Dealing with HBS as a country club
There are quite a few things that I wish I understood on a deeper level coming into Harvard Business School. This is an attempt to understand the interesting cultural phenomena I observed, and which took a while to understand and get accustomed to. Specifically, I’ll touch on formality, the range of personas and what they’re optimizing for at HBS, extroversion, and thinking about careers.
This is a single data point of an experience coming from someone who came from a tech/VC and international background. I was accepted into HBS in 2017 through the 2+2 program, spent 4.5 years in tech and venture capital, matriculated in August 2021, and took a leave of absence in June 2022 to join Pantera Capital, a hedge fund, to continue my career in VC.
Before I begin, I want to say that I fully believe that HBS is a great investment, and a great opportunity. I do not regret going to HBS and it opened a range of opportunities that I would otherwise not be able to get as easily. The vast majority of this was written before I dropped out of HBS, and remains true.
The Initial Formality
I was initially surprised by the level of formality that existed in the first 6 weeks, and why it existed. There was a huge social emphasis on looking good and appearing professional. To quote Michael, my sectionmate — there was this need to “carefully choose your words and put them in a way that comes across as both humble and well-accomplished”.
“What’s your name?”
“It’s John, but people nowadays also call me Juan after I spent three months in Nicaragua helping kids learn English”
The driving pressures for this formality was counter-intuitive to me, given that we had all been ‘screened’ by HBS, and should be afforded some base level of credit, but this was not necessarily so.
If one considers HBS purely as a networking channel, this comes as a surprise. I had been a member of a number of professional networking circles (Forbes 30u30, World Economic Forum Global Shapers, Royal Society of the Arts, etc) that by and large gave members the benefit of doubt for credibility.
If one considers HBS to be slightly broader (and more important)- to utilize the casual but intense nature of an MBA program as a way to make friends, then this becomes more understandable. This becomes an arena to determine who your social status and circles will be and continue to be moving forward, rather than another simple networking opportunity.
There are ‘games’ of hierarchies that exist on campus that need to be navigated, insofar as that was the game you want to play.
Why did these games exist? The social situation is reflective of the complexity of the two general camps of people that I believe are at HBS in the first place. The first, the majority, are people who are unsure of where they are in their career/life, and want time to take a break and think about where they are going. The second, are people who have a clearly defined post-MBA career (i.e. continuing in consulting, private equity).
Observing the wide range of people at HBS, a few personas seem to emerge:
- Those who understand where they are going, and already on the path
- Those who understand where they are going, likely pivoting somewhere, and trying to find out how to get there
- Those who are trying to understand where they are going
The games that emerge are a reflection of those goals. Are you playing the game of looking cool to the tech folks, the family business group, the finance bros, the folks from a similar geography, etc? Are you looking to focus on pivoting your career? Are you looking to hang out with people who feel just as lost as you? What do you want to be known for? Can you change who you used to be seen as?
Figuring out what game you want to play, and who is playing what game becomes pretty exhausting.
At the same time, there was a general drive, especially in the first 6 weeks, to meet everyone, not just who you think you might like. In the second semester, there was a bifurcation between those who became more extroverted after largely kept to themselves, and who then felt more comfortable opening up to meet new people, and those who became more insular after exhausting themselves successfully finding their own tribe .
Within the latter camp of folks who are likely to keep to themselves, they likely fall under 2 personas — those who are very confident of who they are and want to over-index for only similar people, and those who are looking to establish a very tightly controlled social network. This persona overlaps.
Cameron, a 2022 alumni writing in a fantastic article about his experience as a veteran in HBS, puts it best:
I watched something strange through repeated trials of meeting hundreds of people for about 20 minutes each as people heard my story. I got to see how competent strangers thin-sliced me into their brain. I felt the exact moments when people stopped paying attention to what I was saying because they decided this whatever military guy from Georgia couldn’t help them get their next private equity internship.
I saw the instant the light of focus fade in their eyes as conversational autopilot took over and they subtly searched for another person to chat up. It was a masterclass in identifying narcissistic utilitarianism and a great lesson for me. The military has these people too (so does everywhere else so start paying attention), yet there is always at least a veneer of a group mission that keeps everyone working (mostly) in the same direction. I had never been exposed to the raw, unadulterated version of that person. It was also a neat foreshadowing of how military veterans and other career switchers experience a fundamentally different MBA program than those “on the path”.
I find this behavior, which everyone including myself does to a certain extent, to be interesting, given that HBS was probably one of the few places where everyone was generally multi-talented (i.e. excellent in multiple fields across sports, hobbies, and social, professional and academic interests), and fairly certainly going to be generally worth spending time with.
I decided against a legal career to go into startups (and now in crypto) because I was not too attracted by the value proposition of hierarchies. It is unsurprising then that a lot of the friends I made in HBS had similar personalities, and came from similar circles — especially in the crypto/VC/tech world. Those who came from Ivy league schools will likely be familiar with many of the hierarchy dynamics mentioned.
