I graduated from Columbia Graduate School of Business in 1983. Ever since, the decision’s been a bit of an outlier in my life. After all, in those days and maybe even now, those who aimed high went to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, or Chicago. Yale, maybe, for non-profit and the arts.
I always aimed high.
But I was young, and without useful mentors, and I made up ideas about my future out of whole cloth. Whole cloth and constructs, that is. What do I mean? I had always wanted to write, but all I knew was that it couldn’t be fiction. On the other hand, I had once been tempted by conversations of corporate power and finance, overheard during a vacation cocktail hour.
So I darned the two threads together, clumsily, with knots, and decided I wanted to write about business. Made conceptual but not actual sense. The only schools with joint business and journalism degrees were Northwestern and Columbia. I applied to both, and flew off to India for three months. As one does, faced with large life changes.
On my return, I found out I’d been accepted to Northwestern, in full, and Columbia, but only at the business school. The man I had met recently and hoped to marry (who became my first husband), would be attending his graduate program on the East Coast. And so I chose to stay close, as one does, when faced with large life changes and no guidance.
Bye bye journalism.
This decision, so casually made, oh, I have a boyfriend and I want to marry that boyfriend, and therefore I’d better not move too far away, has profoundly affected the course of my life. In ways I could never have foreseen. Do I regret it? No. No, I don’t. Even though I’ve realized that my temperament does not align terribly well with corporate structures, I benefited from that fire, a little charred but still breathing.
And I did learn a few things in business school. And, as in any case when one lands on a far planet, sometimes stuff I didn’t expect. As requested:
The 10 Things I Really Learned In Business School
- From Finance. There is a curve called Risk and Return. On average, for a higher return you’re going to have to take a higher risk. Get ready.
- From Management of Organizations. Any group of more than 25 people will develop factions. You are going to have to posit a super-ordinate goal, something that everyone cares about and can work towards together.
- Value propositions, from Marketing. Never go too far into new product development without understanding who is going to want it and why. Figure out how to articulate that, early on. (Business school didn’t teach us how easily people forget they have customers. That we learn later.)
- People in power sometimes reward attitude over performance. Off-curriculum. I took a strategy class that I ate for breakfast, conceptually. The professor gave me a B and when I asked him why he said, “You always acted as though you already knew the ideas and were bored.” He had a point.
- If you’re on a team and the team fails you can’t succeed by doing your part quietly. I took a course in Managing Innovation. The professor liked my work enough that he nominated me as a fellow in the National Something Or Other and sent me to a bigwig conference. I found the agenda the other day, in a box. But come time for the small group final project, my team members dropped the proverbial ball. I did my bit and no more. Again, a B. I didn’t like Bs. I should at least have gone to the professor and told him what was happening.
- Accounting is not English and it’s not math, which makes it easy for those who understand it to fool the rest of us. In other words, large-scale financial chicanery is a given as long as humans are greedy. Expect it. Forever, I think.
- Make your ideas known. That’s how talented people find you. For example, I talked a lot in Management of Organizations. It was about people, after all. At the start of a subsequent class on Competitive Strategy, one of the best in the school, 3 guys I didn’t know approached me and said, “Be on our team. We like how you thought in MO.” But I lacked the necessary course background. Those 3 guys, familiar with the professor, got him to waive the requirements. Best day ever.
- The concept of heuristic solutions. Operations Research revealed that even those good with numbers often guess, and iterating towards an imperfect but improving solution is a legitimate approach. Although data science has advanced since 1983, the lesson that it’s OK to guess at numbers, as long as you detail your assumptions, made all sorts of things possible.
- From Statistics. Numbers draw pictures, and can therefore be understood. Oh the joys of a probability curve.
- All economic systems are made up of very large numbers and very complex interactions. We weren’t close, then, to predicting the stock market or the global economy. I don’t know if we are even now.
What’s the one important thing I didn’t learn in business school?
- You have to learn to fight without bleeding all over the place.
When you first start, all high performance and belief in authority, you’ll do great. You’ll get promoted, fast. Lots of praise and bonuses. But one day you’ll rise high enough in the organization to become a target for someone. Might be an insecure boss, might be an ambitious and unscrupulous subordinate, might be a raging bully of a coworker. But it’s going to happen. They’re coming.
If you bow down and take it, you lose. If you wheedle and placate, you lose. If you speak out too passionately against the injustice, you lose. Learn to fight without spilling blood. At least your own.
It’s a funny thing, really, a thin-skinned ragingly analytical aesthete with an MBA. But oxymorons are us, we humans, and I have found that invention happens at the margins of what you know and what you don’t. Not everyone needs to go so far as to attend graduate school and a forge entire career in alien territory, but I don’t know that sticking firmly in the familiar is better, in the end.
Have a wonderful weekend. No fight required.