We have known for a while that people who are most successful in business read fiction.  And people who read fiction have more empathy, no matter where they land on the gender or personality trait spectrum.

It’s interesting to me that genre fiction — sci-fi, mystery, and political satire, for example — do not increase our empathy, and exposure to nonfiction correlates with loneliness and lack of social support.

But what about poetry?

It’s hard to find examples of famous writers of fictional narrative who also have flourishing careers in the business world. For the most part, novelists have a day job and jump at the chance to quit that day job as soon as they can reliably support themselves writing. Yet the world of poetry is full of writers who had long careers in business. T.S. Eliot worked in banking. After Wallace Stevens won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, he turned down a faculty position at Harvard because he didn’t want to leave his position as VP of an insurance company.

It turns out that poetry is especially beneficial to people who want to lead and manage. John Coleman wrote in the Harvard Business Review that “poetry teaches us to wrestle with and simplify complexity…Business leaders live in multifaceted, dynamic environments. Their challenge is to take that chaos and make it meaningful and understandable. Reading and writing poetry can exercise that capacity, improving one’s ability to better conceptualize the world and communicate it — through presentations or writing — to others.”

Fictional narrative expects the reader to keep turning pages  to connect with a character and feel what they feel. Poetry demands that the reader decipher each line for understanding — the world, or the self, or others. Both poetry and fiction develop empathy, but fiction is better for that. Poetry, however, is the practice of simplifying complex topics. (Extra credit alert: To illustrate this, read  Because I could not stop for Death by Emily Dickinson.)

Most people can make a good business decision if they have all the relevant data in front of them. But the most successful executives are excellent at making decisions with incomplete information. The less information you need to make a decision, the higher you can rise. Think Elon Musk deciding he can go to the moon. Or Mark Zuckerberg assuming he will be able to get millions of people to use his Harvard dating website.

Dana Gioia explains that this decision-making skill is about sorting complexity to come up with a guess at the truth. And in Knowledge@Wharton he says reading (and writing) poetry, rather than conventional fiction or nonfiction, is the most effective way to develop these skills.

Clare Morgan, author of What Poetry Brings to Business, cites studies that show readers of stories and poetry generate nearly twice as many alternative endings for the poems, and poetry readers develop great self-monitoring strategies that enhance the efficacy of their thinking process. Morgan says these creative capabilities help executives keep their organizations entrepreneurial, find imaginative solutions, and navigate moments when they cannot rely on data to make good decisions.

The world is full of examples of executives who read poetry. Steve Jobs collected the works of William Blake. Sidney Harman, founder of Harman Industries, always tried to hire poets into management, arguing, “Poets are our original systems thinkers. They look at our most complex environments and they reduce the complexity to something they begin to understand.”

Recently The Nation published a poem that received so much backlash that the magazine published an apology longer than the poem. When have so many people cared so much about a poem? I had to read it. And I love it. So I’m republishing it here. This is a career blog, and reading poetry will help your career. So read it. And tell me in the comments what you think.

How-To

by Anders Carlson-Wee

If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,
say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower
themselves to listen for the kick. People
passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee
funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely
to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wallet, what stops em from counting
what they drop. If you’re young say younger.
Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hardly even there.

37 replies
  1. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Poignant poem. I relate to it, having a chronic illness and being dependent on people’s charity.

  2. veganarian
    veganarian says:

    God, I love that poem – I felt my mind moving as I read it. Now vowing to tuck into poetry (more than just picking through the New Yorker).

  3. Kyra
    Kyra says:

    I remember how much I loved poetry in high school and college; obsessed with Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe and others I’ve forgotten. Thank you for giving me an excuse to delve back into that passion!
    I guess I thought I had to “grow up” and read non-fiction business and self-help books. Perhaps poetry and expression is the best form of self-help.
    The poem above made me think and read it several times, it’s about allowing people to think whatever they want and using their own perceptions to your advantage.

