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.
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.