Business & Poetry

The Knowledge@Wharton blog (one of my favorites) has a fascinating interview with Dana Gioia about the connection between business and poetry. Who better to ponder that connection than someone who graduated from Stanford business school, served as vice president of General Foods, became a published poet, and was named chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts? A few excerpts from the interview:

Well, first of all let me make something clear, because people often get my career a little bit confused. I'm the only person, in history, who went to business school to be a poet. This is because I wanted to be a poet and I wanted to have a job, a career and I didn't want to be in academia. I found business interesting and I found the problems and opportunities that you work with in business very interesting.

So, I went to Stanford Business School and then spent fifteen years in corporate life. I sort of came into business as a poet. And I have to say that having attended Stanford and Harvard, that I got my education in business. It has taught me a lot of things that have helped me as a poet.

I think the most fundamental thing is that in business, I was working with very smart people who were more average [I think] in terms of their interests. They had a rather high work ethic and they were very intelligent people. And, I was able, for fifteen years to live and work with people - who were not literary people. It gave me a better sense of the language and of the kinds of issues/ideas and subjects that the average person is more interested in. And, it took me out of the "hot house" of the English Department. . . .

I think that if you come into the business, with an arts background, you have a tremendously difficult time initially. This is because it's a very different world, it looks at problems differently and by and large, they don't necessarily respect your background.

For that reason, I did not let anyone I worked with know that I was a poet. This is because, let me ask you a question, if you had a poet working for you, wouldn't you check his or her addition? So privately I went through a very difficult time. That being said, as you rise in business, as you get out of the lower level staff jobs and the quantitative analysis, and you get into the higher level of problems, I felt that I had an enormous advantage over my colleagues because I had a background in the imagination, in language and in literature.

This is because once you get into middle and upper management, the decisions that you make are largely qualitative and creative. And, most people who do really well in the early quantitative stages are grossly unprepared for the real challenges of upper management, at least in marketing which was the industry that I was working in, marketing and product management. . . .

Well, if you take the word poet in the old Greek sense of "a maker", what entrepreneurs and artists have in common is that they imagine something that they then bring into reality. And, as any poet or any composer or any entrepreneur knows, you imagine something, but to bring it to reality you revise and recalibrate it a million times to get it just right. So, I think the ability of envisioning something and then bringing it into being goes back to the ancient meaning of the word poetry -- Poesis which means the made thing.

There are lots of interesting nuggets in that interview, but I also encourage you to read it because I hear from so many college seniors that they're not sure what they want to do with themselves after graduation, but they are sure it can't be in business.

When I scratch that surface even a little bit, I soon discover that they know absolutely nothing about the business world. Add to that mix the indoctrination they receive from academics with their quaint, tenured, old-school Marxist contempt for the private sector and free enterprise, and it's no wonder people graduate from college thinking they are fit only for academia or non-profit work or -- dare I say it -- law school. (Which just goes to show you how little they know about what most lawyers do all day long.) They also have no idea that the skills they learned through their liberal arts training are useful in the corporate world.

So I'm going to be keeping an eye out for profiles and stories, like this one, about people who have done great and interesting things in the business world and connected their business lives with some other deeply held passion. I'll put them in a new category called "Business for Non-Corporate Types." Stay tuned!