The school’s mission is to develop leaders who make a difference in the world, and hopefully you too embrace that mission on a very personal level. I am also certain that like the classes before you, you represent the best and brightest in your generation and are full of energy, ambition, talent, brains, and promise backed up by impressive records of accomplishment. But I also wonder if many of the things required of you and taught to you by the educational system to date have not done as good a job at preparing you for the future as might be generally believed. Two recent experiences as well as my own journey and those of my friends have caused me to ponder this question. A very close friend with an unmatched record of executive and creative success in the world of media, film, and television told me his experience in hiring many highly talented young people is that the educational system rewards compliance, obedience, avoidance of risk and the development of a sometimes hollow box checking record of experience. In his view these characteristics are the antithesis of what it takes to succeed in a world that demands leaders, risk takers, people who will challenge the system, creativity that would at the extreme eventually sweep away what previously existed, and sometimes more than a little disobedience. The second message from the great beyond was a book review in the New York Times in mid-August of Excellent Sheep by former Yale faculty member William Deresiewicz where he asserts, according to the reviewer, that we have “spawned a generation of polite, striving, praise addicted…excellent sheep with a lack of curiosity, of interesting rebellion, of moral courage and passionate weirdness.” Pretty strong stuff, and I do not subscribe to his extreme characterizations when it comes to our students. But my experience says the observations of my friend and the experiences and observations Deresiewicz shares are not entirely without merit and are worth considering as you look to the future.
So, what to do? My best advice is to develop as deep self-knowledge as you can and live outside your comfort zone within the bounds of legality, morality and ethical behavior as much as you can. Taking useful and interesting courses taught by an extremely dedicated faculty will happen naturally. You will need to study hard to succeed, but the system has prepared you well for this piece of your journey. The two suggestions of seeking self-knowledge and experiences outside your comfort zone are however things you will need to aggressively initiate and embrace. Why do this? How do you do this? True self knowledge is hard to come by and not always easy to embrace. Our polite, too often superficial praise generating and sometimes overly protective treatment of the young society is geared to build up self-esteem but not offer much in the way of the balanced, sometimes nuanced and absolutely vital to success knowledge of our gaps, unconstructive behavior and how others really see us. We are all a developing mosaic of knowledge, experience, intellect, behavior and aspirations where having only a part of the picture will eventually severely limit our ability to lead, make good judgments, take smart chances and see things that are opaque to others. HBS is the safest environment you will ever have to deeply learn about yourself, and I urge you to take full advantage of the opportunities in the classroom, in exercises and practical experiences and socially to make as much progress as you can. It is a lifelong journey, and being open to and seeking knowledge of your gaps and growth areas is the most important part of the work. You already know you are intelligent, hardworking and have legitimately high aspirations. My experience strongly says more leaders fail to achieve their full potential due to a fundamental lack of self-knowledge than any other single cause. This growth only happens outside your comfort zone. This thought is about risk taking. Risk comes in many guises- physical of the kind often demanded by the military or very demanding sports, financial, reputational, relationship, social embarrassment, fear of failure, and the list goes on. Humans in their DNA tend to be comfort zone seeking creature as a means to survive in a hostile world. This heritage and coding at the deepest level means we must consciously choose to go outside our comfort zone. Here is how you stay in your comfort zone: do not venture a comment with any edge or possibility of being wrong or called out; socialize only with people like you in background, social strata or interests; focus on going right back to the firm, industry or role you recently left; travel to places you know; spend almost all of your time with your family and old friends; do not do anything that makes you need to think about new things, yourself or think in new ways; resist learning those things about yourself that do not reinforce those aspects that you already know are solid; listen to the echo chamber of your political or social issues of interest and do not seek to truly understand the point of view of others, etc. I urge you to resist every one of these tendencies and the almost overwhelmingly strong peer pressure to conform that at this stage in life almost everyone experiences.
Being a leader who makes a difference in the world will take more than a little disobedience, telling of uncomfortable truths, creativity that challenges the system and risk taking that will put your job and maybe fortune and reputation on the line. Take advantage of all we have and you can experience at HBS as a great place to practice, learn, and get ready. No one wants to be an excellent sheep.