchfulness that they use a lot. It starts with this sort of heightened awareness of your surroundings and of your stimulus. But you don't want to stop there. Because if you stop there, you could argue that many people who are on the autistic spectrum have a much higher awareness for sound and for tactility. And if you don't know what to do with it, it becomes overwhelming, which is also why a lot of people on the autistic spectrum have a very hard time focusing because they're so distractible. That's just the first step. It's not the last step.

The second one is what I'll call — I call it interpretation, but it really is about being able to decode not just what I'm feeling but how I'm feeling about it. It's sort of a power of discrimination. Let's just go stick with the restaurant analogy. If I'm having a meal, and I enjoy it but I feel like maybe the beverage that I'm drinking doesn't really blend well with the food that I order, or the food is good but maybe if the dessert were a little less sweet, it would feel even more tempting or delicious. So the ability to deconstruct the element. That's more of an analytic element, but it's also interpretative.

The third step is what I call curation or editorial command. One of the exercises I do with students is I have them create mood boards. Oftentimes, the first step you do with a mood board is you'll take — let's say, you have a particular project and you want sources of inspiration. They just take pictures, swatches, and things that they like. They just put it on the board. That is a good way to start. But it is just the start. Good curation is not having everything you like come together, but it's knowing what to take off and how to elevate parts of it. How does it create a narrative around the individual elements that works congruently and uniquely well? So that's sort of a curative exercise.

Then the last one is what I call articulation. Given that most people are not working as individual contributors, they have environments, they might have clients. They certainly have team members. It's really important, both verbally and non-verbally, to be able to convey with precision and specificity what you're trying to go toward aesthetically so that other people can collaborate. I find, even at the MBA level, they are good communicators, when it comes to diagnosing problems. They are not good communicators when it comes to telling a story that others would know, even if they weren't privy to all the information or thought processes that you had that others would be able to envision what you envision on how to go there. So this idea of articulation is a very important part, particularly in business.

Brandon: What's a good example of articulation that stands out to you, like a company that's done that well or a person that's done that well?

I miss starbucks coffee during qurantine
Photo by Gema Saputera / Unsplash

Pauline: I think if I look back, it's past its prime. But I think what Howard Schultz did with Starbucks: to take one of the most commoditized objects, which is a coffee bean, and bring people toward it even if it was less convenient than their corner coffee shop. Charge 2x or 3x. And to do so through not just creating an environment that they used to call the third space that had a lot of Starbucks codes. You really can never go in and forget you're in Starbucks. But even the naming, the naming of a barrister, he's not just a guy behind the counter. The naming of the size of the cup is a grande. It's not just a large, medium. They took anything that might have been a commoditized approach to what they were selling, and they owned it as their own. And they still are. They're constantly coming out with new products, which are just basically new combinations of the same old stuff with maybe some more food coloring. But in the end, that doesn't matter. What matters is how they tell the story, again, in ways that created something that for a good while felt like a unique space for buying a commodity product of coffee beans.

Brandon: Right. This raises interesting questions about ethics, which you talked about in the book, right? I mean, if you could say a little bit more about the aesthetics or the ethics of aesthetic intelligence and the ways in which aesthetic experiences and the ways in which these aesthetic factors are communicated can be deceptive, manipulative. How does that feature into this other AI?

Pauline: First of all, let me say, many of the principles I've been talking about have been used very effectively at different points in history as propaganda. Whether it was the Nazis in the 1930s with their very iconic symbol of the swastika. That was their aesthetic code. It is so vilified now, that I can't think of too many other symbols where if somebody went out in the street wearing a t-shirt with it, that person — not in this country but in some countries — would be arrested. And in this country as well, would be heavily disliked, maybe despised just for wearing the t-shirt. That was a powerful aesthetic movement which is powerful now and horrific, right? I think it isn't a historical phenomenon. I think the MAGA Movement and the Red Hat, the red hat became a code of whether you're a Trumper or an anti-Trumper. It's a simple red cap, but it took on a meaning of expression and belief that went well beyond what it actually is.

