A “Dumb” Truck Driver Reads the Socratic Dialogues by Plato

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BW: Socrates was a big influence in your work. How did you first come to know about Socrates?

JM: I first became introduced to Socrates in 1937. I was twenty years old, working in landscaping at Four Winds Nursery. One of the things I did—I was the driver of a big dump truck—I picked up and transported topsoil. When we picked up the topsoil, we usually would have to wait in line for a long time and one day, on a rainy day, the wait was really long—at one point, I think they stopped work so I went wandering in to my favorite old bookstore in Buffalo, NY. And this bookstore was delightful. It was dusty and smelly and reeked of knowledge and ideas. And I went wandering around the store browsing here and there and came across a section that had some books about Aristotle, Plato, and all those guys. And I don’t know how to explain it, it seemed like the book reached out and grabbed me, I didn’t grab the book. It was a little tattered, beat up copy of Plato’s dialogues. And I flipped through it in the dim light and based on the odds and ends of what I was picking up, I thought, “I want this. I should take it. I better take it.” The book cost ten cents. I earned fifteen cents an hour—this was in the middle of the Great Depression. So it was less than my hourly rate, so I thought, “This is good.” And so I bought the book and I headed out because they were closing the store and I put the book in my pocket. It was pouring rain outdoors so I headed straight to home and sat down and devoured Plato’s dialogues about Socrates. And I can’t remember all the details, but I remember distinctly what a profound fascination it had on me to be reading something about a person like Socrates who not only asked questions but he asked questions based on the responses that the people in the forum were giving. There was a flow to the questions and then I began to realize, it was not just the inquiry and the questions, but the whole idea of dialogue and discussion. What really fascinated me was the whole idea of the process of inquiry. I can still remember it totally grabbing a hold of me and having a profound effect on me. And as I sat soaking it all in, I began to stew and get upset about my high school education, because it was a miserable experience. I began high school in 1931 and failed almost everything. I barely graduated in 1935. I remembered thinking, as I was reading Plato’s dialogues, “This is exciting. If only I had felt this way in high school and if only my teachers had taught this way, I would have really been excited in school. But they didn’t.” And as I read and reread how Socrates operated, I was struggling a bit because it was not a process of questions asking for information primarily, it was a process of inquiry to get the people in the forum to think. Then I began to realize that a key part of this was the forum. And I don’t remember how many people were in it but they were usually in a town square and that the forum—basic idea was, you could be open, you could talk, you could discuss, you could argue, you could fight. So the more that I read of Plato’s dialogues, the more excited I became about the whole process, even though I didn’t really understand it. But it stayed with me. And it began to show up later on in the latter part of the 1930’s and also when I went to war in Europe. Over the years, off and on, I have helped people go through the dying process, particularly during World War II, because my unit fought all the way from Utah Beach all the way through France, Luxembourg, and Germany during the worst parts of the war. So I was around dying soldiers a lot and I did my best to be helpful. It just sort of came naturally for me. I found that being fully present and holding the person’s hand was very important, and I also found that what I had absorbed about inquiry naturally came into that process. Then eventually I realized that in everything I did with other people, I could use the process of inquiry and it was amazing how it opened things up. And then, after the war, and after I got into the business world, I began to realize that the process of inquiry wasn’t used much, if at all, in the business world but it seemed to me, in my mind, that it could be used to address many issues and problems and so I began to get into it. I got into this really in 1957, so that would be about fifty years ago. I was so focused on learning that I got into all kinds of books. There weren’t many books on management or leadership in those days. There was a lot of what I would call classic books and so I would read everything that I could get a hold of. I learned from many sources, but I would say the foundation of it all was my early fascination with the dialogues of Socrates.

BW: Was your process Socratic method in the formal sense?

