Quote a la Isaac Asimov.
I chanced upon this tweet many years ago:
My classmates and I have talked surprisingly little about what we’ve taken away from HBS. It is more often when I chat with HBS hopefuls or HBS skeptics that I take time to reflect on whether or not I really learned anything in business school.
Some of my classmates have attempted to think about this on a fairly micro scale — per class, per session, per semester, per conversation. I admit, for much of my time at HBS, this is also how I thought about it (and, frankly, it’s unsatisfying to think about it this way). Others have a much more macro view, including the one that HBS communicates they’re trying to teach — how to form a view about the world that functions as a north star in ever changing contexts? Most likely, then, we will not know what the impact HBS has had on us until a few years out of school, when some of these hypothetical world views have been given a bit of breathing room to solidify, ossify, or disintegrate.
So this post is a snapshot in time. A few months after HBS and about 1.5 months into the post-work world, though in startup years so maybe that deserves a 3x multiplier. In a management by influence with no formal power + sole responsibility for results position, so maybe that’s another 2x multiplier. This is my current take on what I have learned and not learned at HBS.
(spoiler alert — I wholeheartedly believe it was worth it. It’s a bit pointless to describe, though, because it’s a weird blend of personal journey + widening of perspective + tactical learnings, etc. It’s an experience that molds itself to the individual rather than the current state of K-12 education in the US, which demands that the individual molds him/herself to the experience. Therefore, when describing it, all I can really convey is what takes place in this experience and my best judgment of what you will find there after getting to know you a bit better).
What they teach you at Harvard Business School
Lesson One: Everything that you aspire to achieve, no matter how big your ambition, is within the realm of possibility. Many things are within the realm of probability. Some things are even within the realm of certainty unless you f*** up.
I tell friends this often — somewhere around the first or second semester of second year, it dawns upon most people — the default assumption of the school is that you are going to be CEO one day. Of course, some people will choose not to be. But if you want it, it’s yours. This assumption is never explicitly stated, but it is ever present in everything that is said (“when you’re talking with your board…”) and unsaid.
Lesson Two: The world is big. Any part of it is fair game.
HBS expands your perspective. Not only is there an explicit class that covers one country per class but 40% of your classmates have a non-US passport. Additionally, business school is made for travel, and travel expands the mind. This is especially true in the format that HBS tends to have for trips — led by people familiar with the country, oftentimes with a particular angle on understanding the broader themes of the country through one in-depth instance (e.g. the Tohoku earthquake / tsunami / nuclear meltdown as a lens into Japanese culture). The experiences and classes convincingly transport you to different parts of the world. Suddenly, it feels very possible that you do something meaningful in Nigeria one day.
Lesson Three: What makes a good leader.
Everything from theory to practice, from organizational level to one on one level, from team building to team disciplining, from delivering results to being loved, from being one of the people to standing apart and carrying more weight. This lesson is too hard to distill into one blog post, but we looked at examples from everywhere — the usual suspects of today’s organizations, governments, movements, but also the leaders in Rome, history, philosophy.
Lesson Four: Every dimension of the business is your job to lead (but not necessarily to manage).
We get a view into every major facet of an organization, from accounting to marketing / sales to finance to government relations to strategy…you get the idea. As people often joked, the spoiler is that everything converges to a class called Lead…that is, by the last third of the semester, every class starts feeling like Lead, a class in which you learn how to act as a leader.
Lesson Five: You can’t be good at everything. Choose what you’re going to suck at.
Choosing what you’re going to be good at is a hugely pleasurable experience. Choosing what you’re going to suck at sucks. But doing the latter guarantees success in the former more than doing the former.
Lesson Six: When you start breaking problems down, you’ll find the issues are often pebbles rather than boulders.
Most things are within our ability to solve. Break it down. And if it’s still overwhelming, break it down further. Very few problems can withstand the combined forces of patience, persistence, hard work, and deliberate care.
Lesson Seven: Always do the pre-work. Then, stay vigilant. And always speak up.
