shutterstock_126967754When students asked me what subjects they should major in to become a tech entrepreneur, I would say engineering, mathematics, and science. I used to believe that education in these fields was a prerequisite for innovation, and that engineers made the best entrepreneurs.

That was several years ago.

I realized how much my views have changed when the The New York Times asked me to write a piece for its “Room for Debate” forum two years ago. Since then, I have learned even more about the importance of design and the role of the humanities in fostering creativity. I now believe that the innovation economy needs musicians, artists, and psychologists, as much as biomedical engineers, computer programmers, and scientists.

I advise students to study subjects in which they have the most passion. They must have the discipline to complete their bachelors degree from any good school—not overpriced elite institutions that will burden them with debt and limit their life options. With a bachelors degree, they gain valuable social skills, learn how to interact and work with others, how to compromise, and how to deal with rejection and failure. Most importantly, they learn what it is that they don’t know and where to find this knowledge when they need it.

The NY Times had asked me to comment on the divergence of opinion between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. In a speech before the National Governors Association, Gates had argued that we need to spend our limited education budget on disciplines that produce the most jobs. He implied that we should reduce our investment in the liberal arts because liberal-arts degrees don’t correlate well with job creation. Three days later, at the unveiling of the iPad 2, Steve Jobs had said: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing, and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices”.

Here is what I wrote for The Times.

It’s commonly believed that engineers dominate Silicon Valley and that there is a correlation between the capacity for innovation and an education in mathematics and the sciences. Both assumptions are false.

My research team at Duke and Harvard surveyed 652 U.S.-born chief executive officers and heads of product engineering at 502 technology companies. We found that they tended to be highly educated: 92 percent held bachelor’s degrees, and 47 percent held higher degrees. But only 37 percent held degrees in engineering or computer technology, and just two percent held them in mathematics. The rest have degrees in fields as diverse as business, accounting, finance, health care, and arts and the humanities.

Gaining a degree made a big difference in the sales and employment of the company that a founder started. But the field that the degree was in and the school that it was obtained from were not a significant factor.

Over the past year, I have interviewed the founders of more than 200 Silicon Valley start-ups. The most common traits I have observed are a passion to change the world and the confidence to defy the odds and succeed.

It is the same in business. In the two companies I founded, I was involved in hiring more than 1000 workers over the years. I never observed a correlation between the school of graduation or field of study, on one hand, and success in the workplace, on the other. What make people successful are their motivation, drive, and ability to learn from mistakes, and how hard they work.

And then there is the matter of design. Steve Jobs taught the world that good engineering is important but that what matters the most is good design. You can teach artists how to use software and graphics tools, but it’s much harder to turn engineers into artists.

Our society needs liberal-arts majors as much as it does engineers and scientists.

But here is a harsh reality: that employment prospects are dim for liberal-arts majors. Graduates from top engineering schools are always in high demand, but PhDs in English from even the most prestigious universities often can’t get jobs. The data I presented above were on the background of tech-company founders—those who made the transition into entrepreneurship. Most don’t. And, as you can note from Bill Gates’ speech, there is a bias against liberal arts and humanities.

So students of the humanities need to be prepared for a difficult slog. They will need to work harder than engineers do to find their way into the realm of entrepreneurship. And they will have to use their advantage of creativity to force their way into key roles. Then they can do that magic that Steve Jobs did with his elegant inventions.

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  • creativ

    Perhaps what we are seeing is that creativity is not something taught. It is something inspired. Creativity is the act of taking in our personal experiences of the world, savoring and digesting these experiences using our intellect and emotions, and following our passion to express, in our own unique ways, what we have discovered.

  • sakky

    To build on the comments of Yisong Yue, if it is indeed true that humanities students are more creative than are engineers – and that that creativity is actually *improved* through the humanities programs (rather than merely being an outcome of self-selection as Yisong Yue posited) – then that raises the question of why engineering programs can’t do a better job of teaching creativity. After all, every accredited engineering program requires that students take a senior capstone design course. That would seem to be an excellent opportunity to impress upon the students the importance of creative design. Why not also have optional design courses that emphasizes creativity while also providing students with engineering course credit?

