I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection of business, especially technology, with liberal arts such as literature and philosophy. Despite the emergence – and necessity – of STEM studies, it is clear that the study of liberal arts informs everything from product design to supply chain management to marketing.
Steve Jobs phrased the dynamic particularly well at the 2011 iPad 2 Introduction:
There have been a few more recent articles championing the importance of literature and philosophy in the realms of leadership, business, and technology. In August, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote about the primacy of literature and reading in the lives of British political leaders like Disraeli, Gladstone, and Winston Churchill, who also, The Economist notes, dabbled in painting. Rabbi Sacks succinctly offers that:
Leaders learn. They read. They study. They take time to familiarise themselves with the world of ideas. Only thus do they gain the perspective to be able to see further and clearer than others.
In a similar vein, The Economist’s October 4 Schumpeter column argues that “business leaders would benefit from studying great writers,” and that:
You will learn far more about leadership from reading Thucydides’s hymn to Pericles than you will from a thousand leadership experts. You will learn far more about doing business in China from reading Confucius than by listening to “culture consultants”. Peter Drucker remained top dog among management gurus for 50 years not because he attended more conferences but because he marinated his mind in great books: for example, he wrote about business alliances with reference to marriage alliances in Jane Austen.
Lastly, Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s new CEO, is characterized by Vanity Fair as being equal parts technology and liberal arts. The article notes:
He [Nadella] quotes Nietzsche and other philosophers, but his real love is poetry, because “poets can take perhaps any philosophical point or any point of life and can compress it into a few lines,” he says. T. S. Eliot and Keats are among his favorite poets, and he also enjoys Urdu poetry. “Growing up in India, once you started engineering school you really don’t have any liberal-arts education,” he says. “Somehow I got hooked onto saying, Look, the one good way to renew yourself is to read good literature and good poetry . . .
It’s refreshing to see the emergence of a balance between the importance of STEM and the relevance of literature, even in a startup. For instance, Warby Parker’s clever name is an amalgam of two Kerouac characters. And so before one goes looking for a round of VC funding, or buys into a stock, or lays out a marketing plan, it might be worth checking out the Literature section. Paradise Lost just might describe the stock market this month.