Law and pre-law students, and lawyers, might find many valuable perspectives in Philip Delves Broughton’s detailed, critical, and sometimes-irreverent account, Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School (2008).
Although Delves’s professors appear to have focused on legal issues only sparingly, the book illuminates the education of a lawyer’s potential clients; provides instructive comparisons with, and contrasts to, traditional practices of legal education; and (directly contradicting a classic movie line), offers advice not only for the reader’s professional career but also for her personal life.
In 1854, Thoreau famously wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
One hundred and fifty years later, Broughton entered “HBS,” about fifteen miles away from Thoreau’s Walden Pond. After a decade in journalism, he wanted “to learn about business in order to gain control of my own financial fate, and more important, my time,” and to pursue “greater knowledge about the workings of the world and broader choices about the life I might lead.”
Without revealing the author’s post-graduation opportunities (although his series of job interviews are carefully described), it can be said that the book’s themes and “takeaways” include:
● The immersive nature of the business school experience, and its similarities to the process of learning a new language.
● Defining and refining one’s short-term and long-term purposes, and maintaining one’s individuality and ethics, while resisting peer pressure and the urge to compare oneself to others. (Broughton includes a particularly entertaining discussion of the personality tests that he and his classmates were required to take.)
● The division, as in law schools, of entering classes into equal sections, the members of which take most, if not all, of their first year classes together, and gradually develop their own classroom and extracurricular cultures.
● The degree to which much of the author’s HBS education came not in the classroom but from discussions—often about defining “selling out” or finding the appropriate work/life balance—with his diverse group of classmates, a number of whom had come to the school from other countries and/or had business or military experience. (“I was developing a soft spot for the ex-military guys. They were refreshingly sane.”)
● On a different level, the importance to some businesses of a local community of complementary (and in some cases competing) firms, such as in the economic ecosystems of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
● The business school’s “case studies,” which—though adapted from law schools’ Socratic discussions of court decisions—instead involve faculty-written descriptions, “from a couple of pages to more than thirty,” of “business situations drawn from real life. The question you are expected to answer in each one is, What would you do? There are no right or wrong answers to these problems. . . . The only thing that matters is how you think about the problems, how you deal with the paucity of information, the uncertainty.”
● The degree—extreme, by law school standards—to which class participation counts in the grading of first-year courses: “Fifty percent of our grade would be determined by. . . the quality and frequency of our comments,” predictably resulting in a “battle for classroom air time.”
● The questions–increasingly being considered by law schools—of whether, and how, leadership, including motivational skills, can be systematically and objectively defined and taught. (“The word leadership lurked in every corner of HBS.”)
● More generally, the extent to which complex concepts and systems can be reduced to formulas or diagrams.
● The clarification and codification of decision-making processes; and, the possible perils of prolonged profits-only thinking. (“This was why people hated MBAs. Too much cost-benefit analysis, too little humanity. . . However technically correct an analysis might be, it could also be too rational. Achieving the balance between reason and emotion would never cease to be a challenge.”)
● The crucial, but nonformulaic, role of personal reputation, chemistry, and connections in business success. (“The financial system turns on personalities as much as anything else.”)
(In one episode of AMC’s Mad Men, the head of a 1960s-era advertising agency dressed down a young account manager who had alienated a major client: “I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you that half the time, this business comes down to, ‘I don’t like that guy!’” In another episode, that account manager memorably answered an academic’s condescending query, “What do you do every day?”)
● Student stress, including the ever-present FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Broughton reports that his class was repeatedly advised by HBS administrators that “You had to choose exactly what you wanted to do and do it without fretting about what else was going on.”
● The definition, and process, of valuation—of an asset, a business, an opportunity, and a person (including oneself).
● How to define, obtain, and maintain a competitive advantage, as a professional businessperson and for one’s business(es).
● The definition, measurement, and appropriate levels of uncertainty and of risk.
● The roles of, and requirements for, entrepreneurs. (“The HBS definition of ‘entrepreneurship’ was ‘the relentless pursuit of opportunity beyond resources currently controlled.’”)
Broughton discusses the extracurricular lessons of his own attempt, with a classmate, to obtain venture capital funding to “create a website that would be a supermarket of audio content.”
● As recommended by one of the HBS faculty (and in my book on law school), gauging, or demonstrating, one’s mastery of a subject by one’s ability to explain it to someone with no background in the area.
● Deep focus and constant attention to details, and a relentless search for innovations. Broughton identifies the “crux” of the Advanced Competitive Strategy course as, “Most ideas are pretty good ones. It all comes down to execution, staying alert, paying attention.” (Or, as poet Jane Hirshfield summarized Zen: “Everything changes. Everything is connected. Pay attention.”)
● An early anecdote, presented by one of the faculty:
“[A]n MBA student [was] arguing with someone in the HBS administration. As tempers rose, the student burst out, ‘Why are you treating me like this? I’m the customer, goddamnit.’ ‘No, you’re not,’ said the HBS employee. ‘You’re the product.’”
(The speaker concluded, to the class: “I guess you’re somewhere between. . . . Sometimes you’re the customer, other times you’ll feel like the product.”)
● Among the most fascinating features of Broughton’s book are his summaries of the variety of life advice (including, “return calls and e-mails in a timely way”) provided to his class by the HBS faculty and by notable (and named) businesspeople; the reflections of some of his classmates, a year after graduation; and his recommendations for improving the school. But perhaps the book’s single best line is the author’s response to his wife’s characterization of some of his classmates as “freaks”:
“I know, I know. . . I’m just worried that if I stop recognizing the freaks, I’ll become one of them.”