There’s poetry in the business world: How a humanities degree can enrich a career in commerce

If you’re used to living through Shakespearean dilemmas, will you find the straightforward world of business exciting?

You can move from Shakespeare to supply chain management without being miserable.

Some careers follow a straightforward and happy pattern. Many of my business school friends started life as management consultants, did an MBA, and became investment bankers – or vice versa. Or they moved from fund management into industry. Or from equities into debt. They had studied business, finance, or engineering – the latter not with a dream of building the world’s finest bridge, but because the knowledge of statistics helps in financial modelling. They may move again: into private equity, marketing, or entrepreneurship – but they will stay in business, because this is where their career was always going to be. Theirs is a lucky type. They always knew what they wanted to do.
And then there is another type. Those who came to business from an enriching but impractical background in the humanities. Those who studied literature, history, or art and spent their formative years analysing the difference between impressionist and symbolist trends in twentieth century French poetry. Then, mostly driven by the need to find employment, they joined a bank.
Is there any point in studying the humanities if you’re planning to work in commerce? Most definitely. The poet Andrew Thornton-Norris echoes many social scientists in saying that studying works of art is a good way to build wisdom, develop empathy and understand yourself and others. Managers with a humanities background often have an advantage vis-à-vis their counterparts who pursued a narrow corporate route.
But what is it like to make the transition from the world of introspection and complexity to the relative straightforwardness of business? If you are used to speaking the poetry of the Greeks and living through Shakespearean dilemmas on a daily basis, will you find supply chain management as rewarding?
Some manage to combine both worlds in the same job, like a good friend of mine who acts in cameo roles in opera productions sponsored by her bank. By night she treads some of the finest boards in the capital and by day she runs the bank’s marketing team. But not everyone has her ingenuity.
Others I know who have come into business from an arts background have never managed to find satisfaction in their new identity. They view their jobs as a burdensome necessity, and they nourish their true calling somewhere else – singing in a choir, for example.
But Konstantin Korotov, professor of organisational behaviour at ESMT, believes that it is possible to get satisfaction from both stocking warehouses and studying Shakespeare’s sonnets. According to him, “we all have numerous identities which become salient in different circumstances” and these should not necessarily be conflicted.
The other day, I met a well-known businessman who casually recited some Virgil in Latin during our conversation. Why did he abandon this knowledge of art and poetry for business? Does he not miss this part of his life? Apparently, he finds as much poetry in his day-to-day role: building companies, giving people employment, getting satisfaction from a job well done.
I relate to that. I studied philology and spent my formative years in long and complex debates about the structure of some ancient language. Then I got my first job and started writing slogans for political campaigns – the shorter and simpler, the better. Throughout my career, I did a lot of primitive work, which prompted bouts of nostalgia for the intellectual pursuits of my youth. But equally often, I would work with exceptional people, and bouncing off their intellect and energy and achieving something meaningful together felt as good as the poetry of the Greeks.
Some have a true calling, and they have to follow it, no matter how inconvenient it is. But most of us are more flexible and, by being open-minded and choosing the right job, we can find satisfaction in both the spiritual and practical sides of our identity.
This is also a more sensible thing to do than sit in an office and wait for the day to end, so we can go to a drawing class. Because eight hours of suffering per day is way too much.
Elena Shalneva is a communications consultant and non-executive director.

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