  4. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    That poem is great and insightful and true. Maybe it’s my inner engineer talking but I barely recognize it as a poem. If you just ran it end to end it would make a fine paragraph.

  5. Dave
    Dave says:

    I followed the link to HBR (and read it twice) and I can’t figure out how that provides any evidence – or even talks about, for that matter – your supposition that reading non-fiction leads to isolation. What it does say is that reading – broad based – is good for leadership, empathy, communications, etc. Can you share how you made the leap to “fiction=empathy” and “non-fiction=isolation”?

  6. Julia
    Julia says:

    I wonder where the Nation received their backlash for the poem, because 100% of the comments currently there (most supported by hundreds of thumbs-up) simply chastise the apology.

    I also like the poem. It leaves lasting impression both linguistically and through the imagery provoked. A masterpiece of focus: the first 12 lines are there simply to prime your emotion and attention to the main idea, concentrated in the two last ones.

  7. Dave
    Dave says:

    Unfortunately the link you referenced for “nonfiction correlates with loneliness “ doesn’t sat that – the previous link argues the opposite, fair enough, but as an avid reader of non-fiction, politics, economics, I consider myself a good leader with a fair amount of empathy and don’t like to get lumped into a careless link reference

    • Epictetus
      Epictetus says:

      Had you read less non fiction and read and appreciated more poetry you would hsve a thicker skin and not take so much so personally.

  8. Brandon
    Brandon says:

    Very interesting, I’ll be adding Claire Morgan’s book to my reading list.

    Regarding the poem, I’m grateful not only that the poet has reflected and thought about why his piece caused harm but for editors Steph Burt and Carmen Gimenez Smith, who listened closely to the community and made a brave and just decision to publicly apologize.

  9. Jay
    Jay says:

    I really like the poem How-To. Mainly because I had to read it a few times to get it. Everyone should look at the comments at the end of the apology link-virtually all ask why in the hell was there an apology.
    The world is getting so stupid.

  10. Lis Brodie
    Lis Brodie says:

    That poem is beautiful and true. I am sorry that young man felt he had to apologize for his art.

  11. Kraig Kirk
    Kraig Kirk says:

    I liked the poem, How To, because it seemed truthful. You have to read the lingo as if you were a steet person. It’s hard to be Christ like in loving others, helping street people. That reality probably hurts; thus the editor’s apology. I think the lyrics to, Under Pressure, by Queen and David Bowie ads a bit of contrast to this discussion of steet people from the stand of those who still have. Perhaps There are times when it is hard for us to “give love one more chance”.

  12. harris497
    harris497 says:

    Penny,
    I question whether people are improved cognitively by poetry as opposed to already insightful and cerebral folks being drawn to a beautiful medium that both soothes and stimulates their creative selves. We all have predispositions. Mine is toward the auditory, my daughter’s is toward the visual, perhaps poetry works on the cognitive, in the same way that doing crosswords work to improve one’s vocabulary? But is that because the poetry does it or that some smart people are drawn to brain-teasers?
    We are complicated beings, and I feel that ascribing success to one variable is a dangerous assumption to make – even if it is sometimes true.
    My2centsworth.
    Peace,
    Dale

  13. jennifer
    jennifer says:

    holy sh*t brilliant.

    “It’s about who they believe
    they is. You hardly even there.”

    MBA in 11 words.

