Apple CEO Tim Cook on Life Before the Internet and Why We Need to Set Boundaries With Our Devices

Tim Cook is the first to acknowledge that with great power comes great responsibility. Here, he shares his “North Star,” how he’s building his legacy, and why we should put the phone down and go for a walk.

Tim Cook
All clothing and accessories, worn throughout, Cook’s own. Photo: Ryan Pfluger

The air at Apple Park, in Cupertino, Calif., is so fresh, you'd think Apple made it. Here, in a ring-shaped building around which one can walk in an infinite loop, is the heart of the world's communications, the maker of people's tools for modern life (the iPhone alone surpassed a billion active devices earlier this year). Before the low-key Tim Cook, then a VP at Compaq, joined the company in 1998, he met with Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Jobs said to him, "I want to change the world." Cook, as so many of us have since, signed up.

Cook, CEO of Apple since 2011 (his tenure started two months before Jobs' death), enjoys walking, infinitely. To clear his head of his immense influence, to make himself feel smaller. The week before we met, Cook had taken to the famous Steve Jobs Theater stage and released the iPhone 13 models, a ninth-generation iPad, a new iPad mini, a Series 7 Apple Watch, and new workouts on Apple Fitness+. A few weeks later, he announced a new Apple silicon-powered MacBook Pro, a HomePod mini in three new colors, and next-gen AirPods.

This is in addition to Apple's initiatives involving the environment, racial equity, education, accessibility, and, most important, privacy, which is top of mind for its customers and the most challenged, perception-wise. Cook isn't in the business of poking at tech rivals or social media behemoths, but in a 2021 speech, he obliquely criticized unethical data collection practices: "The end result of all of this is that you are no longer the customer. You are the product." It's quite the task to prioritize humanity in a field that so often strips us of it, but this is Cook's mission.

Laura Brown: You've said that when you go hiking, it makes you feel "inconsequential." How much do you enjoy that, given your incredible…consequence?

Tim Cook: [laughs] I think it's good for all of us to feel insignificant, and there's no better way to do that than to be out in nature and in the national parks, which I dearly love. I find it very grounding, relaxing, and a way to clear the mind like nothing else quite does. It's a palate cleanser.

LB: How do you calm your brain?

TC: I religiously exercise, so that helps me a lot. It's an hour when I really turn everything off. I don't sit and do my email and text when I'm working out. It's a way to block all the distractions.

LB: How do you reconcile your immense influence?

TC: You don't let it freak you out. And it's important to not overthink it. It's a privilege to lead this company, and because there's an intersection between my values and the values of the company, it's a natural place to be, as opposed to being the square peg in a round hole.

LB: What gets you hopped up like a kid?

TC: Oh, seeing shiny new things. The things that we're working on that some people think are impossible, and the things in the design studio that haven't yet seen the light of day. And then also getting feedback from customers about what they're using our products for, like making a movie, taking a photograph, or using them for health care.

LB: When you're on your hikes, are you a step counter?

TC: I'm a step counter.

LB: How many steps are you doing?

TC: Well, a good day for me on the hiking trail is, you know, 20-plus thousand. But in a normal day, unfortunately, not as many. Sometimes I do have walking meetings.

LB: Do you pick up the pace and they go, "Oh, boy, there goes Tim"?

TC: [laughs] The more I think, the slower I walk.

LB: I read the letter you wrote on the recent 10-year anniversary of Steve Jobs's passing. When you think of him now, what comes to mind?

TC: Of course I think about the large product announcements, et cetera, but more than anything, I think about the casual discussions. He would stop by my office every day on the way out. Not even really thinking about him as a boss; I was thinking about him as a friend. I miss that dearly.

LB: The last two years have been beyond challenging on all playing fields. How do you stay steady when you see things that enrage you?

TC: It's having a North Star and staying laser-focused. If you do that, you don't get blown side to side as much and you're able to turn down the noise of everyday life. The pandemic and a number of things have been challenging, and that has been hard on everybody. But we kept saying over and over, "What are we doing here?" We're here to make the best products in the world that enrich lives and help in some way. You become more flexible as well. We've all had to be Gumby in the last couple of years. We had to learn how to work in a different manner, along with dealing with the hardship of seeing people go through the disease itself and losing people. It's been horrendous, but keeping focused helps.

