What I’ve learned

9, January 2014

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So as I await the start of another ten hour session of persuasion, on a lovely 15 degree morning, it dawns on me that tomorrow will represent the exact half way point of my Kennedy School experience. It is going soooo fast! As I look back on my expectations, I realize that as expected I had some of it right and a lot of it wrong.

So some of the simple stuff. I had forgotten that when you are in school, your work is never done. You can always do more. Of course, once you overcome your guilty conscience (assuming u have one) and realize that you will never be asked about your grades you get over this. I will admit this, in the summer when I thought that going back to school would be easy compared to a job, I was WRONG!!! I really don’t understand how some of my classmates balance school, family, and work.

So some of the more interesting takeaways. The reason to attend the Kennedy School is not really for what you will learn from the professors. It is for what you will learn from your classmates incredible and diverse experiences. Whether it’s about being on the ground in Afghanistan or Somalia with an NGO or the military, negotiating arms control deals so well that you get Knighted by the Queen, or being in Tehrir Square as part of the Arab Spring, the experiences that get shared enlighten and broaden us all.

One interesting dynamic is that we have a large group of shall I say younger people here. They make some fascinating observations. My favorite so far is, “There’s no racism in America anymore”. This came from a 23 year old Masters candidate. I wish that all of you had been there to see the reaction. While some of the younger people have a bit less perspective than us old folk, there is no denying their intelligence and passion. They bring a different perspective and new ideas. I realize that I need to listen to them too.

I used to complain that all of the smart people work in finance and that this is a huge misallocation of resources. At HKS I have found out nothing can be further from the truth. There is a surplus of brilliant, experienced people in this program. They come from all walks of life, different nations, different experiences. I have come to learn and understand that MY role was the simple and less complex one. Those of us in finance always believe that we are smart and that we negotiate complex environments. The reality is that motives, incentive, and players are almost always transparent in finance. Not to mention that there is never any risk other than you will lose someone else’s money. Tell that to anyone who has served in the military or worked in an inner city non-profit!!!

As someone who has travelled to over fifty countries, I always felt that I had a good understanding of cultural differences and that I was sensitive to them. Nonsense!!! Being in a program where 2/3 of your classmates are not American (or English for that matter) is eye opening. Take this for example. Those of us who are White American Males are programmed in a couple of ways. First, we feel that we should share ALL of our thoughts in a classroom setting no matter how ill formed (ok at least I do). Secondly, at any time when there is a vacuum of leadership, even for a minute, a White American Male is likely to rush to fill the void. Given that White American Males are about 20% of the class this results in a huge over representation of American views. Now imagine that you are from Asia where cultural norms are different (listen more than speak), or you are an African Woman and speaking your mind could actually place you in physical peril!!!! This means that we all have to listen closely to our non-American counterparts and encourage them to speak their minds as much if not more than we do. To not do so would be a huge missed opportunity for us all.

I tend to be quite passionate about my views on just about everything. So much so that I frequently commit the error of not understanding how ANYONE could disagree with me. In so many conversations here I see that everyone is passionate about what they believe (Brian H.). Even people whose ideas are diametrically opposed to mine believe in them fervently for completely rational reasons. I need to listen to everyone, at least a little bit. Then theres the personal stuff Ive learned about myself. I am finally convinced that process does matter. Yes I’ve been told this for at least the past 45 years and I’ve largely ignored it. I like winging it. But one of my vows is that I will no longer wing it. I will prepare for conversations, presentations, etc. I will also listen. Both Kim and Andrew will be pleased!!!

My favorite class so far has been Religion and Politics in America which was taught by a Jesuit. I have some very strong, long held beliefs about organized religion. All of them are negative! What Father Hehir made me think about is the role of religion as a counterbalance to other forces in our civil life. The way in which he moved my thought process is fodder for another day. Oh and one more thing, it’s not that I have a mistrust of organized religion. Its that I have a fundamental mistrust of large institutions in general. The imbalance of power between institutions and individuals represents a fundamental threat to our way of life. We need to find a way to restore the balance.

So what does this all mean? Im not sure. I still haven’t decided whats next although I’ve eliminated a few things. What I do know is that the world is full of issues to work on and amazing people to work with. The bottom line….listen, prepare and for god sakes, DO SOMETHING!

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