Humor, Opinion

Dear Harby: The Advice Column for MBAs

Harby, Satirical Advice Columnist


Dear Harby,

I have a section-mate who is the consummate quiet talker and I can never understand her. Despite my strenuous use of hand signals that my section has implemented to inform people when they should speak louder in class, she never does – in fact, she seems to enjoy brushing the class’s concerns aside as she whispers along.

I find this incredibly annoying and am worried that it is hurting the section dynamic. Should I bring it up to her in person?

– Inaudible in Aldrich

Dear Inaudible,

Although your classmate may not see it this way, using the proper speaking volume during class discussion is not just an issue of section norms, it is a matter of respect. The case method depends upon a vibrant classroom discussion in which students can respond to and build upon one another’s comments. Or at least that’s what’s advertised in the admissions materials.

Each of us are giving up a lot to be at HBS – in terms of tuition bills, foregone salary, underwhelming lunch options, and deferred life events like marriage and childbirth. We owe it to one another to do everything we can to avoid taking away from the HBS experience. That means being fully present in class even when you’re dragging from an evening at the Kong, mindful of airtime even when you are dying to let everyone know the depths of your insight on a particular topic, and fully intelligible with comments even if your spirit animal is the church mouse.

Your section signals are meant to fix an information problem (i.e. people don’t know they are being quiet as the speak). But it sounds like your classmate knows she’s hard to hear and perhaps resents being called out. Sheryl, it’s time to lean-out. Further signaling to her probably won’t help and will only build resentment.

Let’s take a page out of the FIELD module on giving direct in-person feedback. After class you should approach your gentle-talker and say (disingenuously, if necessary), “I was really interested in your comment today but from my seat I had a hard time hearing you. Would you mind repeating it?” After she responds, you can zone back in and say, “You know, I wish I could have heard and responded to that in the moment. Would you mind speaking louder?” The voice comes from the diaphragm, but intransigence comes from un-stroked egos.

Hearing your pain,

Dear Harby,

I have an important date coming up with a non-HBS girl I really like and I need some fashion advice – is it too much if I wear my section vest?

– Cold in Cambridge

Dear Cold,

I’m glad you wrote me, and I think I can help. You see, there are two problems here: 1) you want to wear a vest on a date, and 2) you want to wear HBS swag on a date. Let’s explore both in greater detail.

  1. A vest is a great piece of clothing for two kinds of people: those without arms, and those who need a full range of motion for their arms — like a gladiator, or a baseball pitcher. You are neither. Wearing a vest in public will impress her if your g
    oal is to demonstrate a complete lack of fashion sense, or to highlight your lack of arms. Since I assume you have arms, I’ll go with the former, which means you have no fashion sense. Here is my advice for vests: pick a warm restaurant and wear a button-down like a grown up.
  1. Do you know how to tell if someone went to HBS? They will tell you in the first sentence, or they will plaster it on their black Patagonia outerwear. If your goal is to get your date to shove a butter knife through her eardrums to prevent hearing you mention HBS one more time, you are on the right track. If you goal is a second date, my advice would be the following: leave the HBS clothing at home.  The date should be about her, not how awesome you are at making terrible fashion decisions.

In-vested in your success,

Dear Harby,

My discussion group this fall was best in class. We were always punctual, everyone was usually very prepared for the cases, and we even spent a fair amount of time each morning getting to know one another. Everyone really clicked and want to continue meeting each morning in the spring. There is just one problem. I would really much rather just sleep in. Help me, Harby. How should I break up with them?

– Selfish in Spangler

Dear Selfish,

Are you sure you want to break up with your discussion group? Break ups aren’t fun and are often regretted. Like most students who jumped the gun on the turkey drop only to find out that business school students are just a balder and paler version of undergrads, I’m not sure you’re fully recognizing the benefits of your discussion group. And remember, like most of us in our late twenties/early thirties, there is no shame in settling for “good enough” – just look at all the students enrolled at Wharton.

Discussion groups are so much more than just discussing cases. It’s about trying to instill the values of community service in private-equity bros through tutoring their hapless fellow students as they realize all their time in consulting was essentially color by numbers in Powerpoint. It’s about socializing the Ibiza crowd so they can learn how to politely chat with losers for an hour each morning. It’s about the LatAm students being able to practice their English through immersion education, rather than simply retreating to “una otra fiesta” funded by the Gatsby party. It’s about finding three positive things to say about the mousy girl whose voice you’ve only been pretending to be able to hear amidst the din of the Spangler dining hall.

Would you really want to give all that up? For what, sleep? This school isn’t designed for sleep. In fact, most of the construction on campus is really just to wake people up in the morning. You’ll notice that Klarman Hall is just digging and refilling a hole back and forth with the loudest instruments possible. Let’s be honest, if you really valued sleep you would have gone to the Graduate School of Design, otherwise known as the Hufflepuff of Harvard. This is Harvard Business School. We are Slytherin. Sleep is for losers and coffee is for closers. So wake up and smell the Spangler “coffee” –  before you wake up one day and find yourself at a boutique consulting firm.

The rest is up to you,


Harby is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated MBA advice columnist and the author of such bestsellers as Teaching Your Dog How to DCF and The Seven People You Meet at the Boston Doubletree. Want some advice from Harby? Email your question to

February 9, 2017

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