LB: Have you always been a good Gumby?

TC: I've always tried to be because it's important — the world changes, you adapt. We've been reminded that we're not in control of our destiny. I've always prided myself on not getting too rigid — challenging myself that I shouldn't be doing things a certain way just because I've always done them that way.

LB: I want to talk about young Tim. Has anybody ever called you Timbo?

TC: Oh, yeah, of course.

LB: Tell me about your childhood. You're a calm person — were you a calm child?

TC: I was probably less calm than I am now. I came from a humble beginning, and it was great being in a loving family. I lived in a rural area, and so the reach was not a long one. There was no Internet at the time. Adventure was sort of restrained, in a way. But I always wanted to connect more broadly with the world, and that led me to be the first person in my family to go to college.

Tim Cook
Ryan Pfluger

LB: What did they say when you left? What did your mom help you pack in your bag?

TC: You know, being from the South, you drink a lot of sweet tea. And I think I got jugs of sweet tea to take with me. My parents were supportive. They were also probably wondering if it would work out.

LB: When you first arrived on campus at Auburn University, did you feel like, "This is where I'm meant to be"?

TC: I felt like I belonged there. I was taken immediately by the campus, the camaraderie of the students, and the social environment that revolved around the football team, the Auburn Tigers, and seeing the games. I loved that.

LB: When did you start setting your radar on the workforce?

TC: My radar wasn't set for decades thereafter. What was set was I grew up in a family where hard work was expected, so I started throwing papers [a newspaper route] when I was 13.

LB: How good is your arm?

TC: It's pretty good. I could hit the doors.

LB: If I get you one, could you fling it and hit an Apple Park window?

TC: I just might.

LB: There is a straight line when you think about it. [Apple] is now the first thing in the news every morning. You have flung the proverbial newspaper at all of us, and we race to pick it up.

TC: [laughs] Full circle.

LB: How ambitious were you in the early years?

TC: "Ambitious" is not a word I would use to describe myself at that time. I saw my father's work. He was in the shipbuilding business, and it was very cyclical. You'd work for a while, and you'd be laid off. And I didn't want this for myself. There was a consistency that he didn't have that I wanted, and then when you combine that with curiosity and the desire to work hard, things happened. The ingredients were there.

LB: Was it also about not wanting to leave yourself vulnerable?

TC: Yeah, I think that's very true. And, you know, it also helps you stay humble.

LB: Are you glad you didn't grow up with money?

TC: I'm glad I grew up the way I did. A lot of people don't have a loving family, and I had one, so in a way that makes you rich by itself. I wouldn't trade my childhood.

LB: You first walked through the Apple doors in 1998. What was the time stamp back then?

TC: It was pre-iMac. Steve had just come back to the company [from NeXT] in '97. He turned over the entire executive team and opened a search for operations. I came out of that search. I would've never thought about joining Apple. Apple was widely viewed to be going out of business. [Dell Technologies CEO] Michael Dell said if he were the CEO, he would shut it down and give the remaining money to the shareholders.

LB: 'Sup, Michael?

TC: Honestly, he just had the courage to say what everybody else thought. And so people thought I was nuts. I didn't have any intention of taking the role. But I flew out. I thought, "I get a chance to meet Steve Jobs. This is pretty cool!" Within minutes of the discussion, I'm thinking, "I want to do this."

LB: What was the conversation like?

TC: There was obvious chemistry, and I was meeting with someone who looked at the world so differently than the CEOs I had known. He wasn't driven by money or power. He was driven by doing great work that made a difference in people's lives. He wanted to change the world. I thought, "This is incredible." And suddenly it dawned on me that while I had loved to work for a long time, I'd never loved the work.

LB: Right. You'd just done it.

TC: The day I came into the Apple office, there was a picket line of customers who were protesting because Steve had just decided to kill the Newton device. They had signs out front. They were hooting and hollering. When I crossed the picket line to get in the building, I was thinking, "I've been involved in thousands of product announcements and withdrawals. We'd put them in our lobbies and say, 'Come look at the product,' and even the employees didn't come." [laughs] Nobody cared!

