Majoring in English can be scary. It’s not for the faint. People look at you weird–especially when you switch majors from something technical with guaranteed career paths. You get made fun of, looked down on. You get told reading is boring, writing is hard. Or worse: there’s no money in it. Right?
Choosing to switch majors from Computer Science to English was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It has directly enabled me to develop a repertoire of extremely valuable skills ranging from social, leadership, political, and communication. My exposure to literature and writing craft instilled in me a functional creativity, an understanding and appreciation for human nature (especially my own, through self-reflection and analysis), a love of the humanities and ancient writing, and a sense of empathy. In case it’s not obvious, these things are personally enriching, and can be applied to any career field.
Over the course of my years in software and IT, I’ve found my English education has positioned me for success and given me great emotional intelligence. I’ve built a broad vocabulary that has always enabled me to be articulate in just about any situation–in school, at home, in the office or with customers. I can find the right words (in my head or buried in books), and the more I know about my audience the better calibrated my messages to them will become.
These are generic gains that anyone can expect when completing an English degree. However, by themselves they are worth little. To make them valuable they must be applied and often combined with other skills and knowledge in the pursuit of a goal. This is where the personal differences come in and why no two English majors should be looked at the same way.
I personally have applied my English degree and skill set in a variety of professional software industries ranging from government to video games to large enterprise (for both internal consumption and external sales). I’ve used it to be successful in roles like field sales engineering, technical marketing, product management, and leadership. Whether acting as a prolific corporate courtier or heads down code-writing developer, every email sent, every piece of documentation written, every slide of every presentation I’ve created has been carved with my Pen. My conversations with people are rich and full of ideas, images, and symbols that non-English majors never really think about. This is a key for business innovation and cultural evolution.
Any situation where communication is a factor can benefit from the skills and knowledge gained through an English education. In field technical sales, I’ve been able to explain complex tools and systems to artists, designers, producers, engineers, technical writers, managers, marketing executives, engineering executives, CEOs, you name it. Regardless of their background, I’m equipped to communicate with them (excluding language barriers) and can optimize my language for the receiver’s success. Coupled with other skills, this is a very serious differentiator among people and the leading factor in my own career growth–even in engineering organizations.
After six years of small things, I was pleasantly surprised at my degree’s usefulness in large corporations. Depending on the situation, English majors are factories of culture and broadcasters of clear, concise thinking. We create mental things, and they spread through others. We shape and influence collective thinking with our ideas–written, spoken, drawn, or even nonverbally communicated. We can make references to icons people identify with to more easily build rapport, we can weave relevant metaphorical imagery into a conversation to more clearly convey a thought. We can share ancient knowledge gleaned from books most have never read nor heard of, but that contain helpful solutions to complex cultural (or personal) problems.
Words are the tools of Kings
Other than armies, one of the most important tools of the King is language. This is how intent is conveyed, how people are directed and controlled. Leaders rely on their subordinates to be instruments of their own will. This is accomplished strictly through intelligent use of words. The words a leader dispenses will make or break the body of people that leader is responsible for–individual team members, whole teams, departments, companies, cities, states, nations, multilateral alliances.
Words with allies, enemies, and one’s own constituents can lead to prosperity and harmony, or war and chaos. They might even get your head on a chopping block to be executed by your own people.
Everyday we see world leaders praised or condemned for the words they utter. Imprecise language can lead to death. And the bigger the leadership position, the greater the risks.
Jumping off a cliff (and discovering you can fly)
Again, an English path is not for the timid or squeamish. It’s fraught with fear, uncertainty, self-doubt. According to the world, options are limited. Income is low.
At the time I filed my paperwork to major in English Writing, it was scary as hell and openly questioned by my friends, family, and college-job coworkers. Before picking up The Pen, I was working hard on a Computer Science degree with an Information Systems minor. I’ve been writing code since I was 10 and thought it was what I was going to do for a career, and made two years of progress towards it before I made my stand to seek more personal meaning in my studies.
