Why Does Tim Cook Even Bother?

Now that the world no longer has Steve Ballmer to kick around, I think it’s time we direct our focus toward Apple’s Tim Cook. After all, just like Ballmer, Cook had to follow a legendary, visionary founder. Just like Ballmer, Cook is an operations guy, skilled in maximizing profits, growing a company, making sure the trains run on time. Like Ballmer, Cook’s more top-line than techie.

The biggest difference between the two men: Ballmer is worth billions whereas Tim Cook, late to Apple, is worth mere tens of millions.

Is this fair? Probably not, though also scarcely relevant. Regardless of the scope of Steve Ballmer’s fortunes, Tim Cook has enough money to live exceedingly well for the rest of his life. Which begs the question: why does he do it? Why does Tim Cook continue to lead Apple, with all its complexities, all its obligations, when he could retire — and perhaps pursue his other passions, or offer his time to the needy?

I find it fascinating that Cook — and so many others who have so much money — continue to give so much of themselves to a business. Does merely wondering this reveal I am destined to never lead a giant, highly profitable corporation?

Like so much about the murky Mr. Cook, his actual net worth is difficult to determine. The vast majority of his money is, unsurprisingly, linked to Apple stock awards which vest piecemeal over ten years. By the end of 2015, however, and based upon the various sources I reviewed, I will ballpark Cook’s wealth at about $250 million. Imagine you hit the Lotto this week and cleared $250 million. Would you still work? Really?

Break it down:

  1. $50 million for your children
  2. $25 million to charities (10%)
  3. $25 million to your alma mater (you are generous, after all)
  4. $50 million to family, relations, friends (you are very generous, after all)

That still leaves you (and your spouse) with $100 million in cash. If you’re, say, 40, and live to 90, you have $2 million to spend every single year for the rest of your life, however you wish — not including appreciable interest and investment returns.

Would you continue at your job, with all its stresses and demands, its long hours, and limiting focus?

Why does Cook? Why did Steve Ballmer? Why do Marissa Mayer, Susan Wojcicki, and so many other smart, talented and extremely rich men and women continue? Is there really so much joy, so much power, glory and opportunity from running Yahoo, YouTube, Microsoft or Apple?

Tim Cook has said that “money is not a motivator for me.” No doubt that is mostly true. What does motivate him? The morning meeting with the lawyers over the next patent suit? Responding to customer complaints over iCloud or email? Reviewing highly complex procurement contracts? Testing the iWatch 18 months before its launch? Firing Scott Forstall? Firing John Browett? Interviewing candidates to replace him? Talking with Walt Mossberg? Meeting with the CFO to decide when to buy back the next chunk of the company? Having to sit through that meeting where they discuss how the HVAC plans aren’t up to code on the new headquarters and then being interrupted because PR is upset that so many of the Apple faithful are inquiring about the allegations that Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt conspired to keep engineering salaries in check?

It all seems so exhausting.

Tim Cook will both never be Steve Jobs and always compared to Steve Jobs. That also seems an unnecessary burden.

So, why?

I really do not know. But, here’s a clue. When Microsoft named Satya Nadella its next CEO, Steve Ballmer emailed everyone at the company:

Microsoft is one of the great companies in the world. I love this company. I love the bigness and boldness of what we do. I love the way we partner with other companies to come together to change the world. I love the breadth and the diversity of all of the customers we empower, from students in the classroom to consumers to small businesses to governments to the largest enterprises. Above all, I love the spirit of this place, the passion, and the perseverance, which has been the cornerstone of our culture from the very beginning.

Have you said the equivalent proud, beaming, loving words to your own child? Do so, now.

Ballmer has billions of dollars — billions! Why even care? That said, I am pleased he does, and that many others, particularly in tech, care just as deeply.

On the occasion of Facebook’s tenth anniversary — yes, the social network is years older than iPhone — Mark Zuckerberg shared his thoughts:

When I reflect on the last 10 years, one question I ask myself is: why were we the ones to build this? We were just students. We had way fewer resources than big companies. If they had focused on this problem, they could have done it.

The only answer I can think of is: we just cared more.

While some doubted that connecting the world was actually important, we were building. While others doubted that this would be sustainable, you were forming lasting connections.

We just cared more about connecting the world than anyone else. And we still do today.

He cared and continues to care.