LB: In your first conversations with Steve, when he said, "I want to change the world," did it ever strike you as hyperbolic?

TC: I believed it. It was clear he was passionate about it. He was throwing all of himself into doing this, and he wanted to work with people like that. I looked at the issues that Apple had at the time and thought, "I can help." Being part of the resurrection of a great American brand was an incredible thing.

LB: With your own iPhone, do you constantly think about all that it took to exist or do you just go, "Oh, I got a text from Gary"?

TC: No, I'm still amazed. Take this year's phone: Cinematic Mode. I'm in awe of it. Who would've thought you can shoot and then subsequently change the focus or the depth of field?

LB: I like to do it with my cat. All that technology came down to my cat on a bed.

TC: [laughs] But it's pretty spectacular that you can do that, isn't it?

LB: What are your most used apps?

TC: Oh, I use a ton. Probably the one that I actually use the most is email — our Mail app. We're very Mail-oriented at Apple.

LB: That seems incongruous, actually. I thought you'd be sending lasers or something. Is it the formality of it or just as a record?

TC: No, I wouldn't call it formal at all. It's just how we correspond with one another, and customers reach out to me across email as well.

LB: What has been the most glorious note you've received from a customer?

TC: Getting notes from people who found out they had a heart issue and being told by the cardiologist that they would have died if it weren't for the Apple Watch alerting them that they had A-fib or whatever the circumstances might be. I get those daily. It fills your tank up. I get random stuff too, like, "What pair of shoes did you wear at the last keynote?" Which were these, actually [points to black suede Nike sneakers].

LB: You've got jazzy, colorful socks. You're more of a neutral-tone gent, but are socks where you go nuts?

TC: Oh, I've got a whole drawerful. I love to go crazy with the socks.

LB: When did you last wear a suit?

TC: We're really casual. The last time I wore a suit was for a government meeting. I was in the White House, actually. We were talking about cybersecurity. It's a really important topic.

LB: How fluid do you think your workings with this administration will be, and is there a difference — I would assume there is — from the last one?

TC: With each administration you find things they are focused on that intersect with yours. Then you try to amplify each other. The biggest challenges that we all face are things that require the public and the private sector to come together. Things like climate change — we're very much in sync with the [Biden] administration on that. But it's not going to be solved by government alone. It's not going to be solved by companies alone. Cybersecurity is another one. This is not something that's going to be solved by one company.

LB: How diplomatic are you if you're with someone you really don't agree with?

TC: I've never felt like when you meet with or talk to someone that you adopt their views or their values by interfacing with them. I mean, I'm a gay man, and you know the period that I grew up in, so there were lots of times when you were meeting with people who had very different views about you.

LB: In the South, yeah.

TC: I'm a big believer in even more communication when you don't agree. Generally, you find things that you do agree on if you stay at it long enough. But it's hard sometimes.

LB: You told Kara Swisher on the New York Times podcast Sway that in 10 years you'll likely not be at Apple. Can you get your head around that yet?

TC: It's hard for me because I've poured all of myself into this for 23 years. I don't think I will get my head around it until after I do it, to be honest. Because you're kind of running and running. It's like, and I mean this in a positive sense, being on a treadmill incline. You have to keep going or you fall off the other side. [laughs] But I think I'll always be doing something. I'm not one to kick back on the sofa and watch daytime soaps.

LB: Tim Cook becomes a Days of Our Lives addict. Is there such a thing as a typical day for you? I hear that you rise freakishly early.

TC: It is freakishly early. But do I have typical days? The truth is no. The common thread is I do rise early; I try to work out; I spend an hour or so on email, usually customer email.

LB: What are your evenings like? If you go out for dinner, what's your thing?

TC: Oh, I love sashimi. I could eat it every night.

LB: Any rice?

TC: No rice. Just sashimi.

LB: You just sit there with raw fish?

TC: I don't even dip it in anything. I like the full flavor of the fish.

LB: So you go on, like, sashimi benders? Do you have sake with it?

TC: [laughs] No, usually wine. I like a chardonnay.

