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Coming in at a Slant

An argument for teaching poetry in business schools

I’m not a poet, but…

“You speak like poetry,” they said. I stepped off the glossy wooden floor of the auditorium stage, pulling up a chair across from the seven MBA students who were leading the dress rehearsal. We had just run through my 6-minute speech for the Story Lab. The women were poised to give me feedback on the presentation that I am giving next Tuesday to a crowd of 500+ people. “The cadence of your words,” they said, “you are poetry.”

I was not always poetry. My story, my words- they were not always this way, nothing musical or beautiful about them. The thoughts existed and the experiences had, but I had no idea how to write about them.

For six or so years, from my sophomore year in high school to the second semester of my junior year in college, I did little writing or reading that wasn’t required for school. Focusing on achievement and accolades, I did what was academically asked of me and nothing more. Exhausted and stretched thin, I had no discretionary effort or energy to put it into anything else. Especially not something creative.

See, I had never unlearned what I learned in high school about success. As wrong as this may have been, my four years of high school were dedicated to getting into college. Since the first day of freshman year at Brighton High School, I was told to create an identity by joining organizations and earning leadership positions. If done correctly, I might become someone a college would want. These achievements and associations, the letter grades and varsity letters, they become us and we assume the identity thrust upon us. But we never build a self.

I came to college having never unlearned this habit of identity-assuming. Spending my college freshman year doing the same thing that had brought me success in high school, I assimilated. Organizations took me. I joined a sorority, a business club. I was given titles of leader, an identity thrust upon me as a reward for taking on pseudo responsibilities. And these responsibilities and requirements, they ate my time, so much so that I hardly had time to eat… and absolutely, definitely, no time to read poetry.

And then words found me…

When I was a junior in college, I was lucky enough to study abroad in Barcelona, Spain. Among the shocking cultural differences (they don’t refrigerate eggs, you bag your own groceries, extended families live together in apartments), the most salient realization I had was about time.

In Spain, everything was conducted at a different speed- slowly and leisurely. Coming from the United States, a whole country in a race to nowhere, I was at first horrified at the pace of life. Fidgeting in my seat on hour three of a four-hour meal, I was crushed by the overwhelming anxiety that I had something to do, but I just didn’t know what. “What a loss of productivity!” I gasped, “How does anyone get anything done?”

Turns out, stuff does get done. The world still turns. Money is made and spent and all those good things we learn about in our economics classes. One of my Spanish friends summed it up for me. “Instead of living to work, we work to live,” he said to my gaping mouth. “Here, you look thirsty. Have another sangria.”

It was in Spain that I started to read again. Voraciously. For fun and joy, and also self-preservation, because on St. Jordi’s Day, the Spanish equivalent of Valentine’s Day, the women give men books. I had to make sure I chose just the right novella for my on-and-off Spanish racecar driver fling. (Note: I kept the book for myself).

It was also in Spain that I started writing again. Freed from the strict curriculum requirements of my American university, I took fewer class credits than ever before and had more time to journal and write for my blog. The classes I did take, conversational Spanish and photojournalism, they gave me the tools to connect and capture my world.

But then the semester ended….

You can ask my mom- I almost didn’t return from Spain. I don’t know who was more shocked that I actually got on the plane back to Detroit; me, her, or the Spanish man I had promised to start an oatmeal-selling yoga studio with. Terrified of losing this newfound, enriched lifestyle of reading, writing, pondering, I admit, the last place I thought I wanted to be was at an internship at an investment bank in New York.

I failed to realize then- and I am only beginning to realize now- that what changed in Spain was more than just my environment. Yes, I had more time while I was living in Spain, but my perception of the time I had changed too. I valued it differently. Returning to the United States, the amount of time changed, but my values remained.

Despite the acutely felt loss of Gaudi’s houses, nightly beach walks, sprawling markets, and 40 euro flights to Paris, I felt more whole in New York than I fathomed I would. I still was able to have deep conversations over coffee and wine, but at cafes in Brooklyn instead of Barri Gotic. I read on the subway instead of the metro. My days, yes, fundamentally different, but just as fulfilling as my days in Spain.

Making time for art in your life magnifies the time in your life…

The curse of not having enough time- it is a myth.

Day after day after day, I receive emails and Instagram messages asking me how I have time to read and write. The messages, they ask me how I do it, embedding the underlying assumption that somehow, I have been able to make more time in the day than the 24 hours we are allotted.

“Do you sleep?” they ask, “How many hours?” Yes, I do sleep. I sleep 8 hours a night. Most nights in a matching pajama set because Ariana Huffington said to do that and also it makes me feel fabulous.

The issue in question is not how to increase the volume of our time, but rather the value. Spain taught me that the activities I thought were so important for self-preservation- answering emails, business networking, hyper-focusing on my school assignments- they get in the way of creating a self.

As a senior in college…

I never imagined I would spend hours reading poetry. Or that I would start reading philosophy books for fun, begin learning how to play guitar, read 95 books this year, become a yoga teacher, ghostwrite for a tech company, or voluntarily sign up to public speak. But these things, these activities I never thought were “valuable” or “useful” – they have been the most enriching of them all.

The Dalai Lama, he once said that the planet does not need more “successful people.” The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of all kinds. The hours I had spent chained to my pursuit of an intangible vague idea of “success,” I could have spent coming alive.

Art. It gives us new lenses to look at the world around us, increases our ability to empathize, and lets us access ourselves more deeply than before. Reading gives us the vocabulary to tell our story, music gives us the cadence. In my case, yoga taught me how to create a flow, philosophy helped me ask what an audience might want to hear, and practicing public speaking gave me the courage to tell my story.

I’m definitely not a poet…

But poetry has let me get into myself, “coming in at a slant” as one of my favorite speakers, Chris Murchison, says. Poetry helped me articulate and express emotions I didn’t know I had within me, giving me words and expressions until I gained the language that made my self-expression possible.

Reallocating my time to activities that helped build a self instead of assuming an identity has given me the vocabulary to tell my story and the courage to do so. Bringing the human back into the humanities has been the best thing I’ve done for my education. Once I started making time for art, my life gave me time to live. 

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