2 of 30: How Being A Theology Major Helped Me In Business
My clients and friends tell me I’m more of a coach than a consultant and that I am at my best when I’m able to relate my experiences to theirs. This has been a random journal in the past, but I’m transforming it to a space where I can share the stories behind my work. This is the second of 30 year-end posts I will devote to “Things You Can’t See On A CV”.
“Story, businesses are realizing, means big money. Economists Deidre McCloskey and Arjo Klamer calculate that persuasion-advertising, counseling, consulting and so on-accounts for 25% of the US GDP. If, as some posit, Story is a component of half those persuasive efforts, then Story is worth about $1 trillion a year to the US economy.” – A Whole New Mind
I failed out of school twice. On my third attempt to finish what I had started, I had to convince an admissions board of one Jesuit, a Dean and a Professor of my worthiness as a student at Georgetown. The reasons I failed are for a different post and are ancient history really, but when I think about how I responded, I revisit why I have been valuable to my clients, partners and managers: my ability to tell a Story. While I had satisfied the technical requirements of my candidacy, the University needed to believe why I deserved to be readmitted, so I had to persuade them, earnestly, about my worthiness and why I wanted to be there.
When I sat in front of them, I was honest about my previous lack of direction, a few learning issues and a newfound passion in Theology. My curiosity as a student was never in doubt, but my focus was. I had blown through Government, English, Art History and Sociology before finding Theology, quite by accident. So I told them a story.
While I was out of school, I worked at Olsson’s Bookstore on M St, which for fellow homers, was a landmark in Georgetown and is now the site of a Ralph Lauren. I occupied my time as a register jockey reading voraciously and had stumbled across Joseph Campbell’s A Hero With A Thousand Faces. This book, unequivocably, changed my life.
For the first time, I was exposed to philosophy and writing that made sense. He was able to talk about it all, history, politics, art, humanity and show the corresponding elements between myths, religions, movies and books. I was hooked. I blew through his books, then on to CS Lewis, Aquinas, Whitehead, and Augustine. I had never known that CS Lewis was a theologian and I wanted to be able to tell stories the way he did and explain them the way Campbell did.
For those that aren’t familiar, Campbell argued that the every story, myth, religion was based on what he termed, “The Hero’s Journey” which consists of the Departure, Initiation and Return. Read more about it here. I wanted back in to the school I loved and I wanted to study theology. When I looked through the curriculum for the upcoming semester, I had read most of the books mentioned in the Theology class descriptions, and begun to assemble a last stand with my University. For me, my life was fitting into this pattern, and it was this journey that I ended up conveying to the admissions panel, which also helped me be readmitted.
Although theology wasn’t always the spiritual and creative exploration I hoped for (it is a science just like anything), it enabled me to unpack some of humanities most popular and widely accepted stories . I learned to explore the intracacies of symbolism, to understand uniformities across modalities of thought and to translate experiences across cultures. In business, we call this branding, marketing and communications.
Organizational storytelling is a movement that has been adopted by Xerox, The World Bank, Hewlett-Packard, and NASA. Richard Olivier, son of Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright now advises large companies about how to integrate Story into their operations and calls his technique “mythodrama”. Of his techniques Olivier says “Successful businesspeople must be able to combine the science of accounting and finance with the art of Story.”
When I think back to the bravery, patience and persistence I taught myself going through that process, I realize that is what has made me a trusted problem solver and a chaos manager for my clients and managers. All of these qualities effect my ability to discover brands, describe a company’s identity and communicate on its behalf. A priest friend of mine has termed my genre of consulting “pastoral advertising”.
I whether adversity well, I know how to learn from failure and pursuade skeptics. I’ve met folks that haven’t had the pleasure of failing as I have, and I’m stunned at their discomfort with the experience. They waffle, deny, avoid or even lie and its embarrassing to be party to. Frankly, in a market like this, I think a few us failers become even more valuable, we know how to rebound and better yet, how to tell a great story about it.
Without a doubt, “Theology” isn’t listed on most pull down menus on creative job applications as “related majors”, and it certainly draws it’s fair share of chuckles and jokes about becoming a nun during interviews. In a world of specialization and technical degrees (to which I have much respect), my major looks pretty confusing or worse, vanilla, when it is anything of the sort.
I don’t hit homers every time, not by a long shot, but the ability to fold my wins in with my losses, to relate to the challenges of my clients and even better, to help them tell their Story is one of the best parts of my career in as a creative.