The human touch: why studying history will make you more enterprising

Here’s an article for the lovely folks at Telescope, a blog for graduate start-ups and entrepreneurs. This is one of a series on graduate skills and enterprise.

For the recent graduate and young entrepreneur, approximately 65702% of your time will be spent repeatedly smashing your laptop closed on your face like a crocodile’s jaw, searching endlessly, applying endlessly for jobs, funding, internships, contacts, interviews – anything. It has never been harder for young people to find work. (Hemingway wrote about the ‘Lost Generation’ and, while they had two World Wars, the Great Depression, housing crises, and the flagrant animal horror that is jazz, I can assure you that our plight is worse.) Having a good degree will definitely help. And the best degree for this is History. Here’s why.

When you first set up a business, so much of your early work will be figuring out what you’re good at. Why are you different? What skills do you have that set you apart? And this is why History is the ubermensch of all subjects. Aside from all the shiny prospectus stuff about reasoning skills, analysing factors, communication, arguing from evidence, writing persuasively, yada yada, zzzzz, you’ll also pick up one really amazing skill that no other subject can hope to give you: understanding of human experience.

Sure, that sounds lofty and weird, but let me explain. Almost all of the collective and individual experience of all human beings, societies and civilisations that have ever existed is stored in the past. In history. What your degree in History allows you to do is engage with this experience, to really understand and relate to figures from Napoleon to Seti to Churchill, and to grasp the desires, beliefs, wishes, hopes and worries of the millions of people affected in the histories you have read. You think Lenin’s New Economic Policy isn’t applicable to your business? What you have learnt from that is like an iceberg: the information, the facts, the plot – this sticks out above the surface. But what is submerged, what you don’t often realise you’ve learned, is the ability to rationalise the human as an agent, as a magnificent dynamo of feelings, actions, resentments, joys and aspirations. This unique understanding of the human makes historians brilliant, attractive graduates.

The next time your client sends you a difficult e-mail or a strange request, I’d bet that you’re empathetic, that you’re better than most at pulling out what they want, quicker than most at meeting their expectations. And when you’re filling out your next job application or funding request, when you’re asked to describe your skills and experiences, don’t just put ‘meeting deadlines’, or ‘working under pressure’. Think about what studying History has meant for the way you communicate and relate. Selling experience is the meat and drink of smart enterprise. Selling yourself well is just as important.

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