If I was eighteen, and clueless about what I wanted to do with my life, I would do business school all over again.
I’m not eighteen anymore, so I would not go back to business school. Not when there are many other ways of learning out there.
1. I’m not fit to give you any business advice
A couple of months ago, a friend of mine headed back to school in a remote community in interior BC. She wrote to me, excitedly about her new surroundings. She was also excited about a business idea she’s had: the campus was set up miles away from the nearest town, so why not start a grocery delivery service for the hungry students? I was the only person she knew with a business degree, so it found me.
I started to write back somewhat vague and non-committal, than I stopped typing, hit the ENTER key, and wrote the following: “The thing is, a business degree is probably the least helpful to someone that wants to start their business, because in business school, all we got trained on was how to service someone else.”
I wrote this to concede that I had little practical advice for her.
I was not wholly clueless when it comes to entrepreneurship – I did get my hands dirty on a business for a couple of years during university, and that has proven to be one of the biggest confidence-booster of my life. But whatever skills I had gained during this time became neutered in a classroom setting.
School trained us to become task-masters, one that is great at driving efficiency, expediency, and a razor-sharp ability to prioritize. We become extremely proficient at functional tasks, but terrible at matters involving creativity and imagination. It takes a smart and able person to answer a question correctly, but a non-conformist to re-phrase the questions posed in the first place. In face of the current crisis, I think that kind of out-of-the-box inquisitiveness might have been helpful.
But perhaps that was the plan all along with business schools and their generous donors. Just like the military, business schools are probably better at training problem solvers instead of thinkers. It didn’t profess to churn out Aristotles that philosophize. Equipped with plenty of discipline and normalized by years of standardized training, we marched into the corporate world. I then got into bed with Excel, let someone else worry about the bottom line, and became a cog.
2. Business school made us masochists
I was a mediocre student at best, struggling to keep up with endless lists of projects, papers, presentations. After four years of hard labor, I barely made it out with honors.
The only subject that I liked was statistics. Not because I was a huge fan of means and standard deviations, but because statistics was the only subject where the exams were open book! All other subjects had exams that required an immense and inexhaustible capacity to memorize and reproduce. Whether they’d be accounting principles and subsequent treatment of business scenarios, or spewing out every piece of marketing jargon that we could to cram into a 30-page exam, or to reproduce mind boggling hedging formulations. Exams were like bulimia for the brains.
The mantra in business school was “work hard, play harder”. It wasn’t until I left school that I found out this was the mantra employed by every other sports team or cultish business organization. Most of us bought the idea wholesale, because work and partying looked so cool in movies, and it worked for a while with coffee slurping and caffeine pills popping.
The type-A success stories graduated to high-rolling careers in banking or consulting. When alumni visited our school, they would boast of working 80, 90, or over 100-hour weeks – because they were so dedicated to their careers and cared so much. We were in awe. They told stories of themselves falling asleep in the shower or taking naps in the bathroom, we thought they were hilarious. Worse yet, most of us thought we could beat that. Because at 22, we were all Superman with complete disregard for our bodies, and working inhumane hours get you a badge of honour.
3. I’m not sure I would trust me with your money
I can’t say it with a straight face anymore. But back then, “maximizing shareholders’ value” was something we strived to put on every slideshow that could fit during case study presentations. If you’ve been to a business school, you know what I’m talking about. It’s nothing to smirk at.
There is a fine line between corporate responsibility and civil responsibility. Sometimes the line is gray and very blurry; other times it is, unfortunately, a zero-sum game. I’m sure all business professors are well aware of the fact, and it must be a struggle to instill business principles into our impressionable mind, without crossing that line of ethics. Because every marketing principle, every tax minimization tactic, and every financial hedging strategy could be turned into something sinister and potentially corrupt in the hands of an ethically ambiguous individual. Give that person a budget to work with, put in some skewed incentive structures, add lax regulation, sprinkle genuine misunderstanding and ignorance of the marketplace, then top it with a 90-hour workweek, is it really any surprise that within the last ten years, we’ve had three severe instances of corporate breach?
The bursting of the tech bubble in the early 2000s was partially blamed on the team of analysts that talked up stocks despite evidence to the contrary. Failing to sniff the trail of accounting misconduct and fueling the speculative frenzy based on investment banking relationships, the stock market wiped out $5 trillion of market value. Everyone had invested in the stock market then, and almost everyone I knew lost money, directly, or indirectly. That includes my college fund.
After 9/11, accounting scandals surrounding Enron and Worldcom, among others, eventually brought down Arthur Andersen, and forced the SEC to examine the relationship between auditors and their consulting branch. We were in school then, and we most definitely did not delight in learning the new rules ordained by Sarbane-Oxley.
Again, the first decade of the 21st century, saw us failing again to learn from neither the speculative hubris of the tech bubble, nor from the accounting fraudulence of the Enron era: banks, lawyers, and accountants had helped to create a debt-induced housing recession. Skeptics that doubted reckless lending practices were either ignored by the authorities, or chided by the mainstream media.
It could’ve been isolated cases of bad apples that got us to where we are today. But it is hard not to see those disastrous endings as results of concerted, if not colluded effort by those in charge. Incentives are a huge part of the problem, and so is the overall framework in place that resulted in the hubris. So it really begs the question from or an ex-business school student: who’s at fault here, the system itself, or the people in charge of the system? And given the system and the opportunity, what would I have done?
4. Where did our sense of humor go?
We all took ourselves so seriously.
We studied separately from the rest of the school. We had our own buildings, and were usually only friends or housemates with people from the business school. We studied in private meeting rooms named after wealthy donors, many of which were heads or former heads of something publicly listed. We held roles in clubs manned exclusively by business students. The air of self-importance, cliqueness, and hierarchy can put Mean Girls in a corner. At 18, we wore our first power suit, trying to walk on heels while looking professional. At 20, we were using various permutations of the word strategy without really understanding what it meant. At 22, some of us had signed on to jobs that made more than our professors, business professors! On some days, it’s a wonder how all our egos could fit in one room.
I’m sure some people had it all figured out, and probably saw the whole thing as one big joke. I was not bright, so I went along for the ride.
5. In pursuit of sustainable careers
Talking about career burn-outs in a big banking firm for a 22-year-old was not unlike talking about hangovers from the best frat party. It sounds painful but the sheer awesomeness of the job, and the doors it would open for you, would makes the pain worthwhile. At the time, the popular roadmap for soon-to-be bankers was to toil as an analyst for two to three years, then leave to get an MBA, or to move on to the buy side.
It occurred to me a while ago that this short-term mindset is hardly the exception among bankers of all ranks and ages. Hardly anyone I know had plans to stick around for the long term at one firm, and nor should they have. But the issue of employee attrition may be the problem behind a genuine disregard of corporate responsibility. Short-term financial incentives begets short-term profiteering behaviour. And when an entire layer of a business is expected to depart after two or three years of sweatshop labour, how realistic is it to expect the firm to create and foster a culture that emphasizes anything long-term? So is it any surprise that a couple of years of record profits were made on backs of unreasonable risk-taking activities? No, because they were offsprings of short-term thinking.
It’s hard to say how much structural changes will really take place as a result of this economic fall-out. Business cycles will most likely continue oscillating in response to economic activities, and careers will be made and then broken. But as business owners, investors, consumers and employees, a longer term, more sustainable way of doing business, of investing, of consuming, and of working, may be a solid way forward.