A Liberal Arts Girl Living in a STEM World

STEM education (e.g. science, technology, engineering, math) is a smart way to set students up for success on the global stage. Innovation (read: technology) is the creative-destructive force of the day, engineers command high entry level salaries, and computer programmers are the newest cultural phenomenon.

If I were to have children I'd want them to be well positioned too, and the most obvious choice is to steer them towards STEM. But at what cost? Cultures are lauded by scientific advancement as well as artistic contribution: The Islamic Golden Age brought us algebra and the Alhambra. The Scientific Revolution coincided with the Age of Enlightenment. Early humans developed tools that put us on our modern path, while possessing a creative urge bequeathed in the form of cave paintings.

But forget this cultural critique for a moment and let's get practical. A liberal arts education (studies that develop general knowledge and capacities rather than specific functional skills) can be a pragmatic means to a professional ends. Yes, I said it. Disciplines such as literature, history and philosophy can contribute to career success.

I know from experience. I am a liberal arts girl living in a tech world. Before finding myself at LinkedIn where I am responsible for driving customer uptake of innovative products and solutions, I studied Asian & Middle Eastern Cultures at Barnard College.

While employees must generate results, distinction often boils down to intangible competencies rather than functional skills. One can code like a beast, but can she predict market response to a new product? One can analyze data as effectively as wizards spin spells, but how effectively can she contextualize what it means? One can develop an elegant competitive strategy, but can she galvanize others to share her vision? Immersing oneself in liberal arts is an effective way to develop many essential business skills.

Critical Thinking: History, sociology and philosophy, for example, require one to analyze cause and effect, balance competing perspectives and form cogent positions. This process is the foundation of any successful business strategy.

Communications: Since a liberal arts education is based upon reading, writing and discussion, one learns to synthesize information, develop a perspective and communicate - all of which are vital in a business context.

Market, Organizational & Individual Dynamics: Studying liberal arts broadens one's world view and offers insight into human behavior. This acumen equips one to operate in a global economy (what cultural nuances should be considered?), navigate organizations (what is the power hierarchy?) and lead people (what motivates each individual?)

A liberal arts education can also help with career longevity. In today's day and age, one should be ready for a number of career changes. And while STEM prepares professionals to go deep in a specific function, liberal arts arguably prepares professionals for lateral moves. And as one's career grows, the "softer stuff" becomes increasingly important. A liberal arts background may also be a point of differentiation now that organizations are increasingly peopled by STEM graduates. Any marketer will tell you premium products live or die by how uniquely they are positioned. So give yourself an edge. Be different. And with the growing awareness that workplace diversity helps organizations outperform, you can be well positioned to take advantage.

A liberal arts route is not the most obvious or clear cut, but how wonderful is it that that a broad education can contribute to professional success.