If I had Mark Zuckerberg money, I would still write, every single day, exactly as I do now. Only, the money would almost certainly alter the pattern of my days. I would never again work for a company, nor for an editor, nor ever look for work. Would my writing then improve? Would the subject matter change? Alas, I will probably never know. I do know, however, that whatever it is beyond money that motivates the Cooks, Zuckerbergs, Ballmers, and Mayers of the world, we are almost certainly the better for it.

On a regular basis, I hear someone mock Apple or disparage Microsoft. Mere Internet flotsam, signifying nothing. The fact is, these companies have enhanced our lives, our work, creativity, play, learning, and connections with one another. We are fortunate that their leaders give so much of themselves, even when they have every reason not to.

Published by

Brian S Hall

Brian S Hall writes about mobile devices, crowdsourced entertainment, and the integration of cars and computers. His work has been published with Macworld, CNBC, Wall Street Journal, ReadWrite and numerous others. Multiple columns have been cited as "must reads" by AllThingsD and Re/Code and he has been blacklisted by some of the top editors in the industry. Brian has been a guest on several radio programs and podcasts.

1,106 thoughts on “Why Does Tim Cook Even Bother?”

  1. Nice article. Three points:

    1. There’s so much more you can accomplish when surrounded by good people. Work can be fun when you’re able to do things that affect billions of people, and directly provide for tens of thousands.
    2. It’s precisely because money isn’t the primary concern that Tim Cook is a great CEO for Apple; Icahn or Dell would’ve cashed in long ago.
    3. The systemic shock from having so much to take care of, and then having almost nothing to take care of generally results in death shortly after retirement. Hard working people, which I would never deny Ballmer or Cook to be, don’t lounge around the house in their pajamas unless they’re ill.

    1. #3 is an excellent point. I know a lot of farmers in their 80s, still working. My dad turns 80 this year, and he won’t quit either. But farming isn’t work, not to me or the people I know that farm. Maybe that’s the difference, when you’re doing something you enjoy or have a passion for, it isn’t work. So there’s no point trying to analyze it through the lens of ‘work’.

  2. It easy not to be motivated by money when you have an enormous amount of them. I too could let go of my worldly desire for money, if I was paid as handsomely to do so.

  3. Thank you for such a beautifully human article.
    I have always told my three children to follow their passion. Find a passion and follow it! Money may or may not happen, but you know that you’re in the right profession if you would do it for free anyway. Then your chances of making more money are maximized.

    1. Agreed. One of my many truly outstanding mentors told me years ago, “Work is the word I use for something I don’t really want to do. What I do is not work, it is what I enjoy doing. My good fortune is getting paid to do it.”

  4. There is a huge chasm between doing what you love and loving what you do. Cook, et. al., are clearly loving what they do.


    1. Hunh? If you are doing what you love to do, then of course, and quite trivially, you love what you are doing. Is there ever a case where you love what you’re doing but you’re not doing something that you love?

      1. It relates particularly to a career. I love music and playing guitar. I tried to make it make it my career, but the business side of it pretty much sucked the joy and love out of it for me plus I had to play a lot of stuff I just didn’t enjoy playing.

        Now I am a performing arts lighting designer and production manager, principally for dance companies. I love going to work every day to help artists create their visions and administer the technical necessities required to do that. I now love playing guitar again, but not as my career path.

        Even in this career path I could pursue (and have pursued) more lucrative related fields, like corporate events, video, or film, but the lack of soul (thus they attempt to suck my soul) in those areas made me jettison the efforts quickly. Other people love working in those fields of production.

        If you don’t love what you are doing, if you don’t love the _work_, it can make you hate what you love. There are a lot of people burning out and being frustrated trying to do what they love instead of finding out what it is they would really love to do. I would think that could be seen in many would-be entrepreneurs, and even successful entrepreneurs. Some people are great at getting something started, but should probably hand off to others certain parts at certain points in the process.


        1. I love lighting (technically, I love both lighting and grip), but after 25 years of mostly frustration, and greater frustration as I moved up, I just couldn’t take it anymore.

  5. I know a guy who’s grandfather was in the Forbes 400 (self made) and I asked the guy if his grandfather (who was probably around 80 at the time) still worked hard, and the guy told me that his grandfather still worked far harder than he or I. I said if it were me I wouldn’t be working so hard – but that’s the point – if you have the mindset to not be working hard at that point then you lack the personality to ever have achieved so much in the first place.

