An English Major In The Wild

by Geordie McClelland

A few weeks ago I was invited back to my alma mater to talk to undergrads about the impact my Liberal Arts education and English degree have had on my career. And since in addition to being an English major I also run a small business, I want to share some of what I said because, well… promotion (and to hopefully provide encouragement for others who feel like they are charting their own career paths).

When I graduated in 2000, most employers weren’t actively looking for English majors. That became even more true through the last recession, with widespread unemployment heightening the focus on a narrow definition of job-readiness, where the mastery of a few “marketable” skills took precedence over long-term career preparation. At the time, and still today, well-educated graduates were unemployed or under-employed and often finding themselves apologizing for their education choices.

But I believe that reality is the result of short-term thinking by companies and hiring managers.

When I graduated, user experience design, my company altr’s primary offering, was in its infancy as an industry and many of the tools and processes we now use to serve our clients wouldn’t exist for years. And similarly today, with the rate at which our world is changing, there’s a good chance that the undergrads I was speaking to would soon be in jobs that didn’t exist when they first declared their majors.

So how has an English degree from a Liberal Arts college helped me in this environment?

To start, the very idea of a Liberal Arts education, an opportunity to learn across disciplines and most importantly learn that there’s always more to learn, prepared me for a lifetime of self-improvement and education. Our relevance in the workforce of the future will be less about what we can do now and more about the person we’ll become. To continue to stay relevant and gainfully employed, whoever I become must be different than who I am today; and I’ll become that person thanks in large part to my Liberal Arts education.

To continue to stay relevant and gainfully employed, whoever I become must be different than who I am today; and I’ll become that person thanks in large part to my Liberal Arts education.

At various times over the course of my career, people I’ve worked with have assumed I majored in marketing, economics, math, communications – probably few would have guessed I was an English major… and for this I credit my Liberal Arts education for instilling in me an ongoing love of learning that has meant I’m always game to try something new.

As for my English degree? The skills I learned in reading and writing about the experiences of others help me to empathize with and understand the motivations, needs, and challenges of people whose lives are very different from my own. In user experience strategy, we are rarely designing products for people like ourselves. In fact over the past five years at altr, we’ve build products for engineers, real estate agents, people with chronic diseases, physicians, nurses, and people who have had to rely on payday loans – we’ve yet to build something specifically for a 40-something English major.

I’ve found that because of my English degree, I’m uniquely prepared to understand the world from these other people’s perspective. While other marketers and more traditional strategists often view people through the prism of an abstract mental model, I’ve realized an advantage in more organically listening to, learning from, and then being able to represent other people’s needs – skills that I developed through exposure to other people’s narratives in literature.

My degree prepared me to communicate more effectively, and that’s been manifest in interesting ways. I’m not the most accomplished data analyst, but my ability to uncover and then tell a story about what we see in the numbers gives our research and findings an outsized audience and impact. It’s not that we’re discovering something substantially different from other data analysts, it’s that we’re able to make our findings more meaningful and useful through story-telling.

Whether representing my own path to a potential employer, helping to set direction for a design team, or inspiring action among my fellow employees or customers, my greatest professional successes have been rooted in my ability to tell my own story and tell the stories of others. And for that, I have my Liberal Arts education and especially my English degree to thank.