Poets, The Original Systems Thinkers

Poets are the original systems thinkers according to a recent Harvard Business Review piece, which describes the benefits of poetry for professionals. Author John Coleman covers the expected territory about poetry as a creative tool and of the strange appeal of meter to the human mind, but it is the following paragraph that struck me as much more interesting:

For one, poetry teaches us to wrestle with and simplify complexity. Harman Industries founder Sidney Harman once told The New York Times, 'I used to tell my senior staff to get me poets as managers. Poets are our original systems thinkers. They look at our most complex environments and they reduce the complexity to something they begin to understand.' Emily Dickinson, for example, masterfully simplified complex topics with poems like 'Because I could not stop for Death,' and many poets are similarly adept. Business leaders live in multifaceted, dynamic environments. Their challenge is to take that chaos and make it meaningful and understandable. Reading and writing poetry can exercise that capacity, improving one’s ability to better conceptualize the world and communicate it — through presentations or writing — to others.

While I do not know of any corporations that have poetry officers dropping references to Auden, Dickinson, Kunitz or Robin Robertson during particularly tricky negotiations, I think many businesses could do worse. In this windy age, information is a strange thing. Insights from studies bought at great expense or from those afternoon meetings shuffling to their inevitable conclusions are many times not so much simplifications as banalities. To grasp them is to simultaneously empty them of meaning. 

Not so with poetry. In a post last week, Shane Parrish, writing about former IdeaFestival speaker Nassim Nicholas Taleb, describes 'A Wonderfully Simple Heuristic to Recognize Charlatans." Parrish describes the power of "inversion," or of thinking about a particular problem in a variety of ways. One of those ways is an ancient method indeed, apophatic thinking. It's sometimes referred to as "negative" thinking, and it is particularly effective at recognizing the veiled nature of things by describing what those things are not. In the our context, an entrepreneur might work her way toward an opaque idea by thinking about the qualities she thinks it doesn't have - it's not a product, it's not inexpensive, it can't be licensed. While Parrish suggests elsewhere that "avoiding stupidity is often easier than seeking brilliance," the effect of apophatic thinking, in my view, is much more profound.

As one kind of top-down method, poetry succeeds because we are mysteries, even to ourselves, and fully capable of self-deception about what it is we really want. Its restorative power lies in an ability to comfort self-aware creatures such as us, to soothe and to do so - perversely - by laying bare, prior to the claims of reason and its grasping ally, pretext, to the high ground, to the full panting terror of limitless choice. It is true in this anxious age because from those words we feel something toward the objects of our choosing.

Give The Benefits of Poetry for Professionals a read. Bonus: the poem At Roane Head

Stay curious!


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