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.
5. Inspiration is important, but it almost always takes hard work to get desirable results.
“Have some lines come to you, a few times, nearly perfect, as easily as a dream arranges itself during sleep? That’s luck. That’s grace. But this is the usual way: hard work, hard work, hard work. This is the way it is done.”
We might be tempted to think that the most successful poets, businessmen, etc., were just lucky or that they received inspiration from the muses and simply coasted to greatness. In 99.9 percent of cases, that is not true. Success, as Oliver notes, requires “hard work, hard work, hard work.”
6. Workshopping ideas and business materials makes for better employees and better products.
“With everyone using an understandable language, and with a number of persons scrutinizing the work, the workshop members can learn a great deal about their general aptitude and specific writing skills — can learn much more than even the most diligent writer could ascertain in the same amount of time while working alone.”
The poetry workshop has been a staple in creative writing programs since the early 20th century. Although collaboration is a buzzword in the business world, it’s not the same thing as workshopping. Companies might continually improve the effectiveness of their employees and refine their products by encouraging workshops — meetings where employees use a shared language in order to scrutinize their work processes, materials, etc. For these to be successful, everyone must lay aside their egos, be willing to receive and provide constructive criticism, and forgo comments based on personal tastes/opinions for those more focused on objective reasons why something does or does not work.
7. It’s crucial to stay aware, curious and engaged.
“A mind that is lively and inquiring, compassionate, curious, angry, full of music, full of feeling, is a mind full of possible poetry.”
While it’s beneficial to have a work rhythm, you don’t want to let your habits turn into mindless routines. When this happens, you can fall into the work doldrums, where you operate on autopilot and stop thinking creatively. To give your job, and yourself, the best, prevent yourself from developing tunnel vision: stay engaged with and curious about your surroundings and your career, have daily and weekly check-ins with yourself about your goals and the steps you’ve taken to achieve them, and continually read books and articles that keep you passionate about your work and your vision.
Attending to these seven principles will help you develop a more satisfying — if not more successful — work life. That is because businesspeople, like poets, benefit greatly from studying their craft and continuously reflecting on how they’re engaging with their work, their colleagues and their surroundings. Even if you have little experience with creative writing, I encourage you to discover the various ways that the study of poetry can refresh your perspective and reinvigorate your daily work habits.