Why the MFA Is the New MBA

I’m often asked—when it leaks out that I have a master of fine arts degree in imaginative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and not an MBA—how it is a guy who set out to write the next Great Gatsby ended up in business, and more oddly still, a financier on the Las Vegas Strip, that gaudy dream-twin of L.A. smack in the Mojave Desert, developing some of the biggest stores of entertainment ever conceived, including Mandalay Bay and Luxor. But it makes perfect sense to me.

Business executives who behave as cultural practitioners, as opposed to the MBA construct, have history on their side. They’re that much closer to emotional resonance and original perspective, which are the gold standard in artistic performance. That’s how consumers of narrative, for instance, are convinced and influenced; and by the way, outstanding stories don’t date. What’s the purpose of business if not to convince and influence end-users that they’re on to something? Great products or services do basic things, but they also bear meaning. They can suggest new directions in how to live.

When I left Iowa and returned to L.A., my MFA fresh in hand, I needed to pay the bills. So I went where the money was and talked my way into a job as a stockbroker in Beverly Hills. I figured I would sketch out that best-seller on odd weekends at the beach house I was sure I would someday be able to afford. And I found my MFA to be excellent preparation for the business world, because I knew how to tell a story. Every good business tells a story.

People depend on narratives to get them through life. Neuroscience tells us that our brains are hardwired to organize our existential states as ongoing narratives, draft upon draft of them. A concept in business, as in a story, must be told forcefully and simply, with consequential logic mixed with dramatic leaps. And innovation in business, which underpins value-creation in corporate strategy, is a matter of ingenious reassembly: part dominant logic, part practiced intuition; the language for your next business success already exists, typically inside the old one, only to be illumined or reassembled to make it new again. As with poetry, it’s fresh perspectives that convince our hearts and minds.

There was a day when imagination in business held sway over sheer analytics. There was a day at GM, to pick one example, when their designers knew how to conceive and craft automobiles that consumers wanted because of relevance to their identity. It was in no small part the concepts of GM’s first head designer, Harley Earl (the Corvette, anyone? Tailfins?), that propelled GM to 50 percent market share by 1960 and its position as the world’s largest company; it’s no coincidence that GM’s torturous slide began with Earl’s retirement.

Steve Jobs has established himself as the era’s leading poet of technology for the masses, always a step in front with the slimmest means of expressing the most in design and applications; Warren Buffett has authored the most generative investment practices in world history by reading the newspaper and interpreting numbers in light of cultural behaviors. What’s at work in these leaders? Divine inspiration? Self-possession? I believe them to be charismatic interpreters. Jobs is not plainly a technologist, and Buffet is not simply an investment manager, but both are cultural adepts in their own right. Their motivation relies deeply on imagination. They see markets to come. That’s imagination in motion, whose target is the larger culture. As one observer remarked of Jobs and his iPad, “It’s like he’s brought us back a product from five years in the future.”

Since our republic’s founding we’ve turned loose a nation of seekers. Our greater business has been to make ourselves different—disentangled from old beliefs and rules, hierarchical systems and suffocating class structures. We are a nation as much of Walt Whitman’s infinite Song of Myself as Henry Ford’s infinite assembly line. We consider ourselves in multitudes, as a people of plenty, who do our justice in this changing world by making it up as we go along. A straight line leads you nowhere. And maybe especially so in a town like Vegas.

The good news in these grim economic times is that Las Vegas is positively teeming with poets and novelists and artists of one sort or another, not to mention plenty of disobedient, divergent thinkers, the sort of creative people we need now more than ever. UNLV’s creative writing program, which offers both an MFA and a Ph.D. in imaginative writing, is ranked among the best and most innovative in the nation. That’s one of our secrets that shouldn’t have to stay in Vegas. The program was founded by my old friend Doug Unger, one of my classmates from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a novelist, a teacher, a veritable man of letters.

Right now Las Vegas is in an historic slump. But this, too, shall pass. Las Vegas, at bottom, is all about pulling all-nighters, searching for a new angle or narrative twist. Maybe Doug should organize an agency of his MFAs, the more disobedient the better, to shake the place another rattle.

This essay is adapted from Disruptive Creativity: Lessons From the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, by Glenn Schaeffer and Eric Olsen, to be published this autumn by Skyhorse Books. It’s a series of “conversations” with some of their classmates and teachers, including T.C. Boyle, Jane Smiley, Sandra Cisneros, Allan Gurganus, John Irving, Joe Haldeman, Jayne Anne Phillips and Marvin Bell.