An art student in business school

What’s the difference between an artist and a large pizza?

One can feed a family of four.


I was always big on art. I was good at it. I liked working at it. At a high school predominantly filled with future doctors and lawyers, I was the sole student going on to study art at university. I even applied for a Masters of Fine Arts program, but opted for an MA in Art History instead.

And after my first year in the MA program I turned to the dark side. I started an MBA.

The business school was just across the road from the arts building but it felt like entering a whole different world. My MA program of a dozen students was mostly women. We had a lounge with sofas where we tackled readings I still don’t fully comprehend. We shared a coffeemaker. There were naps and baked goods. It was lovely.

The MBA program on the other hand had hundreds of students. Mostly men. In suits. Most had 5 or 10 years of work experience. There was lots of math. There was group work.

When my marketing professor learned I wanted to pursue arts management she pointed to me and announced to the class,

“And some of us here don’t even want to make money!”

So. Yes. I was out of my element.

My business school classmates could calculate present value of future money with ease. They understood financial theories. When working with them I knew I didn’t bring those skills to the table. But I was also shocked at the skills they didn’t have. They could not write or format or cite a paper, or create a decent-looking spreadsheet, or give an engaging presentation. They rarely raised their hand in class for fear of being wrong.

But I had years of experience writing (and citing) academic papers, bullying Excel to produce a graph that didn’t look like it came from Excel, and regularly defending my artwork in front of a studio class to a professor who, frankly, hated it (true story). At business school my skills were not their skills, and their skills were not mine, but our skills combined (like the Planeteers) made for a greater final product.

It’s called synergy. And if I had a dime for every time I heard that word in business school, I’d have a heck of a lot of dimes. It was a grating buzzword I heard my business school professors apply too often to hypothetical situations of businesses working together, or cross-promotional activities. Never had they talked about synergy between individuals on daily tasks.

And I try to keep that thought with me. Though I may feel out of place, or that my skills are mismatched with those of my colleagues (or co-workers, or what have you), the combined different skills of the group build off each other. Especially when the skills lie in fields as different as business and art.

You could readily tell when a group presenting was all accountants (no offence accountants!) Their numbers were incredible, and they’d bring in some tricky analyses we hadn’t even covered in class. But what good was the information if it wasn’t presented in a digestible and (I may be asking too much here) interesting way?

(On the other hand, of course, a group of students far better at presenting than at finance could very well end up with too much razzle dazzle and not enough substance).

In the nonprofit sector you hear time and time again it’s about the story.

You can give all the fact and figures you have, but people relate to stories. In this respect business schools could benefit a heck of a lot from more art students. Fortunately the arts could also take some notes from the business side of things. Let’s synergize, folks.

Don’t feel like your set of skills completely relegates you to a certain task, or group, or career. Cross some boundaries, because you can learn from others’ skills, and trust me, they can learn from yours.


Oh, and I didn’t totally give up on art. In fact I have a little show coming up and I’d love to see you there.

March 31, 2012
5 pm
The Grind House
281 Augusta, Toronto

And you can see some of my portfolio here.

What about you? Have you found yourself in a situation where you felt out of your element but then dazzled everyone with your talents? Inquiring minds want to know!


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