A review from an HBS employee…

I’ve taken a lot of grief from Harvard Business School over my book Ahead of the Curve. Threatening letters, personal insults…all to be expected when you “moon a giant”, as business strategists like to say. So it was interesting to come across this review posted on Goodreads, by a current employee at HBS, called Adam. I’ve added my reaction at the end.

If I didn’t work at HBS I wouldn’t have touched this book with a 10 foot pole. But I do work at HBS and I know many of the players mentioned in this book and I was there for the stir this book created when it was released. Needless to say the institution was less than thrilled. However, I found the narrator, whose writing a memoir of his experience as a HBS student, very credible and honest. He’s willing to admit his own flaws and his own struggles as much as he is willing to expose the perceived fault of his classmates, teachers and ultimately the institution that is HBS. I also felt a tinge of self defense as it feels like he’s trying to prove to someone how much he learned in business school. Perhaps it is his classmates who took high paying jobs after graduation while he struggled to find work, clearly an embarrassment for him. Or perhaps it was the faculty or his family or his former journalism colleagues. I’m not sure who it is but his description of the subject matter of the classes, the hard core business principles, felt to me like he needed to show that the experience was worthwhile.

If you read this book you must do so with an understanding of the lens through which this person saw HBS, a 30+ married father (with 2 kids by the time he graduates from the 2 year program) who left a journalism career of significant substance at the London Telegraph to attend business school. This lens is much different than that of a 26 year old who enrolls in HBS after a few year working on Wall St. There is clearly a clash of world views within the classroom at HBS and he certainly falls in the minority as he is surrounded by younger, less mature peers who are closer to their halcyon college days and aren’t afraid to act that way. Being a little older prove a challenge when surrounded by the hunger and drive of younger peers who are striving to earn enormous salaries out of the gate.

Also involved in the clash of world views is the idea of “selling out”, sacrificing your personal life to make huge money. This is probably the true crux of the book. Despite countless CEO’s and Alumni who come into the classroom and stress the idea of protecting your personal life because the money that big business offers is not worth the sacrifice of not watching your kids grow up, many of the students at HBS ignore the warnings and head for the high salaries anyway. This life couldn’t be painted clearer to the students yet most head off to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars and to 90 hour work weeks anyway. This theme came up again and again and the author clearly fell in the minority as he struggled to find a path that would allow him to use the business education he was getting while also being a visible father and husband.

By the end he realizes it is one or the other, commitment to family and personal life or commitment to career; it can’t be both. How much HBS creates and cultivates the culture of selling out is up to us to decide? The author clearly feels one way. His younger peers likly feel another way. I’m not sure HBS does anything more than provide a means by which the students can reach the goals they set out to reach in the first place. It seems that no matter how much you tell them that wealth does not provide the ideal lifestyle they think it does, they still are going to lead their lives toward it anyway. HBS simply brings out in them their best by pushing them and allowing them to live up to their potential.

The true irony to me is that HBS is a wonderful place to work. Employees are encouraged to find a work-life balance that works for them. In fact, resources are available to HBS employees to facilitate the work-life balance. So while many of the students in the classroom shun this balance for money despite being warned about the sacrifices they will be forced to make, the staff that supports the institution itself is actually encouraged to find and sustain it.”

I think this is pretty fair. And thoughtful. The one point I’d argue with his is speculation as to why I explain “hard core business principles” in the book. It isn’t because I’m trying to prove anything to anyone. It was my publisher’s suggestion, in fact. Many readers won’t be familiar with much of this stuff and it helps to explain what we’re actually learning at HBS. We wanted the book to be informative as well as entertaining. That’s all. HBS and its proxies have attributed an awful lot of false motivations to me: I’m bitter, miserable, jealous, vindictive, trying to prove something. I think this says something about how HBS sees the world. Readers with no connection to the school or ambition to attend it, see none of this. They see the book in cleaner terms, one man’s attempt to explain some realities of the business world, both happy and less happy.

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