Saturday, December 01, 2012

The Benefits of Poetry for Professionals

by John Coleman | Harvard Business review - November 27, 2012

This lyrically inclined insurance executive was far from alone in occupying the intersect of business and poetry. Dana Gioia, a poet, Stanford Business School grad, and former General Foods executive, notes that T.S. Eliot spent a decade at Lloyd's Bank of London; and many other poets including James Dickey, A.R. Ammons, and Edmund Clarence Stedman navigated stints in business.
I've written in the past about how business leaders should be readers, but even those of us prone to read avidly often restrict ourselves to contemporary nonfiction or novels. By doing so, we overlook a genre that could be valuable to our personal and professional development: poetry. Here's why we shouldn't.
For one, poetry teaches us to wrestle with and simplify complexity. Harman Industries founder Sidney Harman once told The New York Times, "I used to tell my senior staff to get me poets as managers. Poets are our original systems thinkers. They look at our most complex environments and they reduce the complexity to something they begin to understand." Emily Dickinson, for example, masterfully simplified complex topics with poems like "Because I could not stop for Death," and many poets are similarly adept. 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.
Poetry can also help users develop a more acute sense of empathy. In the poem "Celestial Music," for example, Louise Glück explores her feelings on heaven and mortality by seeing the issue through the eyes of a friend, and many poets focus intensely on understanding the people around them. In January of 2006, the Poetry Foundation released a landmark study, "Poetry in America," outlining trends in reading poetry and characteristics of poetry readers. The number one thematic benefit poetry users cited was "understanding" — of the world, the self, and others. They were even found to be more sociable than their non-poetry-using counterparts. And bevies of new research show that reading fiction and poetry more broadly develops empathy. Raymond Mar, for example, has conducted studies showing fiction reading is essential to developing empathy in young children (PDF) and empathy and theory of mind in adults (PDF). The program in Medical Humanities & Arts (PDF) even included poetry in their curriculum as a way of enhancing empathy and compassion in doctors, and the intense empathy developed by so many poets is a skill essential to those who occupy executive suites and regularly need to understand the feelings and motivations of board members, colleagues, customers, suppliers, community members, and employees. 
Full article here.

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