The ethics piece — I can't fault the people who come up with the MAGA hat because that is their code. I personally wouldn't be caught dead wearing one or having anyone I know or affiliate with. But you could argue it represents a belief system that a good portion of the American population is still embracing. Where it becomes a real ethical violation, not just an offense, is when it's dishonest, when it's used for purposes of gain, what I call ill gain. So I mentioned before the JUUL as an example. I feel like a lot of big food companies are guilty of this, where food products are marketed as healthy and organic and good for this and good for that with no basis in science, and with the only objective to get people to consume more so they can grow more. Notwithstanding the fact that for them to consume more, the obesity issues — which they may be fighting in their philanthropic arm — are only going in one direction. So I feel like food marketing has been subject to that.

I just saw actually an ad, a full-page ad in the New York Times last weekend. It was for Altria, formerly Philip Morris. It has rebranded itself the tobacco harm reduction company. I don't know if you've seen that. The idea is that they still want people to smoke, but they also can't no longer run from the claim that this is not harmful. So the only way that they've sort of managed to play in a way that there's some self-respect is, "Okay, but we'll say refer harm reduction." My point being, any company and every company struggles with this. But every company in this day and age is accountable. Those aesthetic cues often work for a period. The food companies have shown time and again that we will buy things thinking we're healthy. Then we'll realize that it actually has an ingredient that's very unhealthy, and then we'll move to the next fad. It doesn't work in the long term. I think the only way out of this, and this is not just an aesthetic solution, is I think companies and even fluke interests have to think longer term. They have to sort of say, with all that I know, am I willing to make that claim with not just the agenda of more voters or more market share but a genuine belief of why I'm in business, and why being in businesses is providing some sort of good?

Brandon: Yeah, that's really important. One of the things I wanted to ask you about when you were talking about your experience at Bain is, in many ways, it reminds me of the environment that the scientists are in. A lot of our listeners are scientists or in science fields. And there, you're expected to be similarly clinical dispassionate, or at least there's that stereotype of that's what you're supposed to be like and that's what scientists are. I think that is an obstacle to some people going into STEM fields and STEM professions and STEM environments.

Scientists themselves, you talk to a lot of them. The research I've done shows that they really are closer to poets and musicians, that there's a deep aesthetic of understanding. We think that what they're in the business of doing is understanding how reality works. That is a profoundly aesthetic experience where you grasp that's how things work. So I'm wondering if you might have any suggestions for people in that environment where there is a kind of governing aesthetic which is a little bit antithetical to the actual aesthetic at play, which is that they have this clinical dispassionate stereotype, and that's not really the true aesthetic of science which is much more dispassionate quest for understanding. So what might you suggest in terms of cultivating aesthetic intelligence in a space like that, for either individuals or organizations to sort of better communicate what they're about?

Pauline: For one, we could have the same conversation about technologies as well. Number one, before any individual is a scientist, he or she is a human. Just because he or she is a scientist doesn't mean that he doesn't enjoy a great meal. It doesn't mean that he's not affected by the color palette of his walls or whether he has a plant or not, access to nature. So I think in every industry, we have to start with the fact that we are humans coming together. The industry doesn't have a personality. I always tell my corporate clients: brands do not exist. They are legal entities. They are legal assets. People exist. And so when we talk about a brand personality, we're really talking about the belief of a group of people who represent or who are driving that. So that's point number one. I think every professional environment, from Silicon Valley to the laboratories that you've been in, needs to be humanized or needs to be reminded of the human element. It will not take away from the quality of research and thought. If anything, I think it creates more sustenance and maybe even more creative output.

Was staying at an airbnb on twin peaks. I thought the view from my room was fantastic, but then I happened to walk to this place called Christmas Tree point and was just mesmerised. Ended up trekking there again the next day and even record a full sunrise video  of the Silicon Valley. 

This perhaps is one of the most underrated places in SF.

