You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education

Who should read this: Surprise, surprise — anyone graduating with liberal arts degree :). I also think hiring managers who are trying to “hire outside of the box” can learn something here, as there are useful examples of transferable skills that liberal arts students can utilize.

This is definitely a book I wish I would have read when I was in college getting my International Relations B.A., as it would have given me a confidence boost about the future and the sorts of career options open to me.

In retrospect, though, things worked out. I ended up getting offers as an English teacher and at recruitment firms. I decided on a job in the recruitment industry in Japan, which was a sales job at the core. As I studied Japanese language and culture this was directly applicable to the job, and I also had to be able to grasp various business models in the tech industry, craft and taylor stories (sales pitches), bridge the gap between different cultures, and interact with people with varying views about work, life, politics and economics. So, you could kind of say that my liberal arts background set me up pretty well.

One of the images of liberal arts students is that they’re a bit lost, and that their degrees will make it hard to find employment, like philosophy, French literature, or “communications.” While there might be some truth to that — I certainly had no idea what I wanted to do, no plan, and no idea of the sorts of job opportunities out there– that stereotype no longer holds water.

In a day in age when we have more and more data and are — in all seriousness, moving into what Sapiens author Yuval Harari calls the data religion — the easier it is to get lost in numbers. We need people to communicate, translate, interpret, story tell, influence, and articulate our increasingly algorithmic businesses, numbers and big data to others. That’s where a liberal arts education comes in handy.

“…a liberal arts education enables you to cite both Plato and Spider-Man in the same speech.”

Communication and understanding multiple perspectives is a cornerstone to a liberal arts degree, too. As we become more global, decentralized and have companies with 1000-person remote teams, communication becomes pretty crucial. The author shares plenty of stories of people who have pursued careers in every field imaginable and I’ve got to say that it’s pretty inspiring.

Rhetoric, as it happens, was one of antiquity’s original seven liberal arts. Mindful of that heritage, Dartmouth’s Paul Christesen asks undergraduates in the Greece study-abroad program to deliver a half-hour talk at some point summing up their backgrounds, interests, achievements, anxieties, and ambitions. There are no other rules. Preparing for these talks becomes a soul-searching exercise that students vividly remember a decade later. Some admit to imagining themselves being back in Greece again and again, revising their youthful remarks each year as they redefine who they’ve become and who they want to be.

Here are some of my favorite stories and quotes from the book:

A new paradigm of jobs

Millions of jobs barely known or inconceivable a generation or two ago have become mainstream norms. That’s true in medicine (as seen in the rise of everything from hip-replacement surgery to genetic counseling); it’s true in engineering (with examples ranging from mobile-app development to solar-cell design); and it’s true in all kinds of fields where a liberal arts perspective can be put to use. Even big companies stretch their ambitions in unexpected ways, creating fresh jobs in uncharted areas. Governments and nonprofits do as well. The result: Employers routinely insist they have no openings until they meet a promising candidate—like you. That’s when your energy and optimism reshape the day. New ideas take center stage. Moods brighten. Suddenly, doubt turns into belief; diffidence into action. Before long, someone utters the magic phrase: “What if we tried…”

Multidimensional skills

The growing popularity of interdisciplinary majors such as cognitive studies speaks to increased awareness on the parts of employers, students, and university faculty that graduates with multiple perspectives bring something extra to the job market. Count me in as a champion of almost any approach that helps span the two cultures. Right now, the job market lacks universal, easy-to understand language that captures these multidimensional skills. As a result, the best opportunities for liberal arts graduates are likely to reside in jobs with awkward, long, and opaque titles. You might be trying to get hired as a partner advocate, a business-development manager, a relationship manager, or a customer-success specialist. Each organization has its own vocabulary. Linguistic reform is needed.

Interview tips

At some point in the hiring process, seize an opportunity to explain what makes you tick. By sharing the key moments of your life, you transcend the drudgery of retracing the whats and whens of your résumé. You start to reveal the whys and hows in your life. You share the dreams that inspire you, the hardships you have overcome, or the parts of your personality that make you so distinctive. For the first time in the interviewing ritual, you and your interviewer will feel it’s okay to let go of the standard script and just be human for a few minutes. You start to bring candor and trust into the conversation. If everything goes right, by the time you’ve finished sharing a bit of yourself, the person on the other side of the table will be thinking: We need to hire you.

What employers want

Can you build a team? Can you balance different perspectives and agendas? Can you understand the big picture? Can you manage through influence? Employers have been looking for these sorts of socially minded strengths since at least the 1930s. At first, this was an unambitious search, focused mostly on finding sales clerks with pleasant personalities. Not anymore. Financial giants such as BlackRock routinely cite team-building as a priority when hiring people for jobs paying a hundred thousand dollars a year or more. Leading Internet retailers such as eBay want candidates who know how to satisfy multiple agendas and still keep everything moving forward.

When employers ask for critical-thinking skills, the term serves as shorthand for five crucial factors. These start with a confident willingness—perhaps even eagerness—to tackle uncharted areas where nobody knows the rules yet. You bring imagination to your job; you adapt well to new situations. Let’s call this Working on the Frontier. Next on the list, well-honed analytic methods that make you good at Finding Insights. You thrive on spotting the less obvious answer. As you gain experience and rise in power, you will start synthesizing insights in ways that make you a trusted expert when complex decisions need to be made. Let’s call this higher-level power Choosing the Right Approach. Finally, you understand group dynamics and other people’s motivations in an unusually deep way. You’re good at Reading the Room, and also at Inspiring Others

Cross-cultural communication

Immerse yourself deeply in another culture, and a more compassionate self emerges. Kari Dallas visited Greece as a liberal arts undergraduate more than a decade ago, but she still remembers a shocking incident that occurred in a Greek town while she was walking through the city streets beside a classmate with intensely blue eyes. “A young girl stared in horror at those blue eyes and crossed herself,” Dallas recalled. “It was as if she had seen a devil.” It’s about digging into the way things are in a place, not just the way they seem.


You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a Useless Liberal Arts Education Notebook

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