Oil and water. Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart. Liberal Arts graduates and startup companies. All things that don’t mix right? As colleges and universities face increasing scrutiny to prepare graduates for the workforce, liberal arts are feeling the squeeze as much as anyone. “What skills do your graduates have? How will they contribute in the workforce? Where is the ROI for a parent sending their kid to a liberal arts school?” You might be like North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory and believe that liberal arts schools are part of an “educational elite” that offer worthless courses with “no chance of getting people real jobs.”
But I disagree. (And I’m not alone.)
In a startup company, a committed group addresses tough questions and problems in an environment that welcomes new ideas. Business and the liberal arts just make sense. Specifically, liberal arts students are ideally suited to work in a startup environment because their strengths and the needs of a startup are aligned. Here are the top 3 strengths* that make liberal arts graduates a perfect fit for startup companies.
1. Critical thinking
Companies are nothing without ideas. Diagnosing situations, understanding macro and micro trends, and forming educated opinions based on imperfect data sets are critical responsibilities of any startup employee—none of which are detailed in any job description. It’s assumed that without supervision one will be able to make changes on the fly to influence and improve company processes and enhance results.
Most liberal arts graduates are trained to put themselves into a leadership mindset and think like a founder or CEO. The more this happens—and a company collectively takes responsibility for it’s future down to an individual level, the more agile and equipped a company is to continue to evolve.
2. Problem solving
At a small and/or growing company, each employee is an entrepreneur—strategizing and executing towards a goal. In their most fundamental state, an entrepreneur is a problem solver. They see a need/inefficiency and then they solve the problem. Solving the problem holistically first requires addressing many more problems on a much smaller scale. Every day there are new challenges presented—often unforeseen, and things that go wrong.
Liberal arts students are disproportionately stretched not only to see a problem and think of a solution, but to act on that insight and enact change. This learning is often sparked in the classroom but takes place elsewhere. There’s no better training for addressing company problems than actually facing real-world inefficiencies (in a pretty safe college environment) and working on them.
Liberal arts students often come from small class sizes and more intimate academic settings. There is not a lot of opportunity to hide. By itself this doesn’t mean a whole lot, but students are pushed out of their comfort zone to ask questions, contribute to group discussions, and present to the class. Debating classmates in a civil but thorough manner turns out to be ridiculously important in the long run. In any company, especially a small one, people disagree about strategy, product, trends, and a million other things related to the success of the business. Navigating disagreements, celebrating success, and building a sustainable culture takes a deliberate and tactful communicative approach that keeps everyone on the same team and allows the merits of the previous two skills to shine through.
*Other skills receiving votes (from me): time management, handling too many projects at once, and the ability to stay up really late.
All three of these skills exist in every good employee on a sliding scale. Each characteristic on its own is not unique to a liberal arts grad or a startup environment. Taken together, they are the core of a valuable contributor to a startup, and for liberal arts students and graduates, often the foundation from which they build their skillset and workplace value.
Don’t get me wrong, not all liberal arts graduates are fits for startups and vice versa. But these three skills are essential for learning anything new and herein lies the most pure (and yet intangible) value of a liberal arts education. The liberal arts teaches students how to learn by embracing the discomfort inherent to discovery and tackling questions to which no one knows the answer.
This skill (and understand it is just that) is the most valuable of all. In an age where computers are capable of more and more, the ability to think, strategize, communicate and learn (e.g. reevaluate and iterate) is more important than ever. Developing curious minds in the classroom yields adaptive learners in the workplace. Critics need to think again about liberal arts and business. Startups and liberal arts grads need to get together—you know, like things that mix well.
Did I forget the most important characteristic that makes liberal arts graduates and startups a fit? Thought of two other things that don’t mix well together? Feel free to Tweet at me with suggestions or leave some thoughts as comments.
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