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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Celebrating One Year

Today is a big day in my little corner of the universe: it was one year ago today I had my final dose of radiation and completed my breast cancer treatment. Which means I can now celebrate one year in remission!

And what a busy year it's been: I've traveled to twelve states and one foreign country, attended eight concerts, several art exhibits, a few fundraisers, marketing hackathons, and one antique show. I went on hikes, boat rides, and snowmobiling excursions, and visited an untold number of farmers markets and restaurants. I even enrolled in a writing workshop because I have lots of stories and ideas to share.

I've been encouraged by other women who've slayed the breast cancer dragon, moved by those that are still fighting, and saddened by the death of one particular friend who put up an amazing fight not once, but twice.  

It is surreal to go back and look at the photos from last year, which seem simultaeneously like just yesterday and a lifetime ago. For the most part I feel well (assorted aches/pains and Tamoxifen side effects aside), and things are back to "normal." It's not really a "new normal" - unlike some, I haven't radically changed my lifestyle, habits, or the company I keep. Sure, I try my hardest to eat well, exercise, and remain stress-free, but I did all of that before cancer. And I like most people, I still struggle with balancing all of the demands of modern life. 

But I've learned that's what life is about: a string of messy challenges, frightening dares, exhilerating experiences, joyous celebrations and yes, mundane details. The key is to take it all in as it's happening, enjoy every moment, and make time for reflection.

And eat lots of amazing meals out with good friends, as I did last night at Kirkland Tap & Trotter (GO. And be sure to have the Housemade Spaghetti with chicken liver cream, pumpkin, and brown butter.)

Kirland Tap & Trotter
Celebrating with Maria and Kate at The Kirkland Tap & Trotter

Tonight, I'll celebrate my milestone at the Kenneth B. Schwartz Compassionate Healthcare Dinner, which is timely since it recognizes the efforts of health care practitioners at Mass General Hospital and beyond.

I'll leave you with a quote, as I am wont to do:

It's just amazing how inside our own souls we can lift out so much strength I think it would be enough strength to move mountains at that, to lift our boots up again and go clomping along happy out of nothing but the good source of power in our own bones.

Jack Kerouac, Big Sur


Much has been written about happiness - what it is, how to find it, how to maintain it. It's something I often think about (even more so as I get older) and occasionally write about here. So a few posts on the topic caught my eye this week:

French philosopher Albert Camus was born 100 years ago Nov 7, and Maria Popova over at Brainpickings took the opportunity to reflect back on his writings. She notes that we have become so singularly focused on the pursuit of happiness that we often overlook the fact that "unhappiness can have its own dignity and can tell us as much, if not more, about who we are than happiness." Or, as Camus himself tried to convey, the notion that we can live with a dualism:

"I can accept periods of unhappiness, because I know I will also experience happiness to come."

In a related post, Maria shares some great tips for finding your center as you try to integrate work and life, mind and spirit. Here's a snippet (and one I think is particularly important not only to creativity but to happiness in general):

#4 Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.

This month also marks what would have been Kurt Vonnegut's 91st birthday, and Huffington Post published a post on what Vonnegut can teach us about life, gleaned from his novels (like the importance of laughter, kindness, and standing up for what you believe in).  I like this one in particular:

Art can be therapeutic: Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.

Lastly, there's an interesting discussion thread about What Has Life Taught You going on over on Quora. Check it out.

I think it's the end of the year that gets us thinking about this, as we take stock of their lives, consider what we're thankful for, and make plans for the new year.

What is it that makes you happy?

Southie sunset
Sunset over South Boston | Nov 14, 2013

Related: Getting Off the Hedonic Treadmill (a timeless - and timely - post from 2005)

Writing from Real Life

For some time now I've wanted to write a memoir. Or something memoirish, based on real life experiences - say, short little vignettes about my travels. Or what it was like to battle Breast Cancer. I love reading memoirs (Wild being the most recent), and every time I do, I think, "I could do this!"

So I enrolled in a 4-week workshop at Grub Street, a nonprofit writing center that welcomes people of all levels. It is, in fact, the second largest independent center for creative writing in the U.S. (The Loft in Minneapolis is the largest), and I first learned of it from my author friends, Crystal and Jane).

The workshop I'm taking, Writing from Real Life, is taught by Judah Leblang, a local teacher, author and storyteller. There are twelve of us in the class, and over the course of four weeks we'll learn how to structure memoirs and personal narratives based on our own experiences (as Judah says, "If you've made it to adulthood, you have lots of material!").

We had our first class this past Sunday night; it was at Grub Street headquarters in the beautiful old Steinert Hall building on Boylston Street (we're up on the 5th floor, but be sure to read about the abandoned music hall in the basement). Judah kicked things off with this quote from author Jean Rhys:

All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. And there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.

To me, Rhys is underscoring the idea that storytelling is central to humanity. That is why so many people choose to write, and so many choose to read. We talked about how it is the small details of life that make us human, and how the power of detail is central to writing memoirs and personal essays.  We also discussed the difference between a memoir and a personal essay - the former is often a chronological telling of difficult personal experience that leads to wisdom/meaning, and the latter is a lighter riff on a singular topic. 

Lastly, we ran through a few writing exercises where Judah (or fellow classmates) gave us a prompt (a topic or sentence) about which we had to write for 5-20 minutes. And then we had to read our work out loud! Nerve-wracking. But the whole idea is to create a "safe" environment for sharing ideas, getting feedback, and drawing on the energy of the group (it reminds me of yoga practice, in that sense).

