William Shakespeare is one of my favourite figures in history. Ever since I saw a performance of “Julius Caesar” at the Stratford Festival in high school, I’ve been intrigued by his works. This summer, I read “Shakespeare: The Biography” by Peter Ackroyd to deepen my understanding of the man and his work. As I learned more about him, I thought “he achieved a great deal – there’s plenty that I can learn from him.”
Read on to learn how to work like William Shakespeare. His accomplishments include writing some of the most popular plays in the history of the world, creating very fine poetry, theatre management and investing. Of course, nobody’s perfect. Some may criticize Shakespeare for moving to London and leaving his young family behind in Stratford. I prefer to focus on the positive and answer the question, “what can we learn from Shakespeare?”
Note: All quotes are from “Shakespeare: The Biography” by Peter Ackroyd unless otherwise note
1. Creativity starts with existing ideas.
“He had learnt in his schooldays that one of the first characteristics of invention was imitation, and he was an imitator of genius.” (pg 256)
Seth Godin once said “ideas that spread win.” That begs the question: where do you get all these ideas? For me, one of the most valuable ways to get new ideas is to read. For Shakespeare, the beginning of creativity was drawing on Classical authors such as Ovid. Later, he would draw on works of history for his legendary history plays.
To criticize Shakespeare as derivative is foolish – everyone works with existing material in some shape or form. It was his genius to read widely and apply his knowledge of acting and writing to produce new plays. To work like William Shakespeare, you need to read widely and always be on the hunt for ideas, concepts and stories that you can adapt.
2. Wear Multiple Hats At Work: Always Seek Opportunities To Contribute
The theatre of Shakespeare’s age was a democratic institution in some respects. A single person does not a performance make. Today, Shakespeare is best known as a playwright and poet. In his day, he was active as an actor as well – theatre tradition maintains that he played the role of The Ghost in Hamlet among other roles.
Even as Shakespeare continued his focus on producing plays, he continued to act for years. By maintaining his acting career, Shakespeare could draw on that experience to improve his plays. For example, he understood the importance of scripting entrances and exits from the stage for the greatest impact.
As a project manager, you may sometimes want to delegate all of the grunt work tasks to junior staff. Certainly that is an efficient way to operate – Shakespeare didn’t play every role in his plays after all.
To keep your perspective fresh, pitch in and help your junior staff with their work occasionally. It will improve your empathy and understanding of their work. Who knows – you might learn something important about the project’s details as well.
3. Improvisation and flexibility are your allies
Theatre is a living art form that changes with each and every performance. The veneration of Shakespeare’s texts today might have surprised the author. After all, he regularly revised his plays during the rehearsal process – whole scenes can be deleted or adjusted.
For example, take the example of King Lear. Ackroyd reports that different versions of the play in 1605 and 1606 (with slightly different title spelling). It is clear from the evidence that Shakespeare took feedback from his actors and the audience into account as she refined his plays over time.
Building a robust project plan is helpful but do not make it your idol. Let’s remember that Shakespeare had scripts for his actors and made adjustments when it made sense.
4. Seek apprenticeship opportunities to develop your skills
Shakespeare most likely began his career in the theatre as an actor in what was then an emerging profession.
Peter Ackroyd puts it this way:
“Common sense suggests that he was hired as an actor… By this time acting was a profession in which it was customary to become informally ‘apprenticed.’ Certainly it required an intense and specific training, in the arts of deportment and vocal technique as well as swordsmanship, memory and dancing.” (pg 127)
It’s fascinating to see that Shakespeare learned a variety of theatrical skills – there was no notion of specializing then. Unlike law, the theatre of Shakespeare’s day did not have a clear and traditional career progression. To grow his skills and income, it was up to Shakespeare to seek out assistance from patrons.
5. Cultivate patrons to reach new heights
Shakespeare’s career benefited from the assistance of powerful friends. Early in his career, the Earl of Southampton provided financial and social support for the playwright and his fellow players. This support included introductions to the much of the elite of England. Later on, Shakespeare and company repeatedly performed before Queen Elizabeth and King James. In fact, Shakespeare was received royal honours directly from King James in the early 1600s.
It’s important to note that Shakespeare’s most important and influential patrons came from outside the theatre community. Some professionals make the mistake of focusing all their networking effort on fellow professionals (e.g. project managers seek out only fellow project managers, lawyers often prefer the company of other lawyers). For the greatest career growth, we need to consider Shakespeare’s example of building relationships with patrons.
In a corporate context, building relationships with patrons (or executives) is easy if you start small. Start by reading the executive biographical profiles on your organization’s website. Look for opportunities where an executive is giving a presentation or speech. Listen carefully and look for opportunities to help the person – providing assistance or helpful information is one of the best ways to start building a relationship.
Tip: Seek out a few senior professionals outside of your subject matter. If you work exclusively on finance projects, look for people with operations or marketing expertise. Speaking for myself, my own perspective and horizons have widened from connecting with executives in different fields.
6. Go elsewhere when faced by adversity
Imagine if your office was closed by the government due to an outbreak of disease? Would you panic or simply find another way to get your work done? In Shakespeare’s case, the London theatres were closed for months at a time throughout his life due to outbreaks of plague in the capital.
Shakespeare and his fellow actors simply decided to go on tour whenever their London theatres closed. Through his career, he “visited some eighty towns and thirty noble households, even making the journey up to Edinburgh. This was an important aspect of Shakespeare’s experience of the world.” (pg 187)
On one level, going on tour throughout England was the only way to make a living. On the other hand, the tour was a way to take in new experiences.
7. Adopt new innovations to improve your work.
Innovation is an important way to increase your productivity at work. When you see the word innovation, you might think of patents or new electronic gadgets. That is only part of the picture – let’s consider how Shakespeare adapted to theatre innovations in his time.
For centuries, English plays were performed outside with rare exceptions. By Shakespeare’s day, there were purpose built buildings for entertainment – some of his early venues were used for plays and bear baiting. These early venues were also open to the air – that’s a main reason why performances were in the afternoon rather than the evening.
In the 1590s, a major innovation in theatre technology and performance arrived. With the Blackfriars Theatre, Shakespeare had a purpose-built indoor theatre. In addition to permitting new stage effects such as lightning, the Blackfriars Theatre seated several hundred rather than the thousands that packed into the Globe. The smaller audience allowed for greater subtlety in performance and dialogue.
What is your attitude to innovation? Are you hungry and keen to explore the possibilities of new technology like Shakespeare? Or do you only see the dangers and threats posed by the new? I encourage you to seek out new innovation in methods and technology – your projects may benefit a great deal as a result.
8. Avoid Perfectionism
In his comedy, As You Like It, there is a great line said by Rosalind to another female character, Phebe.
“Sell when you can; you are not for all markets.”
Rosalind was speaking of the challenges women face in finding a husband. It’s a great line from the comedy and I laughed when I saw it in performance earlier in 2014.
Yet, I see an interesting career lesson in this brief remark. It is a poetic injunction against perfectionism. It simply does not make sense to constantly wait for the perfect moment. It is much better to seize opportunities. Who knows when an outstanding opportunity will next come your way?
As a Shakespeare fan, this article was fun to write. I hope you found it informative to read. Yet, I feel like I have only scratched the surface of what we can learn from Shakespeare. There are many more plays to consider. Consider the history plays (e.g. Henry IV) which offer fascinating studies in leadership, authority and legitimacy. That is an exploration for another day.
In the comments, please mention your favourite Shakespeare play and what you learned from that play (either by studying it, reading it or seeing it in performance).
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