    These are not guys who will retire to Hawaii or wherever to kick back just because they have all the money they will ever need. The drive that allowed them to reach the levels they are at wouldn’t allow it.

  6. Kinda schmaltzy, Brian. Why do guys who have all the power of Kubla Khan like their jobs? Poor picked on CEOs. I tell my kids to stay near the fresh water and the Mayo Clinic.

      1. Here’s what I believe: If you have a job you love, you don’t quit it. (Conversely, If you have a job you don’t love, quit and find one you do.)

  7. “After all, just like Ballmer, Cook had to follow a legendary, visionary founder.”

    Well, I wouldn’t put Gates in the same league with Jobs. Even Gates admitted as much. I view it as Gates/Ballmer being the B team while Jobs/Cook is the A team.

    “Imagine you hit the Lotto this week and cleared $250 million. Would you still work?”

    Yes, I would still farm, because I love it. It’s fun. I’d quit my ‘day job’ though, I like it well enough, but it ain’t love. It’s obvious that Tim really loves what he does. What’s not to love? You get to come in to work every day and help make really neat great computers. Isn’t that the nerd dream?

    1. Good point, though even being the guy in charge, there are still so many nagging, unpleasant responsibilities (it seems to me), that I’m surprised so many like Cook continue in their work.

      1. Well, catch me right in the moment when one of our combines blew a main drive belt, or when our backhoe blew a hydraulic hose which required a day of cutting metal just to gain access to fix it, I probably wouldn’t say I love farming right in that moment. There’s some pretty crappy work at times (mostly when things go wrong), but overall it’s a lot more good than bad, so you take it together.

    2. I agree with you completely. I am surprised Brian even wonders why Tim Cook continues to work. If you love your work, and clearly Tim Cook does, you don’t want to “divorce” it because you have enough money out of it. Only “mercenary” workers retire when they have enough money. Sadly, probably due to circumstances, most are “mercenary” workers.

    3. The missing piece of the puzzle is Jony Ive. Tim Cook is not going it alone, Jobs gave Ive autonomy and as much, if not more, power that Cook.

      1. Yes, I think many analysts underestimate how important Ive has been, and will continue to be. That guy is an excellent designer, and when I say ‘design’ I mean ‘how things work’, not ‘what they look like’. Any real designer knows the difference.

  8. Tim Cook does not run around the stage like a Gorilla, screaming and frightening everyone like Ballmer did. Watching Ballmer do the cool-dude maneuvers on stage left a terrible taste. It resembled the bearded big guy walking the beauty pageant in high-heals, wearing lipstick. When Jobs died, there was fear that the company would begin to fall apart. Jobs was the face of Apple. So Tim has done a good job of keeping everything sailing smoothly. That is the first sign of a good executive – keeping the motor running smoothly. And Apple reached its pinnacle under Tim. He has managed to sustain the momentum of the company. Usually when an emperor dies, the uncles, cousins, ministers and counts start trying to dominate the empire until they are brutally beaten back. In the case of Apple, Tim saw to that he was looked at and respected as a worthy successor and avoided all ego related issues. Everyone is still there, working for Apple quietly. Tim has been a very good choice for Apple, compared someone like John Scully (anyone remember him?).

      1. And does anyone really think that Jobs didn’t rough out the roadmap for the next 20 or 30 years? I mean, come on, Jobs was talking about what’s happening right now, back in the late 80s. Tim is perfect for where Apple is right now, they’ve got probably a decade or more of just executing the vision.

        1. Every empire comes to an end at some point. Look at Sony or IBM or Motorola. There are diminished entities today. Apple will follow the same path. Someone will make a mistake and choose the wrong path, leading to the downfall. Humans are very reliable as far as disintegration is concerned.

          1. True, but I expect Apple to last much longer than most, simply because culturally they do what works best, as an organization they are pragmatists. That’s Steve’s greatest creation, Apple itself, how they operate, which is quite a bit different than most tech companies.

          2. Plus, it’s business model is far more aligned with the customers than any possible competitor. The actual paying customer buys its products — not IT shops, not advertisers. (This business model used to be the norm, now it’s borderline revolutionary.)

          3. Yes, and Apple is the only company that makes the whole widget. Much of the tech industry still views this kind of vertical integration as wrong, even downright evil.