JM: Socrates didn’t write anything himself. Everything we know about him comes from the writings and observations of other people so there is some variation and also disagreement on what really is considered the Socratic method. But we can say for sure that it is not about transmitting information and knowledge, say a teacher filling up his student with what he knows. One of the common understandings of what is the Socratic method, in the formal sense, is that you’re showing or convincing someone who thinks he knows something that in fact he doesn’t know anything or little at all, or something wrong or contradictory. In my work, it was more the process of inquiry to get to the bottom of things. Asking questions, which leads to more questions. A company would bring me in to solve a specific problem and very often the problem turned out to be something very different than what they thought it was. So the process of inquiry was very valuable in opening that up and getting to the bottom of things, and helping to see and address what exactly were the issues with the president and his leadership. The process was highly specific to the situation and company involved. We gave a very detailed example in “Change (Real Change) Begins With Individuals,” but just to give a quick example here, on how I may have dealt with a conflict situation—in my consulting, I was focusing my attention primarily on the president and paying particular attention to his way of thinking, his way of doing things, all those things. If we were working together then he knew that I was there to help him improve his ability to lead his staff and to work with his staff, and so in a sense I worked on everything through him. So let’s say we’re in the midst of talking about a major problem and he says, “Well, one of the things I want to work on Julian is, there’s a major conflict between the head of engineering and the head of sales. And I understand you’re good at handling conflict.” My answer to the president usually was, “The only person who can manage this conflict is you, the president.” So what I would do would be to focus on him and say, “Let’s take some time here. Tell me everything that you know about the head of engineering and everything you know about the head of sales.” I’m getting him to begin to think through and describe the personalities of both men. It’s a part of my process. And so as he describes them I have questions that I bring up until I get a pretty good picture of what the men’s personalities are like which leads me usually to the next step where I would say, “You and I now have a pretty good picture of the personalities of the two men. Let’s now focus on you, the president. How do you work and relate to the head of engineering and how do you work and relate to the head of sales?” Now we’re beginning to take a look at how he leads and manages. And this is very productive, because in the process, he will be talking about what he does, how periodically he will get the two men together and say something along the lines of, “Look you guys, you better shape up.” One of my key questions at that point, to the president is, “Well, the way you’re doing it—does it work?” And frequently he’ll laugh and say “Well you can tell right away, it doesn’t work. And that’s why I’ve got you here.” So I am in a perfect position to say, “Well, would you like to be learning some things that might make it work?” And if the president says, “Yes,” then I begin to spend time helping the president learn how to meet with each man and how to communicate with them individually and over a period of time, I’ve helped the president to become skilled at dealing with the conflict between the two men. So I’m not doing it directly with the two men in conflict. And that’s probably kind of strange to most people who’d rather be doing it directly. So inquiry is a big part of this whole process. There’s a lot more to it. In the past, when I was asked to speak about my approaches and methods, I thought that I could narrow it down to about 42 principles. Then I thought maybe I could boil it down to six, but then I realized this is impossible to boil down. It’s very unique and specific to each company, each president, since each person is a unique individual. At the end of my life, I’ve come to the realization and awareness that this approach is a pathway, a process.

BW: So other than inquiry, you did not have what could be called a method. And you were dealing with primarily whomever was the head.

JM: Primarily. Whomever was in charge.

BW: And you dealt with everything through that person.

JM: Yeah, for the most part—the president, the executive or department head or board member. So much depended on the situation and the company and the president. First of all, I have to emphasize for you that I was pretty fussy about what presidents or companies I would work for. In the beginning, I had to take anything, because I needed the work and didn’t know better, but later I turned down many clients. Incidentally, I was also fired three times as a consultant. I remember well one time, someone requested something which I thought was a questionable request and I flat out told the person, “No. That would be against my values.” In hindsight, I should have used the Socratic approach and asked him why he was making such a request. That would have been interesting. But going back to what we were talking about, I dealt mainly with the president and a big part of the work is just listening. Making a sincere effort to understand what is truly going on. Even though I’ve worked with many presidents and companies, I treat every company as a completely different company, I treat every president as a completely different person, and I treat every situation as a completely new situation. I don’t assume anything. And I don’t give advice.

BW: I know you say you don’t give advice, but the best piece of advice I ever got was from you when I was going through a very difficult time. You told me, “Don’t think too far ahead. Don’t think beyond a month.”