    {Indeed, MIT does this via the 15.783J Product Design & Development course, which while taught by the MIT Sloan School of Management, is also cross-listed with the mechanical engineering department and therefore counts as a bona-fide engineering course. Why don’t other schools do likewise?}

  • Yisong Yue

    There is an implicit assumption in this article that, in general, students who major in liberal arts & humanities have an advantage in “creativity”. Is this actually true? It seems to me that, even if this “creativity” advantage be confirmed in some measurable way, it would have to be couched in caveats.

    For instance, it’s possible that naturally “creative” students self-select into the liberal arts, and thus students who are not naturally “creative” would not gain much “creativity” by majoring in the liberal arts.

  • Adrian

    “They will need to work harder than engineers do to find their way into
    the realm of entrepreneurship. And they will have to use their advantage
    of creativity to force their way into key roles.”

    “What make people successful are their motivation, drive, and ability to learn from mistakes, and how hard they work”

    Whose to say that anyone who takes something such as Engineering or Mathematics isn’t creative? Wouldn’t someone who is creative and a hard worker be an even better entrepreneur? When we think about students who go into “liberal arts”, you generally consider those programs the “easy” route of college. If they do not work hard to get into a difficult program initially, what are the chances that they will be a hard working individual at work? If I interview 2 PHD graduates, one an Engineering, and the other an English graduate, I will go with the engineering student since they showed ambition going into a much harder discipline, and much more likely to be a hard working individual. It was their “motivation, drive” that led to them this discipline and challenged them on a whole different level.

    • Tisha

      I agree that Engineering is hard, and students who take it up show drive and ambition. But don’t students who pick English because they love English show just as much drive and passion for their subject BECAUSE of the fact that it is hard to get a job after graduation and they pursue it despite knowing the consequences?
      People don’t spend hundreds of thousands to go to college for the heck of it you know… Plus I don’t think the level of difficulty is for you to decide. Music majors pull all nighters just as much as Engineers do.

      ps: i am a comp.science major

      • sakky

        While surely there are some students who indeed are driven to major in English because of their passion for the subject, surely we can all agree that other students choose English (or certain other humanities/soc-science subjects) simply because it is an easy pathway to obtaining a degree.

        Nor would such behavior be irrational. A college degree is increasingly necessary to survive the hiring screens that company Human Resources departments enact, even for jobs that don’t actually require college-level education. For the purposes of surmounting those HR screens, it doesn’t matter what your major was, as long as you have a degree. I myself have worked for several organizations where even the receptionists all had bachelor’s degrees, some even with master’s, from a wide variety of majors. {I remember one receptionist who had a master’s degree in poli-sci, yet her job had absolutely nothing to do with political science whatsoever.} In fact, I doubt that you would have even been granted an interview for those receptionist positions had you lacked a degree. Therefore people aren’t simply spending hundreds of thousands of dollars simply for the heck of it; they are doing so to obtain that all-important degree in order to satisfy the hiring criteria.

        In stark contrast, there are surely few if any people who choose to major in engineering just because it is an easy pathway towards obtaining a degree.

  • Susan Saintlaurent

    Your article is good. Years ago I had the same discussion with Jobs. Why do we allow the deconstructionists to win in not allowing sharp, creative persons to thrive-by forcing individuals to be divided into right brain use versus left brain use and to be continually narrowed down in even narrower career paths-via the way our education system is set up? Why take a human being-typically born with a whole brain to be discouraged from developing and exercising its whole brain throughout its lifespan? Imagine the possibilities of human progress if each individual was encouraged from the start to allow the nerve synapses in the brain to work at full capacity? Perhaps we should call this the whole brain phenomenon-For educators to possibly grasp it. It reminds me of a paper I wrote years ago if the trend of the compartmentalization of knowledge started to implode on itself without synoptic knowledge by further dividing humans into narrower endeavors. Feelings, dreams, the sense of wonder-human touch would be dissipated. Persons’ mindsets would become so narrow-they would be unable to connect the dots-or how to get from Point A to Point B, or to arrive at practical solutions without a grasp of the big picture. Anyhow, to continue this discussion and to help put individuals together from both sides of knowledge to help jump start innovation-come to upstate NY’s Tech Valley! I’ve put on my Realtor hat to try to bring innovators together-Signed-a product of a physicist and an artist-born with a whole brain-Let’s put more whole brains together and do some good!