Five Practical Job Skills I Learned Studying Theater

Being a curious and somewhat confused undergrad, I graduated college with two degrees: in theater and computer science. After working in the tech industry for over a decade, I can honestly say the former taught me more about how to succeed in the workplace.

Now, I should note that I’m not a programmer. Your mileage may vary. But as someone who works with a team of people to ship software products, I’ve found that my day-to-day work has much more in common with the work of producing a play than it does with the computer science exercises I did as an undergrad.

Inspired by Scott Berkun, I thought I’d write down a few things I learned:

1. Collaborate Respectfully

Working on group projects in most classes was a bit daunting to me. You’d be put in a group of 2 or 3 people and expected to work together on a presentation or a paper or something. It was never clear who was in charge. Oftentimes, what ends up happening is that the person who’s most concerned about getting an A does all the work and everyone else sort of coasts. Not always, but that happened to me on more than one occasion.

By contrast, in theater everyone’s roles are obvious and named up front. When we work on this project, I’m the director and you’re the actor, and that means we each have distinct responsibilities. Next time, the situation may be reversed. This mutual dependency is at the heart of all teamwork. As the Clarence Otis, Jr., the CEO of Darden Restaurants, put it,

The thing that prepared me the most — where the team was front and center — was theater, which I did a lot of growing up, in high school, during college, law school and even for a couple of years after law school. I would say that probably is the starkest lesson in how reliant you are on others, because you’re there in front of an audience. It’s all live, and everybody’s got to know their lines and know their cues and know their movement, and so you’re totally dependent on people doing that.

2. Solve Problems

With a $200 budget, you might have to convince the audience you’re in a castle, then a forest, then finally a mountaintop. No CGI. Time to get creative. Steven Soderbergh put it well:

Art is also about problem solving, and it’s obvious from the news, we have a little bit of a problem with problem solving. In my experience, the main obstacle to problem solving is an entrenched ideology. The great thing about making a movie or a piece of art is that that never comes into play. All the ideas are on the table. All the ideas and everything is open for discussion, and it turns out everybody succeeds by submitting to what the thing needs to be. Art, in my view, is a very elegant problem-solving model.

3. Prototype

One key aspect of the play development process is the staged reading. You take the script and a group of actors, and you sit on stage and read it aloud to an audience. Before the first costumes are sewn, before the first set is built, you will have a pretty good idea of what aspects of the play are working and what aren’t. The staged reading is the minimum viable product

4. Tell Great Stories

Storytelling is at the heart of great theater, great marketing and great businesses. From the macro mission statement down to the most inconsequential PowerPoint deck, a great story is powerful. One thing I’ve learned from my years in the workforce is that the data is less important than the story you can tell around the data. We usually aren’t running double-blind experiments in the corporate world to see what works and what doesn’t. What tends to happens is: a project gets done, and the story of the project’s success or failure propagates throughout the company. If the story is a good story, it will propagate faster, and it’s more likely that the project will be held up as a model (or a warning sign). The story you can tell about the project is often as important as the project itself.

5. Ship

The first thing you learn in theater is that you have a ship date. It’s called opening night, and barring an extreme emergency, it’s not slipping. So immediately you’re forced to focus and prioritize. This is a skill that’s surprisingly hard to learn in college. You can usually ask for an extension. Or even if you can’t, it won’t hurt anyone but yourself. In the real world, no one’s going to to your job for you, and everyone else is relying on you to do your part.

To quote Clarence Otis again, “You could have your piece down, but if one person on the team doesn’t, you’re in trouble, and it’s embarrassing because people aren’t used to seeing errors in theater. Theater is seamless every night.” Or, as the Navy Seals say, under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to your level of training.

So why does any of this matter?

I’m not trying to talk anyone out of a CS degree. CS is fantastic. It’s a total shame that my local public university, the University of Washington, can’t make enough room for all the undergrads who want to enter the CS program. It’s doubly outrageous that we, the citizens, underinvest in our youth in such a way.

However, in an era where undergrads are running to so-called “STEM” degrees out of fear of unemployment, I’m worried we’ve put too much emphasis on what we deem a “practical” education to be. The arts matter, and not just because Steve Jobs studied calligraphy at Reed College (though that’s a helpful anecdote). The arts give us new ways of looking at problems, as Soderbergh elegantly put it. Which is why I applaud the efforts of folks like John Maeda at RISD to move from “STEM to STEAM.” Because the things you learn in school are profoundly important, just not always in the ways you assume.

One thought on “Five Practical Job Skills I Learned Studying Theater

  1. Scott Berkun

    One of my biggest regrets about how I was trained for my Computer Science degree was a complete lack of education about how to work with other people. I did have a few team projects, but absolutely zero guidance was provided for how to deal with even the most elementary of team problems: how to divide work, how to make decisions, how to deal with a teammate that annoys you or isn’t doing their work and how to give and receive criticism to/from peers.

    It’d be one thing if the workplace was a place of solo work, but it isn’t. Programming is highly collaborative.

    Thanks for this post. It’s a reminder to me of what learning from different fields yields: there’s always more one field can learn from another.

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