“70% of business school revolves around memorizing frameworks and acronyms which all MBAs privately believe are useless. Publicly admitting they are useless would force all MBAs to admit that a large percentage of their education was without value. Thankfully, most do a quick SWAG (scientific wild ass guess--seriously) and decide to keep shut about it.”
Jacob Stern was a keenly observant business school student too young to be jaded and too old to ignore ambition. He was, in his words, “too smart for his own good.” Consequently, he spent the better half of business school questioning the value of business school. Luckily for us, he kept good notes. “By the end of my first year, I had learned that most of my experience followed Pareto’s Law.”
Pareto’s Law states that 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort. Named for a lazy economist who only finished 20% of his research papers, this “law” never had enough evidence to call itself a “law,” but Pareto had a pretty good marketing team, and thus put all questions to rest.
Jacob admitted, “I must have learned Pareto’s Law from one of the 20% of classes that were actually useful. But I don’t begrudge the other 80%; without those experiences, I wouldn’t have sought out entrepreneurship, and wouldn’t have co-founded Tootly.” Stern’s old notes on the 80% demonstrate the frustrations that led to his unorthodox path.
Microeconomics: Taught by a professor supremely confident about their understanding of the world. Typically proven wrong every 10 years, but never in the classroom.
Macroeconomics: Taught by a professor supremely unsure about their understanding of the world. Typically proven wrong every 10 minutes, usually in the classroom.
Accounting: Criminally boring but universally regarded as important. Appeals to the perfectionist who demands compliance in their business dealings. Or the maverick who exploits accounting’s mile-wide holes. Both will likely be indicted in some sort of accounting fraud in the future, thanks to Sarbanes-Oxley, making the entire idea of becoming an accounting expert a lose-lose proposition.
Financial Markets: Where Microeconomics and Macroeconomics are distilled into supposedly practical “real-world knowledge.” A key example of the course’s pragmatism is the “Efficient Market Hypothesis,” an idea most elegantly proven wrong by the fact that a professor is paid $200,000 a year to teach it.
Human Resources: In this class you’ll learn how to dehumanize people as resources through the use of rewards and punishments. Outside of Financial Markets, the most efficient way to lose your soul.
Organizational Behavior: Ostensibly the study of advanced psychological techniques to bend large groups to your will, you wind up spending most of your time playing with legos, blocks, and fingerpaint to teach “team building” amongst adults. Colloquially called “Kindergarten Pro.” Strangely one of the most accurate representations of team building in modern business.
Operations: You learn how things are built but never how to build anything. You’ll discover concepts like “bottlenecks” and “critical paths,” but -- critically -- you’ll never recognize the mental bottleneck keeping you from a path of true understanding. You’ll marvel at displays of technological sophistication but have absolutely no idea how to replicate any of it.
Marketing: Better described as “how to convince a consumer to buy damn near anything, usually against their self-interest.” Also known as “Advanced Lying Techniques” or “How Republicans Win Elections.” Biggest takeaway: never trust advertisements, PR agencies, or corporate executives.
Ethics: A class created by business schools to absolve themselves of any culpability when their graduates engage in evil, unethical things. Otherwise, serves the practical purpose of teaching you how to get away with doing evil, unethical things.
Strategy: The crown jewel of every business school’s core curriculum. Strategy synthesizes all other courses into a glorious edifice of oversimplifying frameworks/acronyms steeped in a loose foundation of rancid, steaming bullshit. It’s no coincidence that an MBA is sooner called a “Master of Bullshit Acronyms” than a “Master of Business Administration.” Strategy also holds many esteemed awards, including Most Frequent Abuser of the Case Writing Method, and Most Loved Class by Fortune 500 CEOs.
Jacob remembered Strategy most vividly. Unlike many of his consultant classmates, he refused to swallow the blue pill. “I couldn’t for the life of me tell what SWOT analysis -- Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats -- had to do with any business’ success. More likely, I believed that SWOT and (the nearly equivalent) Porter’s Five Forces achieved success because a few professors convinced a couple CEOs that they knew what they were talking about, and turned out to be lucky. The entire ‘analytical’ component of these frameworks is purely subjective. For example, there’s this old case from the early 90s where a professor uses Porter’s Five Forces to demonstrate that being a dominant player in the newspaper industry was a near-perfect business. Why the hell do people still teach this shit? We praise the survivors of framework roulette, and we call it management science.” Jacob received a particularly low grade in his Strategy course.
Part of Jacob’s recalcitrance to believe the majority of his business school coursework came from his engineering background (he was a mechanical engineering undergrad) and his time spent teaching high school calculus after college. He was, as they say in the parlance of business school, “a bit of a quant.” He preferred numbers and hard facts, but had an unnatural faculty for public speaking and leadership -- a rarity for most obsessed with numbers. A few of his peers suggested that he consider something broader than teaching, and his ambition got the better of him.
Initially he regretted that his ambition was cashing checks his disposition couldn’t afford, a feeling strengthened by his first-year internship interviews. “The career counselors told me I didn’t have a very strong background for anything in particular, so I should consider consulting.” Jacob confided that he hated the consulting interviews even more than the curriculum. Typical consulting interviews included a brief case study and a variety of mind-numbingly stupid challenge questions, designed to “test how you think.” Jacob kept some of his favorites:
Jacob routinely responded to those questions with his own, usually along the lines of “How many consultants does it take to change a lightbulb?” Naturally, he rarely passed the first round of interviews. One firm seemed tickled by his pugnacity -- only to deny him a job when he revealed the answer to his question (“It’s a trick question; you don’t hire consultants to enlighten anything”).
Despite his disappointment with most of his coursework and his lack of a summer internship, Mr. Stern was still optimistic as he concluded his first year in business school. “The other 20% was worth it.” There were many classes that he cherished above others: Entrepreneurship, Venture Capital, Managing Growing Businesses, Early Business Negotiations...these subjects spurred him to consider a career where his work could have a real impact, where he could manifest his vision for the future. He met founders and venture capitalists and was routinely starstruck -- to the point that, even Jacob admits, “I let much of my guard down; I wasn’t nearly as rigorously critical of these classes as I was with others.”
Guard sufficiently down, Jacob began to approach the idea of entrepreneurship more seriously as the summer rapidly approached. But he knew (or at least, believed) from many of his courses that he’d need a co-founder, or a few, for any chance of success. “Not to mention a valid business idea,” he admitted, “but like most entrepreneurs, I thought that people were more important than the idea, and confident as I was, I thought I was the shit.”
Jacob Stern didn’t discover his shit counterpart until his lazy, unemployed summer. Unexpectedly, it was during an equally shitty networking event.
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