The biz writer who covers philosophy and psychology
Olivia Goldhill, a writer for the financial news site Quartz, is one of just a handful of journalists — business or otherwise — in the United States who writes on philosophy and psychology.
Recently, Goldhill has written about whether driverless cars should kill their own passengers to save a pedestrian, interviewed the Oxford philosopher who gave Elon Musk the theory that we are all computer simulations, reported on how one of the most famous living philosophers says much of philosophy today is “self-indulgent,” and interviewed ethicists who argued that voting with your heart, without a care about the consequences, is actually immoral.
Quartz’s editorial is organized around obsessions and not strict beats. This allows reporters to introduce new areas of reporting to the newsroom. Quartz’s newsroom philosophies allowed her to be entrepreneurial and pursue a new area of reporting.
This flexibility has also allowed Quartz’s newsroom to expand its audiences. Other examples include a reporter at Quartz who has a chemistry PhD from Oxford, a fashion writer who has worked for a menswear label and a former graphic design studio head who writes for the site.
Goldhill has been with Quartz since September 2015, and she’s the only Quartz writer who works every weekend, focusing on writing articles that will be widely read by people while they’re relaxing rather than at work.
Before Quartz, Goldhill worked for The Telegraph in London, first on its business desk and then as a features writer.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Harvard and a master’s degree in journalism from City University in London.
Goldhill spoke with Talking Biz News by email about her beat and how she comes up with her stories. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did you get interested in writing about philosophy and psychology?
My undergrad degree is in philosophy, so that’s how I first became interested in the subject and, through studying it, aware of how it shapes our world and so many of our assumptions. Subsequently, as a features writer at The Telegraph covering a broad range of subjects, I often found philosophical ideas were relevant to social issues I was writing about.
When I joined Quartz, I pitched making philosophy a focus. It seemed to fit with Quartz’s goal of connecting the dots between seemingly disparate ideas to explain the world around us. Happily, we found that the philosophical stories I write really resonate with Quartz’s audience.
My interest in psychology started from an instinctive curiosity about human behavior — Why would someone behave that way? Why do all of us behave that way? — and has only increased the more I’ve written on the subject. As I’ve talked to more psychologists and built up a strong network of contacts, my understanding of the field has deepened.
How do you tie in these topics into business issues or news?
Both philosophy and psychology underlie so many of our beliefs and perceptions and are, at some level, intrinsically relevant to every field. Philosophy covers a huge range of subjects and is often the first to examine, at a really deep level, the implications of changes in society.
So, for example, I find philosophy can be relevant to understanding the implications of artificial intelligence, which in turn has an effect on how businesses operate.
Meanwhile there are timeless philosophical questions such as ethical issues, which inevitably have bearing on the high stakes of many business issues. So, for example, who bears responsibility in an organization where many individuals or levels of management carry out a particular action? How much profit is justifiable and how much should be invested in staff or the product? Is the morality of an action determined by its intentions or consequences — which in the real world, could raise the question of whether a terrible business decision with disastrous consequences is excusable if the motives were well-meaning.
Psychological insights about motivation, creativity, or leadership are highly relevant to business managers. Similarly, though family and friends are of course important personal relationships, so connections we make at work are important too. Human behavior is shaped and understood by both philosophy and psychology and, as business is an unavoidably human endeavor, both disciplines are useful lenses to understand how we work.
What’s a Quartz reader looking for out of these types of stories?
I think the best of these stories provides a perspective or explanation that the reader hadn’t previously considered. But, at the same time, the article should speak to something recognizable – a quirk of life or social behavior that the reader might have, even unconsciously, realized is worth exploring. These stories give new insight but are also exciting to readers because of their relevance to daily life.
Why do you think few other media are producing these type of stories?
A lot of media outlets still follow the traditional beat structure of print publications. These often focus on the same areas: crime, politics, education, business, etc. Quartz allows reporters to develop obsessions—to follow specific topics or apply specific lenses—which allows for natural flexibility and for reporters to follow their interests.
