Each year, a fresh pack of bright-eyed RCs charge onto campus, overjoyed at the thought of a forthcoming Harvard degree. After 2-4 years of experience, reasonably good GMAT scores, and an anecdote-laden application essays about how a chance encounter with a Bolivian rug merchant changed his outlook on life, our prototypical HBS admit is anxious. He is networking. He is ready to score an almost inevitable job at a top private equity or alternative energy venture capital firm. He’s on top of the world.
Then HBS brings him back to earth. Our school’s pretty great – like college relived with a real ID and an adult’s line of credit. But at a school dedicated to training “leaders who make a difference in the world”, one of our first and most lasting lessons is to keep our egos in check. Here are a few of my favorite humbling business school experiences.
That Guy in Your Section
In every section there’s at least one person who makes everyone else feel bad. For the sake of argument, let’s call that person “Jake.” Let’s make him a guy. And let’s give him a square jaw, a golden tan, and a thousand watt smile. Now you came in thinking you were pretty impressive, but Jake – he’s ridiculous. As he was kind enough to tell you on the first day of class introductions, Jake is a decorated Marine Corp veteran who volunteers his spare time at Big Brothers Big Sisters in Boston. He first realized his passion for business when he found a cure for an obscure mitochondrial disorder while doing his Fulbright research in Colombia and needed a way to commercialize it. After a two-year stint in Goldman Sachs’ pharmaceutical practice, during which time he became the youngest recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Jake applied to business school. Now he’s at HBS and looking to meet each and every one of you individually. He really puts your own achievements in perspective. Well, screw that guy.unless, you know, he’d like to hang out me sometime.
The EC Welcome
The second signal that all was not well in the festooned halls of Aldrich was the “surprise” EC welcome each of our sections received early RC year. One unsuspecting moment you’re chatting carelessly with a classmate about your upcoming weekend in Iceland, and the next a strange group of slightly more disheveled looking students is overhead projecting a Facebook photo of you doing Riverdance for a high school talent show. You thought listing your interests in origami, knitting, and “public speaking” on your Classcard would be a great way to meet friends with similar interests. The ECs thought it offered a fantastic opportunity to highlight the empty “partner” space on the upper right corner of your card. You thought that pre-HBS career call from Bain Adult Entertainment offered an intriguing opportunity to further probe an interesting alternative space. They saw it as an opportunity to record your conversation and air the portions that discussed your “market research” in class. Welcome to Harvard.
For the unsuspecting RC, skydecks seem like a fun and harmless diversion. As explained by the faceless forces of institutional memory, skydecks are the way we here at HBS have fun with each other and enforce classroom norms. The inaugural skydeck presentation is harmless. A few people get lightly scolded with the “Statue of Liberty” or “Email Spam” award. But the jokes are risk-free and funny, and any offense is offset by the fact that HBS students all clap, cheer, and encourage each other. A lot. Over time, however, skydecks become a comedic battlefield. Those not blessed with a balcony seat but certain their jokes are funnier than everyone else’s become envious of the skydeck oligarchs and mutiny – hosting “special” skydeck sessions for every Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and federal holiday. Awards become increasingly intricate. Presentations begin to incorporate makeshift videos and puppet shows. And before the semester is over, people can’t figure out whether it’s worse to be in five straight skydecks or none at all.
Of course, nothing at HBS is as humbling as Mother Nature. When you first arrive in August, Boston’s ideal. The temperature’s warm. A cool breeze is blowing, and the summer sun shimmering on the surface of the Charles sends a Chris Matthews-like shiver up your leg. Then everthing changes. One day in late September, you’re unsuspectingly walking the path between SFP and Spangler when you hear a rustle behind you and notice a Walrus-sized bird waddling toward you and looking at you like you owe her money. You break into a sprint only to end up outrun by a Turkey, squealing like a small child, and wounded in ego and body. Don’t worry, you’re barely identifiable in that cell phone video on Youtube. Things get worse. October brings the dreaded RC-hack. November brings six months of cold that would make Narnia’s White Witch buy a vacation home in Boca Raton. And after slipping on ice six times in your once-hip cowboy boots and turning a pleasant shade of translucent white, you suddenly find yourself lying at home under a fluorescent lamp, wet, cold, and weeping softly over a wrinkled copy of your Stanford acceptance letter. In Boston, winter always wins.
The Job Search
HBS was your ticket to that dream job at Blackstone or Bain Capital – a position that would rocket you to seemingly endless heights and lead to fame, fortune, and glory. Then it wasn’t. Next to mother nature, nothing at HBS is more overtly humbling than the job search. We all came here reveling in the unique opportunity to get an interview at nearly any company in the world. Then Hell Week approached, and we suddenly realized that each company only had 1 or 2 slots to address 900 such unique opportunities, and a little Marketing math told us that maybe our chances weren’t as high as we previously thought. Thirty applications became 5 interviews. Hell Week arrived, and we slapped on our perfectly pressed JoS Bank charcoal suits and spent long evenings rehearsing our career switcher rationales. Huddled non-competitively with 700 of our closest friends and colleagues we sweated it out in crowded Spangler Project rooms and awkwardly arranged Doubletree suites all in hopes of finding a summer position with some company our parents would recognize. Financial crisis, anyone?