Welcome to Episode 4 of Rules Aren't Real, where Lydia and I debunk the rule "you should go to school for something practical." Assuming you decide to go to college at all, you shouldn't be limited to practical, STEM-type degrees (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math).  In fact, you learn all kinds of irreplaceable skills while earning an arts or liberal arts degree.

Generally, STEM degrees are lauded for being more reliable when it comes to a degree-earners ability to get a well-paying job after college. In this episode, we try to find evidence for this assumption - or for the fact that this rule isn't real!  Here's where we landed:

  1. If your definition of success is getting a great job and making a lot of money, there are plenty of examples of prominent CEOs who started with liberal arts degrees (see Time article in Reading + Resources, below).
  2. We'd like to think that success isn't only defined by money - but by the joy and satisfaction you get from the work and the value you add to your community and the world. 
  3. In the vast majority of cases, employers value critical thinking, being able to craft a compelling argument, excellent oral and written communication skills, and creative problem solving more than they do your literal degree
  4. There is huge growth in soft skills areas, and millions of new jobs are being projected in coaching, sales, design, marketing, education, etc. We live in an information and service economy!
  5. Passionate curiosity drives a career, not a job.
  6. You don't finish learning in college - continuing education programs and on-the-job training are also available and invaluable.
  7. In all careers, it's about your relationships - not your degree. 
  8. And this is assuming you go to college, vs. a trade school or an apprenticeship of some sort.  Or just starting your own thing!


10 CEOs Who Prove Your Liberal Arts Degree Isn't Useless:

  • Howard Schultz, Starbucks - BS in Communications
  • “It took years before I found my passion in life,” the coffee exec wrote. “But getting out of Brooklyn and earning a college degree gave me the courage to keep on dreaming.” Schultz added: “I can’t give you any secret recipe for success. But my own experience suggests that it is possible to start from nothing and achieve even beyond your dreams.”
  • Andrea Yung, former Avon - BA in English Lit (Princeton)
  • Michael Eisner, former Walt Disney - BA in English Lit & Theatre (Denison U)
  •  “Literature is unbelievably helpful, because no matter what business you are in, you are dealing with interpersonal relationships. It gives you an appreciation of what makes people tick,” argued Eisner, who served as Disney CEO from 1984 to 2005
  • Richard Plepler, HBO - BA in Government
  • "After four years in D.C., Plepler moved to New York City in 1987 and started a one-man consultancy. One night, at a Chinese restaurant, he looked up and saw Benjamin Netanyahu, then the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. That year had marked the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, a topic familiar to Plepler, who then decided—on the spot—to pitch to him a documentary film about the conflict. “He barely looked up from his dumpling,” Plepler admitted. “He finally asked me to sit down, he listened, nodded and after a variety of happy accidents in the coming weeks and months, I produced a film… The film captured the imagination of the then Chairman of HBO, who invited me to join the company.”
  • John Mackey, Whole Foods co-CEO - BA in Philosophy & Religion (UT, Austin)
  • "Mackey, a shaggy-haired yogi, meditator and vegetarian living in a commune, ended up not taking a single business class: “I actually think that has worked to my advantage in business over the years. As an entrepreneur, I had nothing to unlearn and new possibilities for innovation.”
  • Susan Wojcicki, YouTube - BA in History & Lit (Harvard)
  • Steve Ells, Chipotle - BA in Art History (UC Boulder)
  • Alexa Hirschfeld, Paperless Post - BA in Classics (Harvard)
  • Jack Ma, Alibaba Chairman - BA in English (Hangzhou Normal Uni)
  • "With entrepreneurship and innovation critical for China’s future, Ma has emphasized repeatedly why Chinese education needs to be less pre-professional. As Ma shared in an internal speech to his Alibaba employees: “I told my son, ‘You don’t need to be in the top three in your class. Being in the middle is fine, so long as your grades aren’t too bad.’ Only this kind of person has enough free time to learn other skills.”

