Opinion

Opinion | Tracy Carlson

Humanities and business go hand in hand

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High school seniors, the college acceptance season just ended. Thick envelopes (or their digital equivalent) have been sent.

You’re in, somewhere. Now the question is: What should you major in? I know what you’ve been told: Make it something “practical,” like Economics, Business Administration, or STEM fields, and not English or History. It’s not just parents who have openly questioned the workplace value of subjects like literature, philosophy, or the classics. Remember President Obama’s skeptical remark about an art history degree?

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But is it really true that studying the humanities dooms your career prospects? As someone who’s equal parts Wharton MBA and unrepentant Yale humanities geek, with a 30-year career in marketing and brand strategy, I’d argue that business leaders care deeply about what humanities grads have to offer — they just need to understand it in their terms.

So, business leaders, this exploration of the value humanities majors can bring to companies is also for you.

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Ask any CEO what he or she cares about most, and the answer will be immediate: “Our customers.” Business success, after all, hinges on understanding what customers want, how to treat them, and how to meet their future needs. Increasingly fragmented markets create opportunities within ever-smaller customer niches. Opportunities also abound for those who can connect with big, timeless, universal human yearnings.

Those who study history or fiction or immerse themselves in other cultures develop skills in understanding other lives and worlds — and that understanding can translate into critical business insight. In our tech infatuation, let’s not forget what Steve Jobs said as recently as the iPad 2 launch: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

For a business, seeing the world through the customer’s eyes lies at the heart of successful innovation. As Dev Patnaik wrote in his book “Wired to Care,” “The problem with business today isn’t a lack of innovation; it’s a lack of empathy.” So while companies need data scientists, they also need the “dot connecting” perspective of those who appreciate human beings in all their complexity to analyze, draw conclusions, and take action.

Addressing complicated business challenges

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Are any operating environments getting simpler and more straightforward?

I thought not.

So businesses need people comfortable with complexity and ambiguity. A linear, instrumental mentality such as knowing protocols to solve specific problems isn’t especially helpful when the problems are big, floppy, interconnected, and changing fast. There are no right/wrong answers when it comes to interpreting an artist’s work or a historical event.

There are always, however, fresh ways to explore and reframe the issues, illuminate hypotheses, and challenge assumptions. Yes, questioning prevailing assumptions can be both difficult and uncomfortable, but as industries continue to experience the perils (and profits) in disruptive innovation, rethinking accepted tenets grows ever more essential. That’s why the natural skepticism with which humanities majors approach conventional wisdom can be such an asset.

Investing work with social meaning

Corporations may not especially care about offering jobs that matter in a societal sense, but Millennials want that kind of employment. And businesses want to attract and keep top young talent. To stay sane, humanities majors will seek meaning in your company and in their roles. My resume says that I doubled market share and restored profitability on the Wisk detergent brand — but I’m prouder that my work created new steady, well-paying manufacturing jobs at the St. Louis plant. Let your history and lit majors loose on the workings of your business, and they’ll find the narratives that make work meaningful. Perfect recruitment fodder.

Increasing intellectual diversity

There aren’t many French majors in the Fortune 500 (trust me, I’ve looked). In business settings, I’m far more often the lone humanities major than the only woman. You’ve already got boatloads of left-brain analytical types, so diversify. Humanities disciplines are the only ones grounded in human-centered right-brain thinking. Hiring a humanities major instead of that next econ grad immediately broadens the range of perspectives at your company. And today, with only 6 percent of students majoring in the humanities, you’re hiring someone who’s already demonstrated some courage and distinction.

Adding vital skill sets

Humanities majors also offer hard skills, like the ability to write clearly and persuasively. Why, look to the explosive field of medical humanities. Medical students trained in the visual arts develop enhanced observational skills that result in better diagnoses. Teaching narrative medicine and clinical empathy has improved outcomes and reduced the risk of malpractice suits.

Hmm. So let’s see. Sharper skills, broader perspective, better customer understanding, a greater ability to solve complex challenges, and an enhanced work experience — all by taking advantage of what the humanities have to offer.

Imagine that, business leaders.

Actually, don’t just imagine it.

Do yourselves a favor and hire for it.

Tracy Carlson is a consultant, speaker, writer, and the author of What Great Brands Know: Unleash Your Right-Brain to Stand Out and Make Customers Care. She can be reached at tracy@rightbrainbrands.com.
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