Humanities majors are becoming increasingly desirable to corporations. Just take a look at this recent study suggesting that Google’s most-prized skills in its employees are those cultivated by a humanities degree rather than a STEM degree. But even if you don’t have a degree in the humanities, you can still take insight from the wisdom that programs of study like English, history and philosophy have to offer.
For example, I recently read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry in preparation for a poetry segment in one of the literature courses I’m teaching, and I was struck by how much of Oliver’s advice to budding poets is incredibly relevant to the corporate world as well. The following points and their accompanying Handbook quotes demonstrate how the humanities, and poetry in particular, can offer fresh advice and creative strategies for becoming a better employee, business owner — you name it.
1. Imitation is a good starting place.
“Emotional freedom, the integrity and special quality of one’s own work — these are not first things, but final things.”
Oliver recommends that beginning poets start with imitation, learning the techniques of craft from the masters of poetry and experimenting with different poetic forms until they gain a thorough enough understanding of the mechanics of poetry to break out on their own. The same advice seems relevant for those new to the workforce: spend time studying the success stories of those in your field, learning what enabled others to achieve greatness, before striking out on your own.
Read books like Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, which details more than 20 years of research on the basic principles contributing to the success of more than 500 of the world’s wealthiest businesspeople. It’s important to know what’s been done before, and how it’s been done, to avoid as many pitfalls as possible and to be able to develop your own work style.
2. Be wary of when your work habits become “second nature.”
“It demands, finally, a thrust of our own imagination — a force, a new idea — to make sure that we do not merely copy, but inherit, and proceed from what we have learned. A poet develops his or her own style slowly, over a long period of working and thinking — thinking about other styles, among other things. Imitation fades as a poet’s own style — that is, the poet’s own determined goals set out in the technical apparatus that will best achieve those goals — begins to be embraced.”
While imitation is a great starting point, you don’t want to spend your entire work life copying what others have done. Rather, you want to “inherit, and proceed from what we have learned,” as Oliver says. Use your study of others’ stories to develop your own unique vision and style.
3. Avoid clichés at all costs.
“The cliché works in poems as it works in any kind of writing — badly. Do not use the cliché in a poem unless, perhaps, you are writing a poem about the cliché.”
Clichés abound in the corporate world as much as in the academic world. They fill our hurried emails, our copywriting and our presentations. Relying on clichés suggests a certain laziness and a lack of engagement with the person or topic. Put in the extra effort to say something original and meaningful that will add value to your life and the lives of the people with whom you’re working.
4. Finding a work rhythm enhances productivity and pleasure.
“Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, the sweet grows sweeter. When it becomes reliable, we are in a kind of body-heaven.”
When we read poems with enjoyable rhythms, we feel pleasure. We do this because rhythm is one of the greatest joys of the human body. Just like rhythmic text brings us joy, daily rhythms nourish our bodies and our souls. Developing a work rhythm will similarly bring more pleasure to your professional life and will help you accomplish more and feel less stressed during your workday.