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The End of the Affair

About eighteen months ago I fell in love. It wasn’t love at first sight: on the contrary it followed a long and tumultuous courtship, and I entered into it with a healthy dose of British cynicism. I wasn’t expecting to fall for HBS. I hadn’t even really intended to do an MBA. I had been very happy with my life in London and really wasn’t sure about having to deal with two years of American happy-clappy over-enthusiasm and meaningless business jargon. I had quite enough of that at Bain, thank you very much.

It’s often the strangest little things that make you fall in love: the first truly spontaneous applause in class after a tough cold call; my learning team feeding me chocolate at seven thirty in the morning when they knew I was having a rough time; my section giving our TOM Professor a box of giant chalk because his handwriting was too tiny to see on the chalk board. It was hard to keep the sarcastic, cynical facade completely solid in the face of a classmate telling me how their parents cried when they got in, and once I started to crack the combination of hope and history, HBS got to me and I began to appreciate what an amazing opportunity I had.

I must also admit to owing some of my emotional about-face to that perennial love potion: alcohol. There were some really good parties that first semester.

My rose-tinted spectacles began to slip pretty quickly, however, and I wasn’t blind to the negative side of HBS, but when you’re in love you learn to look past the faults, or at least learn to live with them.

I saw my classmates huffing and puffing their way indignantly through LCA, and at the same time marvelled at how blithely everyone talked about emailing around case write-ups in blatant violation of the HBS Community Standards. Is it really OK just because everybody else is doing it? OK, it may be a grey area in terms of what is expressly forbidden, but hadn’t we all just spent the Enron case discussing how much more important it was to adhere to the spirit, rather than the letter, of the law?

I also heard stories about various sections which, far from the HBS ideal of cosy, supportive unity, were splintering into self-important cliques, stifling each other’s freedom of speech with paralysing politically correct group norms and causing many people to mentally check out.

I realized that however many student committees I joined, the two-year course cycle meant that the administration could always just wait it out instead of addressing our concerns, and that general student apathy usually won out against our instinctive type-A perfectionism.

The HBS experience is far from idyllic for many people, and I feel that maybe I was luckier than most. After the summer several people I cared about did not return to school, this semester there was an incident of cheating (although that mainly left me baffled as to whether eavesdropping on an earlier section of your class would really be worth the effort) and I saw several people being blatantly and cruelly socially ostracised. The school is ultimately just a group of people, after all, and other people can be hell.

I didn’t fall out of love all at once, but when I started to see HBS with both the highlights and the flaws, the romance was definitely over.

At this stage of my relationship with HBS, however, I was just too comfortable to change things. It wasn’t perfect, but I’d put down roots. My friendships here, always the thing that people told me I would appreciate most, became the really positive side of my HBS experience. I also started valuing some of my courses out of genuine intellectual curiosity, and wishing I had time to delve deeper into all of the interesting tangents thrown out in class. The HBS experience may not have been the knight in shining armor that I’d thought it might be, and, like many love affairs, it wasn’t going to last forever, but it was probably the best way I could imagine spending the last eighteen months.

It is a wrench leaving this place physically: just as when you break up with someone you lose the touchpoints for a lot of shared memories; leaving HBS means I won’t be walking past reminders of happy times on a daily basis. No more will I have a smile brought to my face walking past my RC classroom, or the project room in Spangler where I pulled a crazy all-nighter, or be able to sit in the Grille and remember late-night chats over a glass of wine the night before a final. I’m sad to be leaving the comfortable familiarity, the shared jokes and the protective atmosphere of solidarity, but this love affair has run its course.

So, good-bye HBS. It’s been fun, but it’s time for me to move on. It’s not you, it’s me, and I hope we can still be friends.

Luckily for me, I’m off to fresh pastures, and this time I think it might be the real thing: my new love has a sunny disposition, is a complete tech geek and shares my love of fine wine. I’m off to start a whole new love affair with a city called San Francisco.

May 5, 2008
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