Things To Remember, Things To Do: Reflections on an HBS Education
I worry sometimes that I’ll forget exactly why this was so good. That I’ll look at old Facebook albums and think, as I’m sure my friends and family already do, that this was two years of adult summer camp. Maybe I’ll search in my closet, see the neon ski jumpsuit, cut-off denim shirts, lederhosen, deep orange v-necks, and 18 pairs of colored sunglasses, and have nostalgia for the third floor of the Kong. Maybe I’ll think it was special because it was the last time I danced on tables to avicii or grew a serious mustache.
Yeah, those things were fun, but that’s not why this was good.
I am a skeptical person, not a sentimental one. Nonetheless, beyond the cases and clichéd phrases like transformational experience, I still cannot help but feel that larger forces have been at work for the last two years: the section romances that have now turned into engagements; long-term business partnerships formed over a beer in Tommy Doyle’s; the joint MD/MBA being right there when someone gets injured on trip. From the outside, when we describe it to you, it may sound like the world’s most boring reality television show — but from the inside it feels like magic.
At the very first admitted student event in DC I met the person who would become my roommate and one of my best friends. We had just met and were talking for only a few minutes, when I asked him how his last year had been. And he told me – very factually, honestly, and not in the slightest way seeking pity – about how he had just been laid off and how his engagement to his fiance had just been broken off. I was stunned.
Because I had thought the people who came to HBS would be those who had been trained since birth to put their best foot forward, to hide their flaws, to constantly impress people around them.
But, and particularly in this second year, I have seen the most successful people I have ever met allow themselves to become vulnerable, to confess their deepest fears, their biggest failures. To let me know that I am not alone in having these same regrets about the past and anxieties about the future.
It turns out the greatest compliment you can say about someone here is that they are authentic. This is amplified in section experience, where you get to witness people up close and more holistically than in perhaps any other time in life. When you find that the same person who makes that sharp comment in class is also an amazing opera singer and the first person who will help you clean up after a party. When you find that the person sitting next to you had to overcame trauma and barriers that you could never even imagine. Here, the examples live around you, permeate the environment in such a way that instead of feeling inadequate, you feel invigorated.
Another surprise: this class loves to do inconvenient favors. The students here are incredibly driven, and time is their most precious resource – and yet they are willing to spend it for the benefit of others with no expectation of getting anything in return. And this stretches from the big things, the people who take the time to plan amazing trips, conferences, balls, charity auctions, sport tournaments, and community service programs, to the little things: The guy who takes their Saturday night to coach you for your next interview. The girl who picks you up from the airport at 4am when you land in an unfamiliar city on a summer business trip. The people who fill out endless surveys and try out the products of your start-up, patiently working with you on iteration after iteration until you make something that’s actually good.
Sure, these two things — authenticity and selfless generosity — are just a small part of what has made this place special. But I hope it’s what I remember. I hope it’s what continues to define us after graduation.
In a couple weeks, we will receive our degrees in the professional vocation we have chosen: business. A degree in professional management. We should be proud.
But occasionally I hear something that bothers me, and that is a faint hint of apology in our voices – when we go over to the Kennedy School or talk to people in government, education, or medicine – that when they ask us what we are doing, that we respond with “oh I’m just in business.”
I came here from the American military, which is on the other side of the spectrum – there we are generally blessed with unquestioning admiration for our vocation. To be honest, I failed many times in my job as a Marine Corps officer, but when I came back from war everyone still wanted to shake my hand and buy me a drink.
And over the last two years here at school, I have been back to Iraq and Afghanistan with a classmate – but this time, instead of wearing combat fatigues and carrying a rifle, I wore local dress. I returned not as an aid worker, but as a researcher and small business investor, working with local entrepreneurs who dream of creating a more prosperous and peaceful life for their families and communities.
I cannot tell you how uplifting it has been to go from doing raids in the middle of the night to working with these locals — to see their enthusiasm, their willingness to invest their time and efforts in the community, and yes, all of it because they desire to make a profit. I have sipped a lot of tea before in these countries with government officials – and they talked to me in buzzwords about coordinated governance and capacity building, words that meant nothing and became nothing.