When graduation loomed, I had no idea what I was going to do. It was a cliff I was being forced off of. At that time I had been married for a year, worked a part-time job as a TSA screener, had 2 dogs, and was ready to start the family we always dreamed of. Unfortunately, you can’t feed that family off words, love, hope, or anything other than food purchased with money. And I wasn’t exactly looking at any lucrative opportunities as an inexperienced English major.
According to data collected by dearenglishmajor.com, the average salary for a recently graduated English major is $36,072. Mid-career salary is $63,419. Just reading that makes me cringe and is a legit reason for every parent investing in an English degree for their kids to hesitate.
As a kid I believed Engineering degrees == lots of money. I wasn’t wrong. I had engineers in my family and saw it was the smart thing to do if you had the brains to do it. In school I learned C++, binary, hex, circuits and logic, I played with breadboards, designed a digital clock, worked in linux labs, and processed grayscale pixels in 2D arrays.
It was when I read a book that encapsulated wisdom that I decided to switch from working with machines to working with people–something I felt was more meaningful in life. This is what I told my computer science counselor. He responded with a story about a senior IBM executive who majored in English.
As it turns out, there are a lot of successful business and technology executives who also studied words.
Here’s a short list (of people I’d wager made more than $65k mid-way into their careers):
- Former CEO of Xerox, Anne Mulcahy
- Former CEO of MTV, Judy McGrath
- Former CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner
- Former CEO of Avon, Andrea Jung
- Former CEO of NBC, Grant Tinker
- CEO of Alibaba, Jack Ma
- CEO of YouTube, Susan Wojcicki
It’s also worth mentioning other leaders who wield English degrees:
- Former Navy SEAL, entrepreneur, author, and business leader, Jocko Willink
- Former Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo
There are many lists of notable people in lots of professions who’ve walked the harrowing path of an English major. Not just business and technology leaders. Tons of actors and actresses (James Franco, Joan Cusack, Jodie Foster, Emma Watson, Reese Witherspoon), directors (Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese), journalists (Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Joan Rivers), authors (Tom Clancy, Douglas Adams, Joseph Campbell), lawyers, speech writers, and politicians have turned their English education into extraordinary success.
My own break came from a referral by a family friend. From that first job I built the experience needed for my second. Then third. And from there I have not stopped building myself, expanding my skills, reading, writing, and thinking strategically. I was able to fly after that initial drop. In dark times and light, various pieces of writing have granted me the wisdom and words needed to overcome or excel in my situations. And for that I am thankful everyday for the writing background I was brave enough to acquire.
So, what can you do with an English degree once you earn one?
This is a tricky question. It sounds like the English degree is what matters, when really it’s the you part that does. Each of the people in the lists above have used their English degrees in vastly different ways. Jocko Willink, for example, used his as a leader in the SEAL teams, and continues to put it to work in his consulting practice, his author career, his public speaking, podcasting, even recording tracks on a talking album.
In fact, Jocko espouses in many of his podcasts about the benefits of his English degree and why he chose to pursue it. Take a listen. However, I personally think his English education (like my own) is only a tool; in the hands of someone as disciplined as Jocko, that tool is used to it’s maximum effectiveness at all times and in many areas–all of which revolve around communications.
I use my degree everyday, in every interaction I have with people. In my current career, the volume of those interactions is enormous. Any time I write an email, prepare a presentation, or otherwise plan to deliver a message–my English degree is hard at work making sure my content is like a homing missile, ready to lock onto my target audience and deliver a thoughtful-payload. And no matter what the payload is, an English degree will give you the guidance systems needed to hit your mark time and time again.
All that being said, my education has paid off in ways I could never have planned nor envisioned. It has allowed me to open doors in business, capitalize on opportunity in the field, and distinguish myself in an endless ocean of IT workers. While at first a self-conscious source of shame, I’m now proud to wear my writing hat as it sets me apart in my industry, company, and team. And now after 12 years of software work, I’m still learning effective ways to communicate, and still working hard to sharpen my tongue and mind. My whetstone is the body of skills, knowledge, and experiences I developed studying the written words of great minds dead and living, and forming my own understanding of what they meant. Practice this art, and your personal value will skyrocket at work and home.
Don’t believe me? Check these out…
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