I am not really a photographer and have relied on unsplash community for great photographs…I thought this might be my chance to give back and share this beauty with the larger community.
Photo by Madhur Chadha / Unsplash

Secondly, I think that industries go through a refresh every so often. I think fashion is going through it today where they sort of say, what is our purpose? Fashion was shrouded in mystery. There were a few people at the top, and there were places like Vogue magazine and Paris council that would decide who could show and who wouldn't, that would dictate for the world what was in and what wasn't. Then it would cascade all the way down, much like Miranda Priestly talks about in Devil Wears Prada. It doesn't work that way anymore. People want to know. Especially, high net worth people who buy high fashion, they are very demanding. They want to have more transparency. They want to know how things are made, where they're made, what the carbon footprint might have been. Fashion is a terrible perpetrator of environmental toxicity. And so I think it, too, has gone through a bit of a rethink of how do we show a kinder, more caring side. We're an industry that has been distinct and that has also been alienating.

I think one of the things — I mean, you just said something so profound, and I don't think enough people in the field are saying. Science is not just about getting to solutions, but it's about asking the right questions. It's, to me, the epitome of a curious mind. It's not that dissimilar than a philosopher. But we would never think of a philosopher as somehow being dispassionate and disconnected from the other things. So I think a little bit the curtain has to be lifted, so that people don't just think of science as a field on what they've been told, or shown, or seen in textbooks, and they can understand more of the human elements that are behind it. That would be the first step.

Brandon: Well, let's talk about my last question. I suppose it's about humanizing us in this age of AI. You call aesthetic intelligence the other AI. Tell us about why it really matters. Particularly now with our new artificial overlords taking over, what do you think is the potential for aesthetic intelligence to humanize us?

Pauline: Well, number one, forgetting even what it does for the society at large. I often feel it's one of the only human advantages left. I can't process quicker than a dumb computer. I can't hold that much information in my brain, which is why I have this guy. But I can do a lot of things that this guy can't do. I am of the school — people will debate with me fiercely on this. Only time will tell who's right and who's wrong — I am of the thought that intelligence is not what we think it is, which is why artificial intelligence is not intelligent. It's powerful. It's helpful. It's a bit scary, but it's not intelligent.

When I decode what is intelligence, I think plants are intelligent. They don't have a brain. So anything that Descartes would have described as the brain and the mind and so forth doesn't account here. But the fact that they can morph according to seasons, the fact that they thrive in certain settings, I mean, there is an intelligence to natural life that we haven't quite captured. I think even the intelligence that humans have, not all — we talked about the Nazis earlier and Hitler. But most humans have an intelligence toward goodness. That to me, it's maybe an empathic intelligence. It's an ability to relate to others outside of themself. It's an ability to understand what is the self and what is the other. I don't think any machine with any amount of data and processing speed will ever really comprehend what I mentioned to you that a baby gets. A baby knows the difference between his or herself and his or her mother. A machine doesn't. So I think of this as the other AI, partly because my aesthetic intelligence, because it's a powerful antidote. Partly because what it produces, I firmly believe, even the best systems won't be able to produce in my lifetime. They'll get better at replicating, but they won't ever be good at original creation, which takes a different form of experimentation and judgment and integrative thinking and feeling. I think it's forcing us to really say, what does it mean not just to be human but to be alive?

And so I hope we have some better answers than I was able to give at least in words and definitions. But I think it's forcing the question. And it's a question that I feel quite confident when answered, will remind us that we have a lot more to be afraid of when it comes to Vladimir Putin than we do Bard. I'm not afraid of Bard. I'm afraid of Vladimir Putin.

Brandon: Yeah, brilliant. Pauline, where can we direct our listeners and viewers to your work?

Pauline: Thank you. Well, so as you know, I have an online learning platform. It's called Aesthetic Intelligence Labs. As our next cohort, we have sequential cohorts which is open to the public. It starts in mid-May. I also have the book which is available wherever books are sold — Aesthetics Intelligence. Thank you so much, Brandon.

Brandon: Well, thank you. It's been such a pleasure.

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