Liberal Arts is A SuperPower

All day, everyday, I swim in “digital” alongside the coders, designers, and makers that create the internet. When we do our best work, we’re inventing and innovating.  You’d think I look to the scientists and coders to help me crack hard cases at work, but time after time, I find the best ideas come from non-engineers in the room.  When in doubt, I turn to the history majors and English lit nerds to guide me.  They have super powers.

The press writes stories about the lack of workers with engineering, math and science skills. Those of us running  businesses that depend on digital know there is a legitimate need for all those STEM graduates. But, I am concerned about the decline in the number of Liberal Arts degrees being granted in the US. We need their skills as much as we need people that can design algorithms. America needs more poets!

Liberal Arts degrees – English/literature, history, philosophy, etc. – create the thinkers and leaders we need to keep innovation happening. Beyond the domain knowledge that these degrees cultivate, they all build skills needed to create and shape innovative solutions. The insights that lead to new ideas come from the habits built doing liberal arts work:  Pattern matching, understanding and defining the contexts, making associations across domains.

And, just as importantly, Liberal Arts work – reading, writing, creating, analyzing – gives us practice in the skills required to get new to ideas built. Creating new things and making them useful requires working with and translating  abstract concepts clearly enough that others want to invest, literally and figuratively (e.g try explaining what a “platform business model” is to someone that’s never heard that term before). Before the coders and engineers make the ideas real, the liberal arts folks make them understandable and applicable.

I recently went to the retirement party for a business leader I’ve worked with over the years. She’s had tremendous success, building and selling technology companies worth millions, creating strong organizations where his employees flourished. An undergraduate degree in history pointed her in the direction of her first dream in life: A high school history teacher. But, tech, business and the startup life got in her way.

I believe her success was partly due to her understanding of how history works. She saw patterns unfolding in the culture and in her industry, patterns she recognized from her study of culture and history, and knew there were openings for for innovators. She was able to communicate beautifully, probably due to her training as a teacher: Clearly, simply, and to everyone. She used anecdotes and stories from American History to make current business decisions relatable. She could explain the hard concepts in language anyone could understand, getting consensus and buy in for her recommendations. I doubt those skills would have been developed as well if she studied math and engineering.

I’m a tech optimist. I know how important math, science and engineering are for the continued growth of our culture. I am  inspired by the the entrepreneurs who have built the culture-shaping, world-changing tools and platforms that we all use everyday. But, I also know those companies weren’t winners because of their tech. They won because the inventors and founders had folks around them – on their leadership teams, in the investor groups – that could translate the tech breakthroughs to everyone else. The non-techs – the language majors, the history wonks, the poet/writers on the leadership team – were just as important to the success.

Are you struggling at work to get traction on your idea? Are you feeling a little aimless in your work and want a boost of creativity? Try writing some poetry, go read a little history. Crack open that primer on philosophy. See what happens when you come at those problems in a new way and find your own super powers.

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