By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/2/2007 2:25:15 PM ET 2007-01-02T19:25:15

The following is an excerpt from the recently published "From the Sandbox to the Corner Office: Lessons Learned on the Journey to the Top" by Eve Tahmincioglu. The segment is based on an interview with Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

When Dana Gioia made a major career curve into the world of business in the early 1980s, he did not leave his life as an artist behind.

“I wanted to be a poet so I thought there was no place for me to go but business school, in the tradition of Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot. I realized there was a tradition of American poets who had made business careers, in a way separating their artistic life from their professional life. I thought I would have more freedom as an artist, to develop under my own timetable and my own way, if I had a career on the side.”

He had attended graduate school at Harvard University, where he studied literature, and then made the switch with his decision to earn his MBA from Stanford University. Eventually, he became the vice president of marketing at General Foods.

Having had parents he called “quixotic,” Gioia felt compelled in some way to come to terms with his practical side and get a regular job, but he promised himself that every day he would write or read for three hours in pursuit of his art. He worked on his passion evenings and weekends, while by day he was a marketing manager for one of the biggest food conglomerates in the world working on strategies to sell Kool-Aid and Jell-O.

“Business is the best possible training for an artist, if it doesn’t destroy you,” he explains. “Businesses are the primary repositories for skills in the United States. If you work for a major company, you learn how to get things done in the real world, how people think, how to manufacture things, how to price things. Business is eminently practical, making a profit and selling goods and services people want. It is training for fulfilling human needs in dependable ways. It was wonderful training for me because I learned how to operate cooperatively.”

And after a rough start learning how to crunch numbers and analyze data, he became more successful in the business world than he ever thought he would, because for the most
part corporate America lacked creativity, which Gioia had in abundance.

That creativity, he believes, helped him and his team launch the “Jell-O Jigglers” — a product idea that put a 20-year decline in Jell-O products on the plus side. Regular Jell-O takes four hours to set, and busy families were increasingly using it only for special occasions. He spent 15 months reviewing recipes and serving ideas on a daily basis to turn Jell-O around, going over an endless stream of notions and ultimately pulling together a conglomeration of concepts into a product that could set quickly and the kids could make into funny shapes.

“I was told by the previous person who had my job that there was nothing I could do to make the business grow,” he recalls. “We basically proved him wrong.”

After 10 years in the business world, Gioia returned to the life of a full-time writer in 1992, publishing poetry and freelance pieces, but he walked away with something he says other managers did not have, creative thinking and qualitative thinking.

“Most people in business have a quantitative background, usually driven by mad power needs. Business is filled with would-be kings and a few statesmen. I realized most businesspeople don’t understand how creativity works. They think it’s wild and crazy.”

Excerpted from “"From the Sandbox to the Corner Office: Lessons Learned on the Journey to the Top" by Eve Tahmincioglu. Copyright ©2006 by Eve Tahmincioglu.  Excerpted by permission of John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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