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What Apple's New Headquarters Says About Steve Jobs

June 10, 2011, 12:00 AM

What’s the Big Idea?

In true messianic fashion, Steve Jobs has described the look of Apple’s futuristic new headquarters--located in a circular, four-story building on 150 acres in Cupertino, CA--as like “a spaceship landing.” Recently Big Think asked Sam Gosling, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You to analyze the meaning behind the metaphor. “In addition to projecting innovation as they always have, it’s a way to convey the idea of bringing things from the future to today,” he says. Does that make Jobs an alien? 

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Using our surroundings to express our identity is innately human, and the choices we make about which objects to display--a clock or a world map, a copy of Ulysses or a lovingly curated collection of Star Wars figurines--serve as clues to help strangers interpret who we are, as well as symbols to remind ourselves of who we want to be. Of course, it’s possible to arrange a room to promote a certain image, but most of us want to be genuinely known, which is why we carry reminders like family photographs in our pockets. 

For Jobs, the equivalent may be literally recreating the landscape of his childhood. The mothership is to be built on land once owned by his idol and former employer, HP founder Bill Hewlett, and will feature native plants (including an apricot orchard) that harken back to California's pre-tech days. According to Gosling, "the reference to the organization's origins has echoes of the sorts of things we do with our own personal spaces: in any good narrative the present and imagined future must be paired with the past." 

Ultimately, the real test of authenticity lies in the comparison between an individual's public and private space. You may be able to pass for a neat-freak at work, but at home you're forced to square the discrepancy between aspiration and reality, as anyone who's ever been to a dinner party can appreciate. (Witness the collective preoccupation with hiding an LCD TV discretely inside a media console.) "Let's look around Apple headquarters and then sneak into Steve Jobs' house and compare the two. If he really has a polar bear farm in the backyard, that's when I might start to question the authenticity of his vision." (Note: Jobs' house was designed by the same firm responsible for most of Apple's brick-and-mortar stores.)

What’s the Significance?

You are inevitably being judged based on the environment you create, even and perhaps especially at work. That doesn't mean you need to rethink your values every time you change your screen saver. To determine what your office is saying about you, look around and take note of the larger patterns or themes that emerge:

  • Rule-breaker or follower? An unconventional thinker will often use regular objects in unfamiliar ways, i.e. a desk made from a stack of skateboards or a traffic cone that holds pencils. “We really saw those things when we were going around to creative departments and advertising agencies,” says Gosling.
  • Outgoing or independent? Extroverts are always seeking to foster conversation, so their offices are usually inviting, with a comfortable sofa or a bowl of candy on the desk. If, on the other hand, you’re an introvert, your colleagues probably sense that your door isn’t just closed just to keep in the A/C. (Most surprising introvert? Dr. Phil, whose office is formal and enormous.) 
  • Organized or chaotic? Here, common sense can be misleading. Gosling found that a messy space is perceived as a sign that its occupant is disagreeable--which is untrue. While people with disorganized rooms do tend to be less conscientious than coworkers who alphabetize every file, if the clutter is diverse (i.e. a variety of books and music) it might actually indicate interest in different cultures and a general openness to new ideas. Likewise, maintaining an “overly neat” space does not mean you're a neurotic. It's important to remember that no one trait is intrinsically good or bad: for instance, the very characteristics that make someone an excellent doctor could be cause for concern in a computer scientist or an accountant.

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