What I Should’ve Studied

Every year beginning around this time, I interview high school seniors applying to Penn.

The outcome of these interviews, and my evaluation of them, have almost zero correlation to whether the candidate is eventually admitted.  Out of the 5-7 ‘highest recommendations’ I’ve made during the course of 50+ interviews, 0 have gotten in.  Conversely, only the candidates who I felt were mediocre were admitted.

Either the kids are lying to me (I don’t see their application, resume, essays, etc.), I suck at conveying ideas in written form, or the college admissions game is so complex that those who are admitted, get in on the basis of luck: i.e., some weird interaction between certain of their traits and the traits the admissions office is looking for.

Anyway, that’s not the point of the post.  The point is that many of them ask me about my experience at the school, what I studied, what I would recommend, etc.

My view on this has really been influenced by the fact that over the last 15 years, much of what I learned has either been pushed aside as obsolete, or completely demolished during the financial crisis and its aftermath.  International and development economics, macroeconomics, marketing, management, etc., have not held up well – or at all – in the face of unprecedented worldwide central bank actions, a Chinese economy that defies all the principles we learned, social media, new tech businesses, remote workforces, etc.

Later on, I went to Haas to get my MBA, partially motivated by the desire to try to figure out what happened during the financial crisis.  The only thing I was able to conclude was that no one really knows anything.  And that my internship was at a company whose stock price is down 90% in the last few years, because its model – and model of the world it was operating on – was fundamentally flawed.

So what does that mean?

With the benefit of hindsight, which is of course an unfair advantage, I would have focused less on the Wharton “technical” courses purporting to teach us about the business world.  There’s no way to “learn business” except by working, or building a business.  What you can actually study in business school that’s maybe useful is:

  • The principles of finance – just a single 101 class might do.  All of finance is based on the concept of discounting and Net Present Value, that’s it.
  • An accounting class.  This is the language of business and besides NPV (above), the only concept of business that’s stood the test of time.
  • Taking some sort of class or seminar, if it exists, to tie the above together using Microsoft Excel.
  • Picking up some legal knowledge or framework for the jurisdiction you’ll end up working in, is useful.  I’m always astounded by how much interaction with the law we have, with so little understanding of it.

That’s all.

In retrospect, that’s what I would teach in business school because that’s all that’s stuck with me, even after going to business school twice.  Wharton in general is almost a vocational school for the banking and consulting industries, and while as a result the curriculum was very current (trendy?), there’s definitely a shelf life on “technical” stuff.

Instead, I would have spent the rest of my classes loading up on more liberal arts, instead of feeling guilty about it being a waste.  I should have taken more classes in philosophy, history, psychology, politics, anthropology, languages.

Topics that have existed for thousands of years, with thousands of years of documentation and history, and will last for thousands of years longer (see: Lindy effect, Taleb).  Understanding the patterns of history that rise over and over again, learning rhetorical and debate tactics (arts of persuasion), studying and refining communication skills in English and other languages (including computer-based ones), learning how humans think and behave, refining my own thought processes and rationality, studying great ideas to serve as a framework for my own thinking.  And sprinkling in random classes to be exposed to perspectives completely foreign and new – because adults, how often do we actually do this in life?

Maybe this is a middle-aged man speaking.  But to anyone who asks, that’s what I advise.

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