Go For Liberal Arts If You Are Aiming For The Top


You will appreciate this post better if you agree with this insight:

Sometimes the wisdom that works for achieving Goodness, is opposite to the wisdom needed for achieving Greatness.

Here is an example: That an investor should diversify his portfolio is conventional wisdom. But, great investors–such as Warren Buffett, Howard Marks, George Soros–work with the opposite wisdom. They bet big–on select opportunities.

Now, here is another conventional wisdom, on the best educational foundation for career success:

Sciences, Engineering, Technology, Maths (a.k.a. STEM) are the courses to be studied.

Well-intentioned family members, friends and advisors all encourage students to “major in something practical–such as STEM.” Right?

And, indeed, a STEM background helps get an easy entry into the job market.

But, the above insight is conventional wisdom only. And it applies well to people who are seeking goodness.

Greatness, however, will need a different insight:

Liberal arts provides the best foundation for great career success.

Most of the wealthiest Fortune 500 CEOs have liberal arts backgrounds. Here are a few examples:

  1. Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express
  2. Sam Palmisano, former CEO of IBM
  3. Hank Paulson, former US treasury secretary
  4. Carly Fiorina, former CEO of HP
  5. Micheal Eisner, CEO of Disney
  6. Stephen Schwarzmann, CEO of Blackstone
  7. George Soros
  8. Stewart Butterfield, co-founder of Slack
  9. Jack Ma
  10. Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube
  11. Brian Chesky, founder of Airbnb

But, let us not rely too much on inductive reasoning to understand this point. Because there would be many CEOs who would have STEM backgrounds too! So, here are some qualitative dots–in form of key trends–that form the essence of the future that lies ahead of us. Please connect these dots to see why liberal arts may indeed offer the best foundation for great success:

Dot 1: The era of disruption, uncertainty, ambiguity

“By studying art, science, the humanities, social science, and languages, the mind develops the mental dexterity that opens a person to new ideas, which is the currency for success in a constantly changing environment. And just as an aspiring major league pitcher needs a live arm and a calculating, cool head to pitch effectively, so too does a management prospect need to be educated broadly to respond effectively to ambiguity and uncertainty. Completing a broad liberal arts curriculum should enable a student to develop the conceptual, creative and critical thinking skills that are the essential elements of a well-exercised mind.” [A.G. Lafley, former P&G chairman. Read here]

Dot 2: The era of automation and data deluge

Computers are increasingly being able to do narrow rule-based and analytical stuff. But, not so much the stuff that requires creativity, imagination, broad thinking, synthesis skills, etc.

“I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. And so having someone who is more of a freer thinker.” [Mark Cuban. Read here]

Dot 3: The era of innovation and creativity.

MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue in a their book, The Second Machine Age, that today’s tech wave will inspire a new style of work in which tech takes care of routine tasks so that people can concentrate on what mortals do best: generating creative ideas and actions in a data-rich world.

“It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.” [Steve jobs. Read here]

Other good references:

  1. That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket
  2. 21 Wildly Successful CEOs With Liberal Arts Degrees

Most of those who will get to the top in future (in terms of success and wealth–and not position) will have a background in liberal arts!