Lesson 1: Well, if I’ve learned anything this semester, the universal answer is: it depends! And it’s a non-trivial answer, too. The point is that most of the time there are no right answers (although there usually are a few clearly wrong ones). You just got to learn to defend your own version of the “it depends” answer. And, once you realize that “your” answer is not the only right one, you have to stop yourself from defending it with the righteousness of the all-knowing guru. At the same time, as few answers are clearly wrong, you can keep being “right” almost all of the time as long as you have the patience and stamina to argue your position. Is it worth it, though? Well, it depends!
Lesson 2: On a more serious note, I’ve learned that life is not efficient. Nothing is entirely efficient, plain and simple. Markets are not efficient, contrary to what the efficient market hypothesis tells you. That’s why all the hedge funds proliferate. US companies are hugely inefficient, which is why good leadership matters – smart leaders have a chance to make a huge difference, picking the better shades of the “it depends” solutions. Foreign companies are even less efficient (yes, even the Japanese ones) – for example, in most industrialized countries most employees are unionized, making employers bound by strict rules and not getting optimal performance. I am not efficient – now, with Wharton, and constant work-related travel, and moving to a new apartment, I get about 10 times more done than I did just 3 months ago. And yet I have some free time left to…, well, we’ll leave that for another post.
Lesson 3: The good news is that it’s great – if life were efficient it would be hopelessly boring. But it’s not, so smart people armed with good tools can still make gazillions on the stock market, if they do their work right; fundamental analysis of companies still matters; learning to be a good leader makes sense because you do get a chance to make a real difference; presidential elections do matter; and I can manage to do even more stuff if I do decide to take it on.
Lesson 4: Understanding the art and science of business does make total sense to me now. Who would’ve thought? (The critically minded would say that this is just the cognitive dissonance working) Just as one is well served to get a BS in computer science to become a good software architect, even though one could program with just a college degree, so, too, getting a formal education in business administration cannot but help one in becoming a better manager. Even after just 3 courses, I feel I’ve learned quite a few useful tools: accounting for reading and understanding financial statements and financial scandals; microeconomics for thinking about market structure, pricing schemes, and marginal returns; management for having a framework for thinking through the management of people issues. But, more importantly, I’ve been trained to think about the approaches to different business issues, been introduced to countless examples from contemporary business life, and have learned to stretch my own resources further than I thought they could go.
Lesson 5: What do I want be when I grow up? I am learning more about myself through this program and am finding out that either I’ve changed quite a bit or that I haven’t listened to my self before. What I seem to like is teaching, writing, consulting, and traveling. With some people management to make it all work out. Apparently, the analytical side of me, though still there, seems much less important and the engineering/analytical problems are much less exciting. Now I just need to find something to teach, write about and consult on, traveling around the world while doing so. ;-)
One last thought – I have also been humbled quite a bit. At MIT we always used to say, condescendingly, “there are plenty of stupid people here.” The fact that some people proudly wore a T-shirt proudly displaying SPAMIT, which stood for Stupid People At MIT, did not help matters. Well, I can honestly say that I have not yet been able to identify any stupid people among my 115-person Wharton class. Maybe they just keep a low profile? All of us work full time (which means between 30 and 80 hour work weeks), over half have kids, every weekend we get one or two new happy Dads (one of them had twins) and one of the students is an expecting mother. Many people do not have an engineering/math background, which is a bit of a problem for econ; others are just plain old – over 10% are over 40. Given that my work commitment is usually on the low end of the spectrum and that I am not expecting kids in the next couple of years, I already feel like I am cheating a bit, taking the easy way. And yet, this first semester has not at all been easy. Looking on the bright side, these folks seem to prove that there is life after 40, careers are possible even with 4 kids, and the techy/non-techy distinction is just in our minds.
A friend of mine used to start each of his emails to me by an appropriate poetic verse. Lacking such erudition, I will have to close with my own much less eloquent quote: thank you for accompanying me on this journey, and I hope that you found a few of the stories entertaining and one or two – thought-provoking. A bit too much pathos for my taste, but it’ll have to do for now.