          4. I’m not sure competitors view it as evil as much as they view it as too damn hard. Apple has been doing this for decades. Google bought Moto (and now Nest) I suspect because they think they can magically ‘integrate’ hardware into their DNA. Not so easy.

  9. Brian,

    I am a soon-to-be 66 yr-old consultant. I have no plans to retire … ever. I work for three reasons:

    1. I need the money
    2. I love the work
    3. I am a “Boomer’ who wants to continue to contribute to society rather than take from it.

    If I had $250,000,000 (or even $250,000) i would continue to work because reasons 2 & 3 will still be there even if reason 1 is gone.

  10. Hoarding is an addiction, for some there is “never enough”. Ironically this behaviour is lauded when it comes to accumulating money, but reviled otherwise.

  11. This quote from Theodore Roosevelt may help you to understand Tim Cook and others:

    It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

    Then again, maybe Tim Cook has no hobbies and would be a pest to have around the house all day.

  12. Great article Brian. I forwarded this to the owner of the company I work for, his immigrant grandfather started a humble electrical company in Kansas three generations ago. He has grown it to a nationally recognized multiuser vices company. I’m sure he has had many offers to sell it off but as in your article, it is not about that. I thought he would appreciate your perspective and the “why.”

  13. “Just like Ballmer, Cook is an operations guy, skilled in maximizing profits, growing a company, making sure the trains run on time. Like Ballmer, Cook’s more top-line than techie.”

    I know it isn’t the focus of the article, but I was curious about this part of the comparison between Ballmer and Cook. Did Ballmer really have hardware supply chain and manufacturing management experience? In that way, Cook is quite techy.

    I had thought that Ballmer was more the “Salesman”, and that a better comparison would be to Phil Schiller. Jobs didn’t make Schiller the CEO precisely because Jobs didn’t like what happened the last time a Salesman was in charge.

    1. There are differences, but I was trying to focus on what I believe are the common strengths of the two. It’s not their techie skills, in my view, but in their ability to scale a business.

      1. I could be wrong but there are big basic differences between scaling a hardware company and scaling a software company. The way you grow a software company is to sell more software. Ballmer was a salesman.

  14. The same could be said for Jobs, who worked until he could physically work no more, dying about a month after resigning. He loved Apple and the “work” of creation.

  15. It all boils down to passion. People like Bill, Jobs, Tim, et al were overflowing with it. The thirst, the drive to further exceed, the strong hunger to change the status quo. The zest to accomplish something that will transcend them. From generations to come, is what drives these uber-achieving personalities to carve their paths according to their own tunes.

    When a person operates at the “C” -Levels of Management (CEO, CFO,COO), its not the money, nor the stock options, that keeps him motivated to still wake up in the break of dawn. Rather, Its the sense of fullfilment, the dignity of Hi-level work performed, the responsibility on his shoulder to always move the company forward, “grow p” it, and have every decision executed felt by the entire organization. That and continually busting the chops of the competition sums it up.

  16. Since when isn’t 10s of millions of dollars not enough compensation for pouring yourself into your job? The idea that people at this level need billions is absurd. Tim Cook loves his job (so it seems), and he’s paid handsomely for it.

  17. If you have to ask why these people still do it, then you truly don’t understand what makes business leaders, entrepreneurs, etc. tick.

  18. I used to wonder about this myself. Then I found myself in the position of running, nearly autonomously, a $10 million per year division of a much larger company. I was allowed to run it as a stand alone business.

    I worked 70 hour weeks, was rarely in the same city for more than a day or two, and rarely saw family, friends, or even my own home.

    We were beleaguered by a number of factors out of our control, and most didn’t expect us to survive.

    It was the most fun I’ve ever had.

    I think it is the same reason that athletes continue to compete through injuries and setbacks.

    When you are in a position to face challenges every day, challenges that push you out of your comfort zone and into uncharted territory, facing those challenges becomes its own reward.

    Even when you fail, you just become more eager for the next challenge, to test the skills you have been honing.

    The fact that, occasionally, you get to bend the world to your will, even in very small ways, is the icing on the cake.

    Cook does what I did, multiplied by 17,000 times. That sounds like the most fantastic ride there is.

  19. Bill Gates, a legendary, visionary founder?
    What are you smoking nowadays?
    How about pickpocket, idealess bounder.
    I’m starting to worry about you, Brian.

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