Don’t be lazy and leave things up to chance. But realize that chance has a role in everything, so learn how to observe carefully, especially for anomalies. And never be afraid to speak up. Sometimes it might be for yourself alone, but oftentimes, if done right, it might be in the stead of somebody else who can’t.
Lesson Eight: Whether you choose to formalize it or not, a process exists for everything. Processes are the building blocks of culture. You can’t will culture into existence. And, as Warren Buffett famously said, culture eats strategy for breakfast.
This is more of a lesson for the startup world. Processes will exist whether you choose them or not. Choose them. They, not the 10 commandments you paint onto your walls, are the elements that shape your culture.
Lesson Nine: Your actions are just a manifestation of your theories about how the world works. Try hard to break your theories so you can refine them.
It’s pointless to take an action to repeatedly prove a theory. Theories become better as they repeatedly break and adapt. When you can take the risk, try to break theories, both yours and others’.
Lesson Ten: Know thyself. And ask for help.
The ultimate truth. And in knowing yourself, know when to ask for help. I realize even in these first few months how valuable my classmates are — their depth of knowledge in areas I had never had experience in is really profound and humbling. I also realized how powerful the network is. Not even counting the people who came before us but just those in my class — I realize with a 1-2 step connection and a healthy dose of shamelessness, I can probably intro anybody to anybody.
What they don’t teach you at HBS
Lesson One: You can immediately start taking risks.
While most people understand that one day they will become CEO or one day they can work on a meaningful problem, most also believe that that day is not today. That day is somewhere in the murky future. I think even at graduation, we are all already uniquely privileged to take more than the average amount of risk. And, of course, personal risk only increases with time.
Lesson Two: Make the relevant scope as large as possible.
The scope of care for people varies a lot. Some think in terms of their immediate family. Some think in terms of people like them. Some think in terms of companies. Some think in terms of nations. Some think in terms of humanity. Some think in terms of all living creatures. I think it’s important to make the scope of care as large as possible. The largest that I’m currently aware of is thinking in terms of the universe and optimizing for it, even if it means humans are just a sidebar or an insignificant evolutionary step along the way to something greater.
Lesson Three: Self reflection.
The school doesn’t force this upon you, but it is probably one of the most worthwhile uses of one’s time during the two years. There’s a lot of information and knowledge being transmitted, but, as the saying goes, experience =/= wisdom. You can experience something and still learn nothing.
Lesson Four: Empathy.
Surprisingly very rarely discussed in the school despite that it is one of the most adaptable and powerful tools for living. It’s often brought up by students but I can’t remember having a beyond superficial discussion on the topic.
Lesson Five: What’s right and wrong.
The school never intended to teach this. If you haven’t learned this yet by age ~27 (avg age of class), you probably have some bigger problems…
The school does teach you how slippery the slope is into “wrong” despite that you think you have good and strong values. And it teaches how to create environments where “right” is more likely to thrive than “wrong.”
Lesson Six: How to not believe the hype. And that competition isn’t always the best path.
Business school is a hype machine. There’s so much eyeballing what the other person is doing. There are so many Type A, hyper competitive people. There’s a collective view on what’s “hot” right now and people measure each other against it. The social pressure makes it difficult to remain true to yourself.
I think HBS doesn’t do a good job of communicating that the game lies in how to avoid competition rather than win (a bit bloodied) against intense competition. I think some of my classmates believe you don’t prove anything unless you win and you can’t win without competition.
Lesson Seven: How to satisfice.
HBS accepts people who are overachievers and perfectionists and doesn’t do much to tame that desire. But life is not as forgiving.
Lesson Eight: Patience.
As Siddhartha said in Herman Hesse’s book — I can think, wait, and fast. And with those three skills, one can overcome almost any challenge. People leave HBS with a strong desire to act. Inaction seems wasteful, slothful, and inane.
Lesson Nine: How to be happy.
Nobody can teach you this. People think HBS can teach them this because it arguably teaches you how to be successful in your career, but we all know that doesn’t equate to happiness.
Lesson Ten: How to judge people and multi-faceted situations instead of just data.
The former requires messy experience. The latter is over-emphasized in all classroom settings.