The liberal arts get a bad rap in the startup world. Politicians talk about the need for more STEM education, investors bemoan the lack of skilled talent coming out of America's universities, and no field catches more of the flak for this situation than the liberal arts.

No, you're not going to graduate with a liberal arts degree and find work as a "Liberal Artist." There's no such thing.

But liberal arts degrees, as almost every institution granting them says, teach you how to think. They teach you how to reason and learn. They teach you how to write clearly. Those are incredibly valuable skills.

They can even teach you how to work at a startup. Or, if you're Stewart Butterfield, how to start one valued at about $3.6 billion.

The Importance of Being Philosophical

First, he got a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Victoria in Canada.

Then he got a master's from Cambridge - in philosophy.

About fifteen years later, he's at the helm of Slack, a live chat app that's reinventing the way that we communicate at work. His stake in the company has been rumored to be worth over $300,000,000.

"Studying philosophy taught me two things," Butterfield told Forbes, "I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true-like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces-until they realized that it wasn't true."

But some have said of Butterfield, as they once said of Steve Jobs (who famously dropped out of one of the top liberal arts schools in the world), that this success came in spite of his education, not because of it. They say that you shouldn't see the liberal arts as essential to Slack's success. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The Re-Contextualization Of Tech

Slack's fundmental value proposition is streamlined communication in the workplace. None of the technology in Slack is revolutionary - what's revolutionary is the way that it's applied. Butterfield and his team rethought the way that we should communicate from the bottom up. They took every piece of it apart and put it back together in a way that just made sense.

And Slack's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creatively re-contextualizating existing technology.

There are still more innovations to come, especially in fields like artificial intelligence and virtual reality, but much of our future progress is going to come from rethinking the ways that we use technologies that are already available. Liberal arts grads, trained in a breadth of fields rather than in the depth of one, are the kinds of people able to take those risky, lateral leaps of thought.

The Problem

The problem is that while startups profess to be "disruptive," so much of their hiring still takes place through the traditional mediums of resumes and cover letters. It's hard to show any prospective employer that you're creative in a 500 word cover letter - it's even harder when that employer is growing at a crazy rate.

If you're coming out of a liberal arts school, you don't want to work in a boring big corporation. You want to change things around. You're likely to be an awesome candidate at a startup. But to do so, you can't just go through the ordinary channels and hope for the best. You have to flip the script.

Here's one powerful method that many have used to turn their degrees in "Thinking Differently" into a spots at high-growth startups.

The Creative Job Application

Airbnb, the temporary vacation rental service worth $26 billion, gets a lot of applications. You might think the only people getting jobs there worked at Facebook or Google before, or are coming straight out of Stanford engineering. But you'd be wrong.

Christopher Lukezic, their Director of Marketing, got in early, way back in 2009. He didn't send in a resume. He made a comic book.

Another early hire took one look at the Airbnb home page and knew that it could be better. Instead of going through the website and applying there, he opened up Photoshop and re-vamped it. He took that link and sent it to someone at Airbnb, who was impressed and passed it around to the rest of the team.

Nina Mufleh mocked up a whole website to promote herself to Airbnb's hiring team. It included an incisive analysis of Airbnb's positioning in the Middle Eastern market, a move she thought would distinguish her from other candidates applying for coveted marketing positions at the company.

It did. Airbnb's Chief Marketing Officer responded that he was "floored" by the brilliance of the ad, founder Brian Chesky called it "very impressive," and they brought her in for an interview.

She also got calls from Uber, LinkedIn, and other top companies in Silicon Valley. She wound up with a job at Upwork, the network for freelancers and their clients.

Jump Off The Page

The success that these applicants had proves something that many startup founders won't even admit - that creativity is crucial. A candidate that shows it instantly becomes a hot commodity.

But it can be hard to demonstrate that creativity through the standard channels we use to apply for jobs.

So when everyone else has more impressive paper credentials than you, prove you're a great candidate by going further than anyone else would even think to go.

Published on: Apr 23, 2016