In his celebrated commencement speech at Stanford University, Steve Jobs, the legendary founder of Apple, relates a story where he dropped out of school and decided instead to take a course in calligraphy. Jobs acknowledges that this taking calligraphy had no obvious application in his learning at the time but, 10 years later, when he was designing the Mac, the design principles came back to him. “It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle……in a way that science can’t capture". The experience was transformational for Jobs and foundational in his understanding of typesetting and was to form the basis for how fonts were eventually developed on the Mac and had a wider impact on the PC industry as a whole.
When I was studying drama at university in the early 2000s, it was reported by the Institute of Directors that a drama degree offered the most transferable skills of any degree. The degree I took involved assessment not only in traditional methods such as exams and essays, but also required me to develop a business plan for a theatre company, bring together a performance, produce a video, design and build sets, as well as run and manage a community programme with drug addicts. In short, my success depended on my ability to build management and leadership skills, collaborate with others and build accounting, finance, marketing and administrative skills. This all in addition to the conventional academic study of any higher education.
An insightful video by Pearson education talks about the role the kinds of transferable skills that drama brings. As the video mentions, ‘Studying drama helps develop key business skills such as negotiation, leadership and collaboration. It also boosts confidence, teamwork and creative thinking. Drama provides key transferable skills that would be useful in any industry’. Katie Evans, an economist who worked on the 2013 report of the Economic Impact of the Arts and Culture, goes further on the role that the arts has more generally on the economy: “Arts and culture contribute to the national economy in an enormous number of ways and have a significant impact. In 2011, they [the arts] contributed £5.9 billion pounds to UK GDP and on average, between 2008 – 2011, they provided 111,000 full-time equivalent jobs.”
I believe that my passion for and opportunity to study the arts, particularly drama, has had a direct impact on my career as an entrepreneur. Having attended drama school from a young age, it was constantly drilled into us the competitive nature of the theatre and film industry and the need to differentiate oneself from the thousands of others likely auditioning with you. We were encouraged to be persistent, to continue to develop ourselves as actors and performers and to be prepared to take on any job that would build ourselves as a diverse and multi-talented performer.
These were certainly not lessons the average school student would receive but I have found that those skills served me well as I built my enterprise. But there are other lessons I have learnt. When a performer takes to the stage, it is extremely important that he or she develops the freedom that comes from fearlessness, to be able to respond to whatever experience is thrown him. You can learn all the lines you have, rehearse umpteen times and have the best director in the world, but when it’s just you and the other actors up there in front of the audience, your skills of improvising and letting go of self are the only things that will carry you through.
As Steve Jobs notes, it was his ability to ‘connect the dots’ with the different things he had learnt over his life that stood him in good stead to become the entrepreneur that he did. And it was his artistic pursuits at a young age that contributed significantly to his success. Irrespective of whether one becomes an actor or a calligrapher, the skills learnt in the arts provide a sound basis for our lives, whether one becomes an entrepreneur or an employee. And they are critical to ensuring that we all become the fearless, creative and daring individuals that we are capable of being.
I am a trained actress and founder and director of Hua Dan, one of China’s first and leading social enterprises. Hua Dan uses the power of participation in drama-based workshops to reveal and develop individual and community potential. Hua Dan has a particular focus on working with China’s rural-to-urban migrant workers, particularly women, who work in the manufacturing and service industries, at the heart of China’s economic boom.