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An Investigatory Report: Ahead of the Curve-A Current Student's Assesment

By now I’m sure most of you have heard about Ahead of the Curve. I assume OH weren’t the only section where reviews in the Wall Street Journal and The Economist prompted a flurry of emails from even the most over-worked of summer I-banking interns, and within a few days of publication I had also been interrogated by an elderly neighbor in my apartment building, and over a recruiting lunch, as to my thoughts on the book.

For those of you who missed out on this, Philip Delves Broughton, HBS class of 2006, has authored a book about his HBS experience and (cue gasps of amazement all round), it wasn’t all about what an amazing place this is. He talks about section life, his job search, the cases and the professors teaching them, and generally provides a very detailed insight into what goes on during 2 years within these hallowed walls.

Egged on by reviews in several newspapers and magazines and jibes from co-workers, the book has been met by howls of outrage by both current students and alum (and apparently the administration as well). Unfortunately most of these complaints paint an unfair picture of both the author and his views of the school.

Here is a run-down of some of the most popular criticisms that I’ve come across:
“Well I’ve not actually read the book, but it is clear from the reviews that the whole book is just a hatchet job on HBS”

Now, I don’t want to be the person to reveal that Santa doesn’t exist, but actually book reviews aim to entertain, and aren’t always written in an entirely unbiased manner. In reality if you go and read the book you’ll find that the reviews did a great job of pulling out ALL of the most damning quotes from the entire book. The Wall Street Journal does at least recognize that there is praise for HBS in the book as well, but this is brushed aside as the author succumbing to “Stockholm Syndrome”, which says plenty about the reviewer’s opinion of HBS and the likelihood of him providing an objective assessment of the book.

At the same time, I find it hard to believe the author couldn’t have revealed more scandalous, or outrageous behavior if he really had wanted to cause a stir. His description of Priscilla makes it sound far tamer than my (admittedly vague) memories of that night, and I would be truly shocked if a “booze luge” was really the most debauched event that took place at a section party during his time here. Even when criticizing aspects of the academic life, such as the LEAD Best Self exercise (something which, let’s face it 90% of us hated), he admits to seeing a point to the exercise after its completion.

“It is outrageous to be making money out of his experience at HBS, this is meant to be a safe learning environment, not a place where someone could be taking notes on everything that is being said and done at all time”
Fair enough. If the Class of 2010 really isn’t going to be willing to speak their mind in class because of a fear of appearing in print a few years down the line, then I can see that this is a valid point, but in reality I can’t see a huge amount of appetite in the market for another HBS expose, and more importantly the author hasn’t used real names anyway. Presumably his section and a few others can figure out who the protagonists are, but none of this would be a surprise to them anyway.

And on the accusations of the impropriety of how he is making his money I just have two words; Private Equity.

“His is not a representative experience; he didn’t have any friends and didn’t get a job at the end of it. The book is just the ranting of one disillusioned individual which is a completely unfair representation of life at HBS”

Despite the author adding the disclaimer in the preface that the book is indeed the view of just one person, this is probably the most valid of all the criticisms I’ve heard leveled at the book. For those of you who are truly in the middle of being “transformed” by your experience at HBS, I can see why you might hold this view; how could he not be lavishing this place with praise?

Unfortunately, it is time to reveal another dirty little secret: there are actually a lot of us out there who feel the way the author does about his HBS experience. We are completely valuing our time here and wouldn’t wish to be doing anything different, but particularly for those of us who are older, maybe have a significant other that we live with, and potentially are international students, the HBS experience isn’t everything that it is hyped up to be by the website / survival guide / section chairs.

Like the author we are learning a huge amount, making some great friends, and aren’t regretting our decision to come to HBS in the slightest, but we aren’t being transformed, haven’t figured out the master plan for a happy life in the years ahead, and are still basically the same people who walked through the doors at the start of our RC year. When that is the case, and the expectations of the HBS experience are set as high as they are, it is inevitable that there will be some feeling of disillusionment, and any report of life here isn’t going to be only singing the place’s praises.

Even if the above doesn’t represent your feelings about HBS, some of his observations are undeniably accurate. His description of a section discussion about bathroom breaks was the EXACT same conversation that my section had, and I suspect most of us share his mixture of admiration at the efforts of the administration and frustration at their tendency to treat the students as kids. Even some of his more opinionated statements ring very true; his view of HBS as having “two modes, deadly serious and frat boy, with little in between” is as nice a summary of the HBS atmosphere as I have heard.

However, when it comes down to it, this isn’t a particularly good book. The author has tried to accomplish a number of things at once with the book, but in the process has achieved none. As should be clear from above it really isn’t an HBS hatchet job, and at most could be seen as a mild critique of business education in general and HBS in particular, which is something with a presumably relatively limited audience.

At the same time though it reads as if he is aiming for a sort of Bill Bryson or David Sedaris style self-deprecatingly humorous view of a strange situation in which he found himself, but to be quite frank he isn’t funny enough to pull this off.

Finally, an entire chapter on Beta, plus considerable detail on a number of the RC courses suggests he sees the book as in some way a management education primer, but while it does nicely summarize some of the key learnings of 2 years at HBS, the business lessons get lost amongst his thoughts on HBS life, and prolonged job search. These sections have the added downside of acting as a complete spoiler for anyone who reads the book for anyone who comes to HBS after reading it as they give away the “answer” to several of the classic RC cases.

While the author manages to pull off this mixture reasonably well for the first half of the book, as he reaches the description of his EC year the business lessons become less neat and concise, the life observations become less pithy.

September 8, 2008
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