  14. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I looked up Dana Gioia and found a link where he’s featured in a podcast at Knowledge@Wharton. He gave an interesting interview at http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/dana-gioia-on-the-close-connection-between-business-and-poetry/ .
    In this exchange, he draws the parallel between poets and entrepreneurs –
    “Knowledge@Wharton: You referred a couple of times to the fact that as you rise in business, imagination and creativity become assets. Extending that point further, what do you think poets and entrepreneurs have in common? Aren’t entrepreneurs poets, but just working within a different medium?
    Gioia: Well, if you take the word poet in the old Greek sense of “a maker”, what entrepreneurs and artists have in common is that they imagine something that they then bring into reality. And, as any poet or any composer or any entrepreneur knows, you imagine something, but to bring it to reality you revise and recalibrate it a million times to get it just right. So, I think the ability of envisioning something and then bringing it into being goes back to the ancient meaning of the word poetry — Poesis which means the made thing.”
    And he had a short poem to offer at the end of the interview which is very poignant.
    “Gioia: I just thought that I would read the shortest of poems, it’s only six lines long and it’s called Unsaid. And it’s about how much of the existence we lead is invisible to anyone but ourselves, because it’s internal.

    Unsaid

    So much of what we live goes on inside–
    The diaries of grief, the tongue-tied aches
    Of unacknowledged love are no less real
    For having passed unsaid. What we conceal
    Is always more than what we dare confide.
    Think of the letters that we write our dead.

    • me
      me says:

      “Think of the letters that we write our dead.”

      Indeed.

      Mark, thanks for posting that haunting bit of prose.

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        me, I’ll post another poem which I like because as you say, it is haunting. It’s Rudyard Kipling’s If-. I liked it so much I printed a copy of it a few years ago and posted it on my wall next to my desk.

        If you can keep your head when all about you
        Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
        If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
        But make allowance for their doubting too.
        If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
        Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
        Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
        And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

        If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
        If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
        If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster,
        And treat those two impostors just the same;
        If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
        Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
        Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
        And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

        If you can make a heap of all your winnings
        And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
        And lose, and start again at your beginnings
        And never breathe a word about your loss;
        If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
        To serve your turn long after they are gone,
        And so hold on when there is nothing in you
        Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

        If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
        Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
        If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
        If all men count with you, but none too much;
        If you can fill the unforgiving minute
        With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
        Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
        And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

  15. Maria
    Maria says:

    I just read this article about presidential candidates being asked what their favorite poems are, and their answers. I found it very interesting.
    https://iqtestonline.net/personality-test

    PS – I read the poem that was apologized for. I didn’t see anything that warranted an apology.
    I really want you know about your self because it very important for you success

  16. me
    me says:

    P: I know it’s off-topic & a tad early …

    … but, like every year (for the past several years), I’m looking forward to hearing from you on 11Sep.

    Peace, sis.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thank you for telling me that — and for the early warning. I have been thinking about what to write. I like that it’s a yearly thing too.

      Penelope

  17. James F.
    James F. says:

    “Israel”
    I saw a future Bright and Fierce
    Like a Summer Sun that shone
    Just for the sake of shining
    A hope that burned away
    like a star whos very existence
    Was at war with the darkness all around,
    that dared to carry on.

    So if your struggling. Remember.
    Stand tall
    Burn bright
    and.
    Shine On

    Cause in the darkest of nights
    Even the stars still dare to fight.

  18. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    ‘Young Adults Lead the Way as Poetry Readership Increases Across the Nation’ – that’s the title of an article ( http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2018/09/youth_poetry-readership_doubles.html ) posted at Education Week a week ago. What’s interesting is it isn’t known what has driven the increase. As the article states – “One of the reasons it’s interesting is because, in the K-12 world, the concern over the last few years has been about a lack of classic literature and poetry in the classroom. The Common Core’s emphasis on engaging students using nonfiction texts, part of an attempt to build students’ background knowledge and academic vocabulary, has been met with criticism from literature advocates, who argued students would lack skills developed by complex and classic literature.”

  19. Hdpape
    Hdpape says:

    It s no secret that successful people are readers . Reading helps you stay on top of new trends and learn techniques you can use in your career. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett each share their favorite books at the end of the year, and they re filled with nonfiction titles.

  20. Curtis
    Curtis says:

    Hello,
    This is the first time that I have been told that reading poetry can help my business career. The poem you reprinted did make me think a second and third time about the important topics that are discussed around the “water cooler”.

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