There is a paradoxical phenomenon going on in the current job market. We have huge real unemployment and underemployment (between 14% and 18% by various estimates), yet with hundreds of of thousands of jobs going begging. These unfilled jobs require high-levels of technical and scientific skills lacking in the current work force. Thus, there is an almost panicked stampede by university students, facing unemployment, to put on blinders and focus strictly on jobs available in our brave new world of austerity and job paucity. This new attitude eschews the broad learning approach to education.
There is a danger here, especially for the future of entrepreneurship. Creative business must be a combination of learned craft and intuitive art. I have frequently commented on the hubris of the academic business community in its assertion that entrepreneurship can be schooled from the ivory tower. Likewise, there is a danger of all pedagogy, even at elite institutions, turning to a form of “teaching to the test”–a kind of glorified vocational instructing–teaching students only in execution with current needed skill technologies (the “how”) and not in the legacy of centuries of human wisdom (the “why”) from whence emanates truly fresh, world-changing business creativity.
Last week Michael S. Malone, a Forbes columnist and author of new book The Guardian of All Things: The Epic Story of Human Memory, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (Oct. 24, 2012) titled “How to Avoid a Bonfire of the Humanities.” It speaks to this conundrum.
Malone recounts one of his university colleagues, who teaches English, saying, “There are parents who tell their kids they will only pay tuition for a business, engineering or science degree.” I can only imagine this phenomenon increasing as parents cope with their unemployed progeny moving home. And, also, coping with a growing threat of student loan defaults, often leaving retired parents holding the bag. (The WSJ–Kelly Greene, Oct. 25— reports many parents even losing their homes as co-signers of defaulted student loans.)
Yet there may be some very practical hope for the humanities emanating from Silicon Valley, of all places.
Malone recounts somewhat timidly asking his very successful entrepreneurial friend Santosh Jayaram if he would mind putting in a few good words for the humanities to members of his professional writing class, who were considering changing majors:
“Santosh said, ‘Are you kidding? English majors are exactly the people I’m looking for.’ He explained: Twenty years ago, if you wanted to start a company, you spent a month or so figuring out the product you wanted to build, then devoted the next 10 or 12 months to developing the prototype, tooling up and getting into full production….These days this work can be contracted out to programmers anywhere in the world, who could do it in a couple of weeks. But to get to that point, he said, you must spend a year searching for that one undeveloped niche that you can capture. And you must use that time [to build your company] without having an actual product….’And how do you do that?’ Santosh said. ‘You tell stories’….The battleground in business has shifted from engineering, which everybody can do, to storytelling, for which many fewer people have real talent.”
Malone cites Steve Jobs’ statement, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough–it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yield us the result that makes our heart sing.”
But what is the practical lesson for the currently practicing entrepreneur in Malones’s article?
Well, for me the key learning from this piece is the increasing importance of storytelling–the ability to bring creativity, poetry, passion and metaphor together to recruit employees, strategic partners, investors and, of course, customers to join your company. Maybe that is my ultimate job as a founder and CEO of my firm Corporate Rain—to be the Storyteller-In-Chief.
I frequently listen to Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” on the weekends. He is eternally joking about the unemployability of English majors. While there is no doubt that college English departments are in decline, perhaps there is still a future for the liberal arts major as a business leader who can call on the non-quantitative intuitions of history, music, art, philosophy and faith with a creative flexibility, rather than just a technical expertise. Perhaps the new entrepreneur will be a person who can tell and retell evolving business stories and synthesize and communicate new concepts and creations, as well as being a person who can analyze the fine points of Java.