The Essential for Success: Knowledge of the Liberal Arts

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William Cohen

There's a way to solve management problems which gives better answers than “quantitative analysis for business decisions.” It's faster and considers many factors that quantitative analysis may not, including ethics and social responsibility which are frequently ignored. It is: a Liberal Arts Analysis.

A Liberal Arts Analysis will help to avoid solutions which have led some organizations to fail although a quantitative analysis focused on maximizing profits or sales showed that a particular action would lead to success.

This failure can happen when factors which are important to the public, customers, employees or some other stakeholder are ignored. This is what happened to Enron, Circuit City, Blockbuster Video, the Atari, Kodak, Polaroid, Borders, Sharper Image and many others.

The first step in avoiding failure and achieving success is the acquisition of knowledge of eight specific liberal arts that can impact the situation under analysis.

The Specific Liberals Arts Specified by Peter Drucker

Drucker, “the man who created management,” specified eight liberal arts as knowledge that must be included. These are: Economics, Ethics, History, Humanities, Philosophy, Physical Sciences, Psychology and Social Sciences.

The first advantage of a liberal arts analysis and a purely quantitative one is that much of the knowledge you need, you may already have! We sometimes mistakenly refer to this knowledge as “common sense.”

In other words, we've so mastered this knowledge that we consider it obvious in many cases and assume that it's known by all–it isn’t and it's dependent on your experiences and what you've learned.

Acquiring Knowledge Before it's Needed

Even in today's technologically-forward world, books should be a major vehicle in anyone’s planning. Books are a good basis for knowledge acquisition before and after an issue has been identified.

Nowadays, frequently you can log into many libraries’ collections to locate exact books you need without stepping away from your computer.

In Drucker’s day, he had no choice, and he read many books in libraries and at home. He kept a stack of books along with newspapers by his bedside throughout his life and kept reading even after he had become the acknowledged expert in his field.

They weren’t just management books–many were history books. He incorporated history into much of his writing, examples and ideas for the 39 management books and hundreds of articles that he wrote during his lifetime.

Both fiction and non-fiction contain both general and specialized knowledge, and can show different ways looking at a problem.

Knowledge Through Serendipity

The word “serendipity” comes to us courtesy of 18th century English author Horace Walpole. Walpole discovered a lot of unknown facts and surprising insights about various topics by accident during his recreational reading that had an immediate application in his work.

Achieving some notable success in this manner, he adopted it as a formal process of discovery and coined the term “serendipity” to describe it.

The word itself came from a fairy tale he read using this method of discovery entitled, The Three Princes of Serendip in which the royal trio traveled to strange lands and had various adventures and mishaps.

The princes made all sorts of discoveries by accident. But “Serendip” wasn’t a nonsense word. It’s the ancient name of modern Sri Lanka, from whence the princes in the story originated.

Any kind of reading is useful in the acquisition of knowledge Serendipity may be useful in your attainment of liberal art knowledge, sometimes when you least expect it. I once even found the solution to a management problem when I read a science fiction novel.

Knowledge Obtained From Intentional or Unintentional Discussion

One excellent reason for joining clubs and associations is that you witness and sometimes get involved with discussions of subject matter crucial to your knowledge store for future decision-making.

Knowledge From Teaching

Drucker wrote that “No one learns as much about a subject as one who is forced to teach it.” That may be why occasionally you’ll come across a brilliant teacher and later discover that he or she had been a poor student.

More than a thousand years before Drucker, the Roman philosopher Seneca said, “While we teach, we learn.” Today, students that are recruited to tutor others, were found to work harder to understand the material, could recall it more accurately, and then apply it more effectively. Student teachers also scored higher on tests than students learning for their own sake.

There are plenty of opportunities to teach. Sometimes advanced degrees are required, but in many cases, you need only to raise your hand to volunteer, and sometimes you get paid for it.

Knowledge Gained Through Lifelong Learning

“Lifetime Learning” is a term that has grown up over the last fifty or sixty years. Technology, time availability, and affluence all came together to create the opportunity for what has been called "ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated" pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons. Plenty of organizations have jumped in to grasp this opportunity, even traditional degree-granting colleges and universities.

They expand the service to their market by offering non-credit courses. Even a prestige school like Harvard, and many colleges, offer not only courses, but full programs priced at thousands of dollars to attend.

Knowledge Gained While you do Something Else

The idea is to use a psychological technique so you can learn at a subconscious level when the mind is focused elsewhere, even sleeping. This is called subliminal learning.

The normal conscious way of learning is through repeated experience. Understanding and doing with practice is frequently added. Through these processes, the new information you have learned is “mastered” and stored in your mind on an unconscious level. However, you don’t need to think about it and if subliminal, it can still be recalled automatically when you need it.

For both mental and physical actions, subliminal learning bypasses the conscious experiences of practice and repetition, Instead, information is transmitted directly to the unconscious mind. 

Knowledge From Your own Experiments or Studies

There is no law against conducting your own experiments, surveys, or studies and you can gain useful insights in this way when required.

Knowledge From Quantitative Calculations and Analysis

Focusing on maximizing profitability or any single factor alone may lead to serious problems by overlooking something of greater importance to different stakeholders.


Of course, you learn a lot as you progress in life, but you’ll learn a lot more if you make it a concerted effort. Moreover, there are an infinite number of ways to acquire the knowledge needed for your own liberal arts analyses. This doesn’t mean you need to know everything, but the more you know of the liberal arts, the better.

*Adapted from a forthcoming book The Power of Liberal Arts Management and syndicated.