What am I doing in Silicon Valley?
It doesn’t feel like enough to simply say that I am smitten with the possibilities of technology and the idea of creating my own career. I give better answers: “I am going into [insert writing driven career here].” At worst I attempt to prove that I can understand code. Sometimes I explain I can’t make a career off of writing alone. It’s been fifty years since Hemingway wandered through Paris making a living off of selling prose and if you read A Moveable Feast you’ll remember, he was barely living. Being a writer, in the most beautiful sense, is to barely be living.
Here is what concentrating in poetry has taught me:
- I take in large quantities of information (think War and Peace & Crime and Punishment in the same weekend), and crystallize their content into a persuasive argument.
- I am used to harsh criticism of what I most love, and have made a student career of improving on critique.
- I have opinions. I can take a project from start to finish and claim full of ownership of it, in success and in failure.
- I regularly spend hours parsing details in order to better understand the bigger picture. Poetry demands that the reader understands the effects of the smallest units of language. I do the same in companies. I look at specific people and figure out how they contribute to the mission of the company.
If this seems nebulous, that’s because it is. And the necessity of qualifying such skills does a disservice to the many of students who want to go into predominantly technical fields and have chosen the liberal arts over STEM, not because STEM was “too difficult” but because they refused to sacrifice what they love. I deeply believe in college not only as a pre-professional vessel of “skill learning” but also a place that teaches how to go about learning. Regardless of your choice of humanities or sciences, your major should make you hungry. The area of knowledge doesn’t matter so much as the desire to learn more.
Employment is a very convincing counterargument to this suggestion. LinkedIn does a great job of illustrating the difficulties with marketing a liberal arts education versus that of STEM. STEM skills can more easily be described in concretions. There is a plethora of endorsement buttons forSQL but nothing that says highly capable at crystallizing information. My most applicable skills are abstractions; strategy and operations but what do those words even mean? Hell, I’m endorsed for Facebook.
Having spaces to explain verbatim doesn’t offer much help. You can’t detail your winning qualities without sounding pompous or at least what Holden Caulfield would call a phony. The best case you can make for yourself is in the experience section. That being said, the best way to prove your accomplishments is by acquiring a job, but the only way to acquire a good job is by making a show of accomplishments. This is a known paradox, and it thrusts an apparent wedge between a STEM versus a liberal arts major’s ability in being hired post grad.
Companies demand a level of specificity certain majors just can’t offer. Without these specific skills, entering any large company is aggravating. Spotify wants an agile coach and a product analyst. Reading the actual job description offers respite — “these are certainly things I could pick up quickly” — but students wilt when looking at the necessary qualifications. We don’t have them. And we almost certainly won’t be hired and given the chance to learn.
Ultimately, entrepreneurship is attractive because I am able to plow forward with the skills I do have. Rather than feeling belittled by specific qualifications I elected not to learn, I let specialization fill in the blanks. I may not understand databases and algorithms, but there exists someone who does, and I can pick up skills from working closely with them. This active sharing of knowledge closely mirrors the Socratic method found in a liberal arts education. In short — entrepreneurship is making a career of learning. It is a field in which we have the advantage. It is a field in which we are given the opportunity to pick up the skills that would otherwise be impossible to acquire after leaving our respective institutions.
I wrote my first HTML tag around the same time I read my first poem. Both gave me the sense that I could create something completely on my own. This means a lot to a 2nd grader who is just beginning to get caught in a system where uniformity is valued over creativity. Neopets and Jack Prelutsky are comparatively small wins to True Ventures and Yale University, where I currently find myself. But what remains true is that I began creating in order to express myself and to help others. Technology is about solving problems. Technology is about building something. Writing is just the same. I went to college to learn, and I ended up prioritizing one academic passion over the other, but I chose the less limiting path.
This is the point at which waxing poetic only seems to make a compelling argument for naiveté in a manner that undercuts this argument. To be clear, it isn’t easy and much of the time it won’t be successful. But failure is an opportunity to get better. Idealism can be unhealthy but passion shouldn’t be — especially in a world where investments are fundamentally made in people by other people. Daydreaming of being the next Facebook or Snapchat may not be productive, but we have been taught to be adaptable. There is nothing keeping us from starting something of our own.
But that is still the packaged answer. And, so, one more time — why English?
I study English because it makes me hungry. It keeps me awake at night with a flashlight under my blanket and writing until I have to ice my hand. Nothing is so essential to the practice of living as the written word. To love literature is to love the human experience at a most intimate level. Poetry is the act of wrangling someone through what it means to be so attentive. Poetry is essential.
William Wordsworth teaches us to appreciate the details. Frank O’Hara teaches us to look and listen. Thom Gunn and Anne Sexton teach us how to touch. Derek Walcott teaches us not to forget home. Paul Muldoon teaches us to play. Charles Bernstein teaches us to create our own logic. Sylvia Plath teaches us to be unabashed. Patricia Lockwood teaches us to cut through the crap.
The next time I tell someone at a tech conference that I study English, I’m waiting for a “me too”. The space between the liberal arts and the technological world is not so large — a love of one certainly shouldn’t bar you from competence in another. A blank space is just an opportunity. And LinkedIn, I don’t even do research. I start things.