JM: I extremely rarely give advice but yeah, that’s a piece of advice I give. When I was coaching the founders of Doctors Without Walls (now called Santa Barbara Street Medicine) in Santa Barbara during some of the early phases, we would get together and they would sometimes get very anxious and agitated and sometimes argumentative when they tried to think ahead and plan too far in advance. One of the things I kept telling them was, “Don’t think too far ahead.” Which isn’t the same as not having vision, that’s not what I’m talking about. Having vision is a whole other thing. I’m talking about in terms of trying to anticipate and plan for every thing that may come up, because you can’t even begin to control or predict what’s going to happen, and the more you try to plan and predict the more confused or agitated or anxious or paralyzed or rigid you’re going to get.

BW: Going back to your approach and process of inquiry—you really helped me when I was going through a difficult time. I was on the receiving end of your process so I know firsthand that there is something about your presence and process that is very unique and reassuring. You really give a person your full, undivided attention. You truly are fully present with a person. You totally take in what they have to say. And there’s nothing in your mind projecting onto what a person is saying. You also don’t judge. I could really feel all of that. You calmly sit there and ask questions and let the truth emerge almost. You let everything come up on its own.

JM: It’s important to go in without any preconceived notions or ideas based on past experience or whatever, and taking the time to reflect on what you have observed and letting questions come up, rather than rush in with solutions or an agenda. Or project onto what is going on, some theory or preconceived idea. Having an openness. Not making any assumptions, which is a lot more difficult than it sounds.

BW: I think your lack of education actually helped in that area. Your mind was essentially a blank, so you could really listen, observe, take in information and let insights come up.

JM: Yeah, probably so.

BW: And I know from working with you that you are very gentle and compassionate. Your use of inquiry is very gentle. You aren’t trying to make anyone look foolish. Based on descriptions he gives, Benjamin Franklin was aggressive and cold-blooded in his use of the Socratic method to make people he was in discussion with appear as foolish as possible. Your approach was never an intent to demean or make someone feel bad in any way.

JM: I did have a phase where I was aggressive and relentless in my inquiry but someone pointed it out to me as being too harsh so I toned it down and stopped that.

BW: I know from working with you now and other people say the same thing—there is an absence of aggression in your process. You let the truth emerge on its own. You don’t try to force it out of person—that typically has the opposite effect. You help people gain a greater awareness and true awareness of their problem on their own, when they may have had a distorted view or were in relative denial over the problem. And you didn’t rub their noses in it. You just let them slowly come to their own awareness of the issue or problem through inquiry. You gave a business example in “Change (Real Change) Begins With Individuals” and this had a transformative effect on the whole company. And like Socrates, the essence of what you did seemed to be just asking questions.

JM: Asking questions, which leads to more questions.

BW: The essence of his work was examination. One of his most famous quotes is, “an unexamined life is not worth living.” He wasn’t claiming to have any answers or solutions, like say a messiah-wannabe. One of the things that struck me about you right away and through all of our time together, is that you are very emphatic and clear, that you don’t have the answer. That is something you repeat and emphasize all the time.

JM: No I don’t have the answer. I never had the answer and never will have the answer. Ultimately, in my work, I wanted to help people who were open to examining themselves and changing. But I think it’s also important to bring up my personality. My personality and nature is that I just naturally get hooked into problems. I hear about a situation or a problem and I just get sucked in. My plan was to retire completely, but I seem to get pulled into various things because I want to help people but also just because of my curiosity. For example, when I met a couple of the founders of Doctors Without Walls, they started talking about what they were trying to do and the problems they were encountering and I wanted to help and I also got hooked. Next thing you know, I’m meeting with them on a regular basis. So I don’t have an agenda or anything to prove. I don’t really claim to know anything or have a solution. I just get hooked in. I guess I’m naturally curious and like being part of the process.

BW: In being very clear that you don’t have the answer, I think you embody the essence of Socrates. One of the big themes of Socrates is that the wisdom of men is nothing. He knew that he himself was not wise and also didn’t really know anything which ironically made him wiser than everyone. He was declared most wise because he admitted he knew nothing. You mentioned other consultants tried to push or sell a package or formula.

JM: Well, they catered to what many people want. As far as what I did, the person has to be open to it. Many people just prefer a formula. They don’t want to go through a process.

BW: I think people tend to like formulas like they tend to like religion—anything that gives them that illusion of certainty.

JM: What I did was definitely an organic pathway, process versus a formula or package solution. A process to find the truth about a person or situation. I guess I like being part of the process of finding the truth.