Most important is getting into the habit of writing on a regular basis. Our homework assignment for this week is to compose an 850-word piece on leaving (a person or a place). We'll see where that goes...

PS: Today is my parents' 58th wedding anniversary - a remarkable feat and surely a great fodder for a personal essay!

Mom and dad

Lulu, Alethea, Monkeys, and Banksy

Today's musings:

1) If you happen to see my French Bulldog Lulu, wish her a Happy Birthday. She turned 10 today.


2) My friend Alethea Black, an immensely talented author and speaker (I love her her collection of short stories, I Knew You'd Be Lovely) has done it again with this incredibly inspirational story she told at the Moth GrandSLAM (a storyteller's collaborative):

3) The bewitching hour is upon us. Send your loved ones a cute Halloween e-card, courtesy of Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled.
4) Graffiti artist Banksy again disses the Advertising industry (my industry!) while simultaneously showing he's a master at brand building.
5) If you have money to burn, check out IfOnly, a "marketplace for experiences" that just raised $12 Million to continue offering its members unique and memorable experiences with top sports/film/music/lifestyle luminaries (think dinner party for 12 with chef Michael Chiarello at his Napa Valley vineyard).  For every item or experience sold, a donation is made to the charity of each luminary’s choice.

6) I finally finished reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and I really enjoyed it. Now I'm itching for an adventure. And want to write a memoir.


On My Radar

The crush of correspondence/news/information I receive these days has made it increasingly difficult for me to make time for long-form blog posts. But I continue to discover and  share a variety of interesting things throughout the day, and I miss my blog and the conversations that it spurs. So, I'm switching to a micro-blogging approach here for awhile. Enjoy!

Here's what crossed my radar today:

Eye Candy

VERAMEAT-for-Of-a-Kind-Frenchie-Ladder-Cuff-102713-780 Poppy Necklace

The Frenchie Ladder Cuff by Verameat and the sparkly Poppy Necklace by Piper Strand.

Brain Candy


I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out
    in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom
    of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.

Just for Fun

You Are What You Learn

I came across this quote recently and loved it so much I wanted to share it here. It's from Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoon, and it's an excerpt from a longer post on his blog (also worth a read):

You are what you learn.

If all you know is how to be a gang member, that's what you'll be, at least until you learn something else. If you become a marine, you'll learn to control fear. If you go to law school, you'll see the world as a competition. If you study engineering, you'll start to see the world as a complicated machine that needs tweaking. I'm fascinated by the way a person changes at a fundamental level as he or she merges with a particular field of knowledge.

It's easy to feel trapped in your own life. Circumstances can sometimes feel as if they form a jail around you. But there's almost nothing you can't learn your way out of. If you don't like who you are, you have the option of learning until you become someone else. Life is like a jail with an unlocked, heavy door. You're free the minute you realize the door will open if you simply lean into it.

Our Women's Quest group, learning to surf in Costa Rica - May 2011.

An Opinion about Opinions

"We live in an era in which it is important to have opinions. Not necessarily smart or original ones; almost any opinion will do as long as it's forcefully expressed...

"It wasn't that long ago that opinions were something carefully considered and weighed, so that they'd stand the test of time and reflect well on the author. Thinkers were like gourmet chefs laboring over an elaborate meal they wanted to be perfect. But today, opinions are Big Macs — thrown together hastily, served by the billions and not very good for you.

"But here's the problem: They're not very smart opinions. And they're forcing everyone around them, including you, to also have far too many opinions. We post them on Facebook; we tweet them; we express them in comments on Huffington Post.

"The Internet is a Petri dish of opinion inflation, breeding commentary like bacteria."

- Stephen Randall, Los Angeles Times

So very true. Read the full article here.

A New Year's Wish

A friend who just retired after a long and successful career shared these words with us at the office earlier this week, and I think they are the perfect sentiment to ring in the new year:

I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright.
I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun more.
I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive.
I wish you enough pain so that the smallest joys in life appear much bigger.
I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.
I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.
I wish enough "hello's" to get you through "good-byes."

I wish all of you a happy, healthy and safe 2011!

Life finds a way

Editor-in-Chief William Falk's most recent column in The Week is worth a read, especially as we look forward to a new year:

Looking back over 12 months of human folly, as we do at The Week at this time each year, is a perilous exercise. It can shake one’s faith in the long-term viability of our species. Economic chaos, political deadlock, religious and ethnic conflict, another awful season for my Mets — what a mess. And yet... In defiance of both evidence and reason, I cling to the conviction that human beings have a spark of the transcendent within us, and that we are part of the unfolding of something wonderful and mysterious. Here and there, I see encouraging signs and portents. Did you notice, for example, that this year bacteria learned to live on arsenic? 

It may sound irrelevant, but hear me out. NASA scientists trained a hardy species of bacteria to survive without phosphorous, which was supposed to be one of the six essential building blocks of life. In just a few months, the bacteria learned to replace the phosphorous in their DNA with arsenic, ordinarily a toxin. NASA pronounced the transformed bacteria a new form of life, whose existence points to even stranger biochemistries on other planets. But I saw the experiment as something else: a metaphor. (I have a weakness for metaphors.) Even in the most poisonous environment, this little experiment proved, life finds a way. It survives. It thrives—impelled onward by something defying rational explanation. George Bernard Shaw called it the Life Force; call it what you will. But this astonishing persistence, this upward, Promethean striving from the muck, is no accident. It speaks of a purpose and a destiny. It suggests that all our struggling is not for naught. Or so, at year’s end, I’d prefer to believe.

To life, to life, l'chaim!