There’s an age old stereotype that philosophy majors are unemployable; the joke goes something like this:
The engineering graduate asks, “How does it work?”
The law school graduate asks, “Is it legal?”
The philosophy graduate asks, “Would you like fries and a Coke with that?”
Sure, it’s funny -- but is it true?
The numbers say no. In fact, only 5 percent of recent philosophy grads struggle to find jobs. And when accomplished entrepreneurs like Reid Hoffman, Peter Thiel and Carly Fiorina credit their philosophy backgrounds for their success, you have to wonder if they’re on to something.
After all, many of the same qualities that make a good entrepreneur are the same qualities that make a good philosopher. Both occupations require clear communication, critical thinking and the ability to sell your ideas. And while these are just a few skills that entrepreneurs share with philosophers, there are many more valuable lessons that founders and CEOs can learn from this ancient yet timeless discipline.
Here are five reasons why philosophy majors make great entrepreneurs.
1. They love of debate.
One important skill that all philosophy majors learn is the ability to follow an argument all the way to the end. It’s a valuable skill if you’re running a meeting or sitting in front of potential investors. Healthy debate becomes more important when your business starts to grow and you’ve got more stakeholders; in fact, debate is often the key to finding the most effective course of action. One way to add value to your business is to implement an open debate policy and encourage your employees -- no matter what level they are -- to share a different point of view or contest decisions that they don’t agree with. Remember, you’re not trying to win arguments (“be right”), rather, you’re trying to find the best path forward (“get it right”).
2. They're comfortable with the uncomfortable.
As an entrepreneur, you’ll have to make decisions on issues that aren’t always black and white. That means you’ll have to get comfortable working in an environment where there are few guarantees. For most people, it’s a steep learning curve, but for students of philosophy, ambiguity is nothing new. Philosophy teaches you to manage that uncertainty and stay calm. As an entrepreneur, you’re always, in the words of Walt Whitman, “conquering, holding, daring, venturing.” You’ll likely spend a lot of your time in the great unknown, so you’ll need to be able to tolerate ambiguity. Next time you find yourself at a fork in the road, think about making a decision with 51 percent confidence. While it’s not ideal, it’s far better than waiting for solutions that never present themselves.
3. They see the big picture in the smallest details.
If you can’t see the big picture, you could end up pursuing ideas that don’t go anywhere. It’s easy to get sidetracked by details and suddenly find yourself in the weeds. A philosophy background is invaluable here as it helps you envision how smaller decisions will eventually fit into bigger ones and how your offerings will help your company down the line. One way to ensure that you’re always on the right track is to step back and ask yourself how new features might fit into your broader product offerings or how minor tweaks might affect your future expansion plans.
4. They keep their emotions in check.
It’s important to have a passion for what you do, but you never want to confuse enthusiasm with capability. In philosophy, you learn to detach from your emotions and make decisions with sound logic. As an entrepreneur, that’s a valuable lesson, since it’s easy to fall in love with a new idea or product, especially if you’ve already invested a lot of time or money into it, and overlook obvious flaws. If you find yourself falling head over heels for a new project, ask yourself if you’re really taking the best approach or ask someone else to provide a second opinion on whether or not you’re moving in the right direction.
5. They dissect complex problems.
Albert Einstein famously said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” This quote highlights a skill that philosophy majors have to master: the ability to break down complex problems into simpler ones. As an entrepreneur, you’ll have to solve complex problems early and often. You’ll have a leg up if you can break them down into digestible pieces, rather than trying to solve them all at once.
While entrepreneurs can benefit from a number of different backgrounds, many of the traits that make great business leaders are shared by philosophers around the world. So the next time you find yourself struggling with a complex problem or in a situation where there’s no clear solution, take a step back, swap out Carnegie for Plato, and try and look at things from the perspective of a philosophy major.