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Curiosity and the Power of the Liberal Arts

MaleconFlickr image of street art along the Malecon in Havana, Cuba, via @stephrog


I have long valued curiosity as a key trait in business and in life. I credit my parents (who instilled a love of reading and respect for questioning at an early age) and my Liberal Arts education from Bowdoin College (where I honed my critical thinking and communication skills in order to capitalize on the output of all that questioning). When I entered the business world and found myself working in the early Internet economy, the sector was still new and changing so rapidly that the only way to succeed was to voraciously read, listen, and question. And I strongly believe that holds true today - so much so that we included curiosity among the corporate values we have emblazoned on our office wall: "Curiosity. About people, ideas, technology, media and society."

Well, it seems like curiosity - and the constant questioning and analysis that is central to the Liberal Arts - is having a moment. Just look at all the articles published on the topic in recent months by Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Forbes, Fortune, Deloitte, PwC, Time, The Washington Post, USA Today, and yes, my alma mater. All praising curiosity and the power of the Liberal Arts.

"Welcome to the era of the curious leader, where success may be less about having all the answers and more about wondering and questioning." - Warren Berger in Harvard Business Review

Curiosity is a critical trait for success in today’s world, particularly in rapidly-changing fields. It creates an openness to unfamiliar experiences that allows us to see things differently. It breeds hacker behavior that yields new approaches and fresh ideas. And it fosters multidisciplinary thinking that drives innovative solutions to complex problems. That's why I seek out and foster this quality when building teams.

"Curiosity is what often motivates one to learn about new domains, pick up new tools and programming languages, master new analytical techniques, and engage in the type of associative thinking that leads to innovation." - James Guszcza, US chief data scientist for Deloitte Consulting LLP

Curiosity is, of course, ingrained in the STEM courses (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) which have grabbed headlines for some time now. But there is a the growing STEAM movement that seeks to insert the Arts alongside these more specialized studies.

"What can’t be replaced in any organization imaginable in the future is precisely what seems overlooked today: liberal arts skills, such as creativity, empathy, listening, and vision. These skills, not digital or technological ones, will hold the keys to a company’s future success." - Tom Perrault, Chief People Officer at Rally Health

Advances in machine learning and automation could one day commoditize tasks like coding and number crunching, but curiosity, creativity, and vision can't be programmed. They are uniquely human skills that can (and should) be cultivated. As a hiring manager, I've found that humanities students in particular possess the ability to adapt, think on their feet, frame an argument, and persuade an audience. These are critical (and transferable) skills, regardless of industry focus.

"Only people with specialized creative skills — honed from years of thinking, reading, writing, and creating — have the talent of making the complex simple and the difficult accessible...The ability to understand the world through different lenses and turn competing or disparate viewpoints into a compelling narrative is an art, not a science. It requires an intuitive understanding of the world that comes from a deep immersion in the liberal arts." - Tom Perrault

So ask questions. Seek out opinions. Consider alternatives. Talk about them. Strong critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills - areas in which the Liberal Arts tend to excel - will lead your team to do great things.

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