A Liberal Arts Degree Leads to a Career, Not Just a Job

  • What do liberal arts universities teach: "We teach from the world’s storehouse of knowledge, thinking about what it means to be human, how we express our meaning, how we create ideas, actions, and art that never existed before. We ask students to understand the world deeply and to contribute to the common good. Does that kind of broad-ranging, historically conscious, inquiry-based study really lead to a job? In our knowledge-based economy, the basic skill for everyone to learn is how to keep learning. Many of the good jobs of the future don’t even exist yet. In this ever-changing, global economy, a liberal arts degree prepares students for the creative thinking that leads to innovation and problem solving."
  • If you ask most liberal arts leaders what we teach, we will say some of the following: critical thinking, analyzing from multiple perspectives, creative problem solving, understanding the social and historical context of an idea, working with others different from yourself, expressing yourself clearly, using technology, acquiring ethical discernment, and asking better questions.
  • Passionate curiosity is not only what you bring to college; it’s what the college experience develops in you. Confidence is gained through learning how to write, present, and solve problems.
  • Students should think about their whole lives, not only as employees but as members of the human family and as citizens. They will benefit greatly by committing themselves to the college years of curiosity, inquiry, and discovery. 

4 Reasons Why the Liberal Arts Degree is Underrated:

  • this outlook on the liberal arts degree is due to the narrow-minded people who believe that “success” — which they define as financial wealth — can only result from being a STEM or business major.
  • David Foster Wallace at 2005 Commencement Speech for Kenyon College: “I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”
  • Our liberal arts degree teaches us to recognize the beauty in life before death. It teaches us to find happiness in situations that desperately try to evoke anger and resentment in all of us, which is a skill that will prove itself useful time and time again.
  • Reading improves analytical skills, vocabulary and oral and written communication skills, which are all pertinent to success .
  • To concisely communicate your ideas and follow an argument through from start to finish is the first step toward success. Never underestimate the power of being well-spoken and persuasive.

Why Critics Are Wrong About Liberal Arts Degrees

  • AAC&U’s (Association of American Colleges & Universities) employer surveys confirm, year after year, that the skills employers value most in the new graduates they hire are not technical, job-specific skills, but written and oral communication, problem solving, and critical thinking—exactly the sort of “soft skills” humanities majors tend to excel in.
  • It’s also worth pointing out that humanities graduates experience more equitable employment outcomes along gender lines than graduates from other fields, especially engineering, and especially at the graduate level. Women with graduate degrees in the humanities do experience slightly higher unemployment than their male colleagues—3.5 percent versus 3.4 percent. But those women still fare better than women with graduate degrees in engineering, who experience 3.6 percent unemployment, compared with 2.5 percent for men.

That 'Useless' Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech's Hottest Ticket

  • creativity can’t be programmed.
  • What kind of boss hires a thwarted actress for a business-to-business software startup? Stewart Butterfield, Slack’s 42-year-old cofounder and CEO, whose estimated double-digit stake in the company could be worth $300 million or more. He’s the proud holder of an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Canada’s University of Victoria and a master’s degree from Cambridge in philosophy and the history of science.
  • “Studying philosophy taught me two things,” says Butterfield, sitting in his office in San Francisco’s South of Market district, a neighborhood almost entirely dedicated to the cult of coding. “I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true–like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces–until they realized that it wasn’t true.”
  • Throughout the major U.S. tech hubs, whether Silicon Valley or Seattle, Boston or Austin, Tex., software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger.
  • Being able to read the room is such a crucial skill, adds Phunware sales executive Mike Snavely, that he’s willing to hire people who don’t know much about technology if they have a gift for relating to other people. It doesn’t bother him at all that Tabb started out selling running shoes or that Elizondo sells handmade jewelry at weekend crafts fairs as a hobby. Eccentricity, at least relative to the geeks coding all night in the back, sharpens people skills, he finds.