But the business owners now talk to me in survival terms, in pragmatic terms, about the things they will do today and tomorrow. They live under a strict accountability for their results, where failure cannot be hidden by eloquent language.
Perhaps we have a natural skepticism from hearing words like “creating shared value” and “the social enterprise” too often. And yes, recent events have reminded us that business can be destructive when it overreaches, when it loses its moral compass. But this does not mean we should apologize for our chosen profession.
Because I have seen entrepreneurs succeed where governments and charity organizations could not: Succeed in bringing luxuries previously unimaginable to remote corners of the map. Succeed in providing capital to small businesses in sustainable and accountable ways where grants have only distorted the market. Succeed in transferring knowledge and creating jobs where the best-intentioned government programs have failed.
Today, the skills of business are more important than ever. We have seen the entire Middle East transformed in this past year by the rise of young people who desire economic opportunity and dignity. We have seen traditional sector boundaries collapse and disciplines converge, requiring an ever larger diversity of skills to tackle even basic challenges.
By choosing the MBA, you have chosen to work some of the most optimistic, driven, forward-thinking people in this changing world – people who can marshal resources and human talent with efficiency unthinkable elsewhere – and most refreshing of all, people who would never dare identify a problem without proposing a solution as well.
The pursuit of business, then, is not something to apologize for. Rather, it is a high calling, and we should imbue it with the same passion, the same purpose as the most noble of any other profession.
But yet I do not want to be too abstract or idealistic. We have decisions to make tomorrow, this summer, and in the next five years.
You know, the great thing about getting some of the things you want early in life is that you can find out that you don’t really want them. Many of us have perhaps already had by now a taste of the experience and accolades that we thought we needed, that we thought would validate us. And at least for me, it has been humbling to find out that many of those things do not matter, that they do not satisfy, and that chasing them will never give the solace that you once thought it might.
For the last two years, we’ve been living other people’s lives, two or three times a day in the shoes of these case protagonists. Amazing people, most of them, but they are not you, and we know that they are not us.
We have a new urgency too, birthed from the crisis. Perhaps in years gone by, there was a sense that if you paid your dues and patiently checked all the right boxes, that someday you would be handed the keys to a great ship and told that you are now its Captain, a titan of business. But today, it does not feel like that. Instead, there is this palpable feeling around campus that we must build our own ships – that we have been liberated from the carefully manicured career paths of before, and invited to do something today. Not just as entrepreneurs, but also in bringing new life to the most established of corporations.
Members of this class, our fellow students, are already working to build next generation of rechargeable batteries, while others take large multinationals into new frontier markets, and still others are challenging entrenched industry norms with innovative business models.
These are not isolated examples. We, this class, everyone one of us has these bold and urgent dreams inside. But will we do them? For some of us, will we even dare say them?
I was talking to a friend a couple months ago about my post-graduation plans, and I was using the language we all tend to use when talking about such things – a bit uncertain, a bit sheepish, a bit tentative. And she stopped me. She said, “Why are you opening the door to settling when you haven’t even started? Why are you talking so small?”
And she was right. Now is not the time, at this inflection point in life, to say small things. Today, tomorrow, this week, we should be open with our dreams. We should make big promises – look each other right in the eye and say the impossible things we imagine we could do on our best days. The dreams we have based not on the world as it is, but the world as it ought to be.
And why should we say these things?
Because only we can hold each other accountable. Because I want to be ashamed to come back to our reunion in five years time having accepted mediocrity. I want to see faint disappointment in your faces if I never even tried, if I never even risked failure. I hope we question each other, push each other, just like we did every day in and out of class for the last two years.
Because we have debts to repay, not just to the student loan office – though those are certainly not insignificant – and not even just to those people who brought us here – to our families, our friends, our teachers, our communities – but also and most importantly to each other: to the people who to sat to the left and right of us, who helped us when were struggling, who were honest when we needed it, and who picked us up when were tired.
We did all those things because we knew that we could be great, but that we could only be great together.