LB: Well, it's California. Otherwise, you'd be evicted. What is your perfect night?

TC: A perfect evening would be low-key. Maybe watching Apple TV+.

LB: That has a great slate. One of your Morning Show stars, Reese Witherspoon, is on this issue's cover.

TC: Reese and Jen [Aniston] and the whole cast have done an unbelievable job. We love them to death. And The Morning Show has a reason for being. It's dealing with delicate subjects in a way that is really engaging. I'm watching Season 2 of it right now, and Ted Lasso is also winding down.

LB: That's basically Ted Lasso's success: "Let's make people feel good, because they feel like crap."

TC: It's amazing, isn't it? People get tired of negativity after a while. You want to see something positive. You want to believe in something. That show hit right when it should. It was like a prescription.

LB: Right into the veins. How much creative input do you have on these shows?

TC: Sometimes I'll interface on the upfront, where we're buying something, but I'm not a director or producer, and so people who do that for a living are doing that.

LB: When Oprah comes here, do you feel like you work for her too?

TC: Of course! Everyone works for Oprah. [laughs] But I've been to the set of The Morning Show and the set of See. I went to the Ted Lasso premiere for Season 2, so I'm active.

LB: Do they all suck up to you?

TC: [laughs] They're the celebrities. I'm just me.

LB: Do they say, "Hi, Tim, do you want my Emmy? I got it for you!"

TC: We are so proud of the Emmys. I think we had 35 nominations.

LB: At home, are you ever messy? Or is there just rice-less sashimi and beautifully folded socks

TC: No, I'm not totally organized. I have a little bit of chaos and clutter here and there. Not enough for it to get in my way, but a little bit.

LB: That's a lovely distillation. What value was instilled in you as a kid that has most stuck with you

TC: I believe in treating everybody with dignity and respect, so that's the core of my foundation. That's my bedrock. And my values are decency and fairness and kindness. That's what I'd like to be known for — hearing people out, believing in a positive intention, and not becoming cynical.

LB: To all the kids who get lost in their phones, what would you say to them?

TC: Well, you have to understand that technology doesn't want to be good. It doesn't want to be bad either. It doesn't want to be anything. It's in the eye of the user and the inventor, and technology needs balance, like anything does. You could eat the healthiest food, but eat too much of it and it has a bad result.

LB: Like fish.

TC: Like my sashimi. [laughs] But technology is like that too. And, of course, you don't want to just mindlessly scroll, so I would caution people to be the master of their technology. Technology should serve humanity, not the other way around. And I would use our tools — we've thought deeply about this, and so we have things like Screen Time and Focus.

LB: Screen Time terrifies me.

TC: We all have a habit of underestimating how much we use technology. I know I did.

LB: What does your Screen Time tell you on an average day?

TC: Too much. [laughs] But I've taken actions on my phone. I've cut out a great deal of notifications, so you can change the number of times that you're distracted.

LB: I say this with all sincerity, and I'm curious if you agree: I'm very glad I grew up without the Internet. What do you think?

TC: Well, I grew up in a rural area, and I think I would have loved to have had the Internet and loved to have used it to expand my worldview even faster. I would have loved finding kids like me. I know that there are lots of things that have to be done differently. Lots of changes that need to be made, so I understand your point of view too. But no, I would've liked it, and I hope that I would have had the wherewithal to balance the use of it.

LB: Corporately, there aren't a lot of "kids like you" who are known as deeply human leaders. Why does that sort of, regrettably, stick out?

TC: Well, I stay grounded. I work with people who are much smarter than I am, and we debate things, so that atmosphere keeps you even more grounded. And then, when you find a job that is identical to your values, it's like an epiphany. You don't have to transform yourself to be something different. You're just focused on becoming the best version of yourself.

LB: When are you not the best version of yourself? Because we all have those days when we don't want to get out of bed, or we're grumpy, or the news cycle is spinning.

TC: Fortunately, I don't have that many.

LB: Damn you!

TC: They probably happen when I'm one step beyond exhaustion. A reminder that it's time to take one of those hikes

Photographs by Ryan Pfluger.

For more stories like this, pick up the December/January 2022 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Nov. 19th.

Related Articles