Although managing a business, or even a small part thereof, is a complex task, the solutions for solving problems often seem deceivingly simple. Managers resolve even the most complex issues with a two-by-two matrix or simple lists of steps. Most management books simplify the complicated world of business by providing attractive solutions with a high level of perceived usefulness. This article praises the value of the arts, perceived by some as useless knowledge. This article closes with some views of Steve Jobs about the Humanities.
In that goal-directed behaviour, managers often lose purpose and forget about what their mission is. Within my industry, many professionals are obsessed with engineering and forget about the true value of tap water.
I draw inspiration from knowledge outside my profession as an engineer to gain new perspectives. My inspiration lies in learning ‘useless’ subjects such as philosophy, ancient Greek or anthropology. My degree in the humanities has enhanced my engineering and management qualifications, and it has resulted in many publications and conference presentations.
This article shows how managers can improve their work by obtaining useless knowledge. What might seem useless and without purpose at first, will in fact become a powerful tool to become a more creative professional.1
The Importance of Useless Knowledge
To become the best possible manager, you should invest time in acquiring ‘useless knowledge’. The type of knowledge that does not directly enhance the bottom line, but enlightens the individual.
British philosopher Bertrand Russell once beautifully expressed the importance of useless knowledge in an ode to the humble peach and apricot:
I have enjoyed peaches and apricots more since I have known that they were first cultivated in China in the early days of Han Dynasty; that Chinese hostages held by the great King Kaniska introduced them to India, whence they spread to Persia, reaching the Roman Empire in the first century of our era … All this makes the fruit taste much sweeter.
Bertrand Russell, In Priase of Idleness and Other Essays (1935).
To enlarge and sweeten the fruits of management, professionals need to embrace so-called useless knowledge. This knowledge is not the type of information you get from reading the trivialities on Twitter feeds or Facebook. The canon of useless knowledge is more profound and includes philosophy and its continuous questioning of everything, the lessons of history and appreciation of the arts—the humanities of the liberal arts.
Nothing more practical than a good theory
The words “useless knowledge” is problematic because it is a contradiction. There is no such thing as useless knowledge. A more suitable term would be indirect knowledge. This the type of knowledge that solves problems by introducing new perspectives from outside the world of business. Wielded correctly, understanding the humanities will make you a better manager by understanding new perspectives.
Managers often equate useful with being practical. There is, however, nothing more practical than a good theory. Besides doing something, managers also need to think. The humanities teach you how to think, how to take a new perspective, think about meaning and purpose, without falling into the platitudes of popular management books.
Knowing some basic philosophy of science helps managers to comprehend what ‘evidence-based management’ actually entails. Reading about ethical dilemmas and the solutions proposed by philosophers might prevent managers from making morally wrong decisions. Visiting an art gallery during lunch will reset your brain and provides new inspiration to solve your mundane work problems. Reading literature will help you to understand your customers better.
Steve Jobs and the Humanities
A well-grounded appreciation of the arts beyond economic value helps in creating beautiful products loved by your customers. A textbook example of an organisation that has integrated both business utilitarianism and the humanities is Apple. In one of his last public performances, Steve Jobs 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.
Useless knowledge makes you question the certainties of life; it creates a thoughtful and reflective mind, protected against impulsive decision making. Knowledge of the humanities literally humanises technology because, as Jobs put it: “technology alone is not enough”.
For this reason, managers should embrace useless knowledge and study the classics, and the understand the humanities. Read some of Plato’s dialogues and learn from Socrates how deviant behaviour leads to innovation. Finally, the next time you visit a bookshop, ignore the management section and pick a topic you know nothing about.
The video below is an extract from The Lost Interview (1995) in which Jobs discusses the early days of Apple and how the liberal arts made this company great.