Former Twitter CEO talks importance of liberal arts

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, a University of Michigan alum, discusses his career path and the field of communication at a talk sponsored by the College of Literature, Science and the Arts at Rackham Auditorium on Thursday.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, a University of Michigan alum, discusses his career path and the field of communication at a talk sponsored by the College of Literature, Science and the Arts at Rackham Auditorium on Thursday. Buy this photo
Matt Vailliencourt/Daily

 

Thursday, February 4, 2016 - 7:33pm

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It took him over 140 characters, but former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo spoke to a filled Rackham Graduate School auditorium Thursday on how he has found value in his liberal arts degree from the University throughout his career.

LSA Dean Andrew Martin, who introduced Costolo to the crowd of hundreds, proclaimed at the lecture's start, “What a great day to be a Wolverine!”

Costolo said in his speech he aimed to inspire and highlight the merit of a liberal arts degree, which he said can be viewed as “impractical” in Silicon Valley. He disputed this opinion by explaining how his LSA education fueled his leadership skills and broadened his understanding of the world.

“A broad liberal arts degree, and deep immersion in the humanities is actually vital to developing our very best leaders and in fact without that education, none of you would develop the habits of mind, and frameworks for creative synthesis and lateral thinking, that really make the very best leaders in the world," he said.

Costolo said he believes great leaders possess five speccific qualities: They make decisions rapidly and adapt to dynamic environments when there are no road maps or obvious choices; they creatively synthesize information and provide context for decisions that are to be made across disciplines, cultures and perspectives; they inspire and build trust in any collaborative environment by welcoming viewpoints different than their own; they are never in reaction; they are kind without being weak and confident without being “jerks.”

But to achieve these attributes of a leader, Costolo said their education is key.

“They need to have a few habits of mind uniquely developed through deep curiosity and immersion in the humanities and liberal arts,” he said.

The three habits Costolo outlined were creative synthesis, disciplined thinking and awareness beyond oneself — all of which can be attained through a liberal arts education.

To exemplify the importance of creative synthesis, Costolo used an example from his career in which he gave a speech that was streamed to the 4,000 Twitter employees around the world. It in, he showed the famous Michelangelo sculpture that depicted the biblical story of David and Goliath and emphasized the sculpture’s intense gaze to inspire employees and inspire mental toughness and focus in the face of external distractions.

He said this speech helped his team by providing “tremendously vivid context” for what is otherwise an abstraction for people, and it creatively synthesized simple but powerful imagery from one domain into a frame of reference to another one that was easily understandable.

In discussing disciplined thinking, Costolo said the poetry he analyzed in his LSA curriculum taught him to synthesize what was happening in environments that he didn’t initially understand.

“It helps me solve puzzles,” he said. “It helps me look for clues that I might not recognize initially from previous patterns. And I think poetry is an example of learning to understand the context of some peculiar or unique situations.”

In his experiences, he said he’s found that as a leader one is constantly navigating grey areas, and making hundreds of decisions every day that have ethical challenges and winners and losers on both sides.

“Nothing prepares you for the decisions of this world better than the ability to contextualize everything about an environment that you’re in and the people and cultures and psychology and history of everyone involved,” Costolo said.

Costolo also talked about the importance of the awareness beyond the self, and how studying the humanities allows people to be conscious of the biases and preconditions of any situation.

“You will jump to fewer conclusions without first understanding the entirety of the landscape, and you will be better equipped to communicate decisions that you’ve made in a way that transcends the boundaries of culture and of politics and even of language,” he said.

There were a wide variety of University faculty, alumni and students at the event. University alumn Jeff Pituch had previously heard Costolo speak, and was interested to hear him again. 

“I think Dick Costolo is really funny, and I saw him at graduation in 2012 and he gave a really great speech,” he said.

Engineering freshman Robbie Greenberg said he was curious to see how Costolo could inspire him, regardless of the fact that he is not pursuing a liberal arts degree.

“It is incredible to see what Michigan alumni have done with themselves,” he said. “He became the CEO of a major technology company that I use in my daily life. So I want to see if he can give me any ideas of what I want to do with my life.”