If I wasn’t able to find compelling stories and if there wasn’t an audience for these ideas I would have naturally adjusted my focus. But Quartz was interested in philosophy and psychology and excited to explore reporting on those subjects. I think that level of openness and flexibility is still quite rare in media, and it allowed me to develop and refine my focus.
What do you like best about covering this unique beat?
I’m always learning something new. Because I’m so personally invested in these subjects, my job is an opportunity to answer the many questions I naturally have — and, inevitably, discover further questions I hadn’t previously considered.
I’m able to talk to a huge range of people, often leading experts in their field, and discuss fascinating and hugely complex ideas. Ultimately, I think philosophy and psychology are relevant to all areas of life, and having a job that invites me to continually deepen my knowledge, and then share that knowledge with readers, is truly meaningful.
How do you find the topics you write about?
I have RSS feeds and Twitter lists of writers and publications that are relevant and read a huge amount. Plugging into current conversations and new research will often raise a question that hasn’t been properly addressed yet. I also spend time each week thinking about the major questions and issues of the moment and whether an idea in either philosophy or psychology is relevant to the conversation. And I am in regular contact with researchers in both fields.
Is it hard to convince philosophers or psychologists to talk to you?
Generally, no. As these are less-reported areas, professors aren’t inundated with requests, and most academics are happy to talk about their work and share it with a wider audience. Very occasionally I speak to a professor who’s wary of having a conversation about their ideas with anyone outside academia. I always find this troubling, as I believe it’s important to talk to those who aren’t embedded in the field. But fortunately that’s fairly rare.
Why do you think these types of stories resonate with readers?
I often write about very complex, compelling ideas but in a straightforward style, which I think readers hugely appreciate. I think it’s human nature to want to understand more about these great philosophical and psychological questions. And though both subjects are somewhat sidelined in public discourse, there’s still a very strong interest in these subjects and how they relate to daily lives.
Our readers seem to appreciate articles that give them pause or make them reconsider a particular perspective.
What’s been the recent stories that you enjoyed the most?
I recently went to entrepreneurial conference Summit, which was interesting, as it was my first time speaking to those in business and asking about the philosophy and psychology ideas that influence them, as opposed to starting from the academic subjects and applying them to business.
I’ve published a few stories from Summit and am working on some more that came out of conversations from that conference – for example, a particular form of group therapy that’s become popular among Silicon Valley types, businesses hiring “philosophers-in-residence,” and whether executive coaches offer a form of psychological counseling to major CEOs.
A lot of my articles have been political recently, and I enjoyed writing a piece shortly ahead of the election on philosophy’s struggle to properly engage in public discourse; it felt relevant to both the political discussion and those in academia.
Separately, I loved learning about the poets and authors who have been hired by major tech companies, including Google and Intel, to write for artificial intelligence. It’s such an immediately compelling idea, but also says a lot about the role of AI and how it will develop and shape our communications.
What are the big philosophical questions that business needs to address?
In terms of social relations (if not demographics), businesses are microcosms of society, so philosophical questions such as the role of a leader and how to structure hierarchy will always be relevant.
Then there’s the impact that business will have on those outside the company; the philosophical questions here will vary depending on the product/ business activity, but inevitably there will be many. All too often the consequences of our actions, both in business and individually, are overlooked. Philosophy can help us identify and understand our impact.
I think nearly all the major questions facing contemporary business today are, at their heart, philosophical. No discussion of the role of globalization, artificial intelligence, unions, or profit would be complete without a philosophical input.
Do you think business is becoming more philosophical, or less? Why?
I think there’s growing awareness and questioning of philosophical ideas among those in business. I think that’s partly because we have a greater variety of business models available than in previous decades (even Silicon Valley vs. Wall Street), and those options makes people question which is the best and why, which is the beginning of a philosophical debate.
Also because as the world changes, we’re being presented with alternative solutions for how to structure society, such as Universal Basic Income and the impact of robots in the workplace, which ultimately affects the kinds of businesses that exist and how they operate.