One of the more interesting conversations I had was with another HBS student who also came from Tech. This person had worked in a number of prestigious companies, after a Harvard undergraduate degree, and noted the seemingly high pressure to establish one’s appearances, and strong cultural propensity to seek validation via external sources. They noted: “After all this time actually having a successful career [to my name], I feel like a recovering alcoholic walking into a bar.”
HBS generally attracts people who are very good at maximizing their individual outcomes over group outcomes, essentially ‘alpha’ types. As Cameron mentioned, to those unaccustomed, there is a veneer of utilitarianism in the way that you will be treated. That is not at all to say that people are selfish, or will maximize their own outcomes at the expense of others, but rather that HBS has pre-selected people who are used to taking charge, or being in charge (although the common refrain is that HBS does a good job filtering out true ‘assholes’). This means that, in line with some of the above points on loneliness, HBS can sometimes feel like you are on your own when trying to figure out your unique goals and outcomes.
A phrase I discovered somewhere pre-HBS that I found to be roughly true was that the personality difference between HBS and Stanford GSB folks was the following: If you metaphorically fell down while walking beside them, the GSB person would immediately help you, while the HBS person would make sure they were safe before helping you. In general, I did find HBS folks to be surprisingly upfront about asking for large favors without a pre-existing relationship (or even with the conscious avoidance of one).
The mirage of extroversion
There are ~1,000 people in each year of HBS. Everyone will seem like they are an extroverted in an exhausting attempt to keep up appearances of being involved and around. Around the 6 week mark, my guesstimate of the ~40% of introverts at HBS will have burnt out and tried to find other introverts to do relatively more introvert-friendly activities (gaming, board games, small group dinners), as opposed to more extrovert-friendly activities (larger parties, weekend trips, clubbing).
The introvert slack channel
After the first 6 weeks, Extroversion is the first act to fade away. The second act is loneliness.
Not admitted until the second semester would be that a large proportion of students at HBS will feel lonely, a result of the generalist nature of HBS. Depending on who you talk to, the generalist nature of HBS is either a bug or a feature. What I mean by generalist is the wide range of people with wildly different interests and backgrounds. If you come from an FMCG background, you’ll find most of the people around you are not from an FMCG background. If you come from a tech background, you’ll find most of the people around you are not from a tech background.
For many successful people, who have generally been optimizing for a specific career, HBS represents a change. You will find your environment to be filled with people from different backgrounds, and if you come from a hyper-optimized social background, you will either have to learn to care, or you build another narrow social network after a couple of months when you find the 30 other people in the entire class who have a similar background.
This dynamic broadly reinforced the value of having a clear view of what one wants to do post-HBS. That clear view will allow one to allocate time more efficiently- e.g. I need to accomplish a, b,c, and my groups x,y,z can help me do that.
How do people think about their careers?
One question I was asked by a 2+2 who never ended up at HBS was ‘Do people at HBS think big?’. I found this was a classic SF/Tech question, that was always optimizing for large outcomes to change the world.
The mentality was overwhelmingly of individuals who have optimized for staying on the path. This can be seen in the difficulty of many to deprioritize clearly defined goals like academics. At the same time, HBS is a turning point for some people who are looking to test their professional risk appetite and willingness to take the road less travelled. Anecdotally, those who end up dropping out during HBS seem to be ~10%, which seems pretty high.
I felt that people in HBS were far more likely to optimize for happiness (both professional and emotional), as opposed to a grand concept of ‘changing the world’. To be clear, I think this is a far more holistic and healthier view of the world. The vast majority of people in HBS would be extremely successful professionally in ways that are far broader than any individual will fully appreciate. Success can be found in inheriting and successfully managing a large traditional conglomerate with family politics, running for local politics and doing good for local communities, managing regional, profitable businesseses.
An extremely common thread was that a lot of people, even if they were roughly sure of the career they would likely end up in, was to ask questions around what they really wanted to achieve in life, and where they should go. Questions that I heard a lot of included:
- How do I know if I am adequately happy in the career that I have?
- Am I achieving enough? Am I as driven as I should be?
- How do others define what a fulfilling life is?
An interesting thing to note is that there was certainly a deflation of any bubble that successful people at HBS had ‘clean’ careers without diversions or struggles. Despite outside appearances and LinkedIn posts, there were a significant number of people who did not secure what they wanted for summer internships or post-graduation jobs. They realized, in a good way, that they were not willing to settle for less, and were willing to spend more time exploring. As a senior at HBS noted, ‘those who enjoyed their careers a lot more tended to not find those roles they wanted immediately after or during HBS’.
As usual in any high-performing environment, HBS has a high degree of imposter syndrome. HBS is binary and have people who either have an overly high opinion of themselves, or an overly low opinion of themselves.
When combining a propensity for imposter syndromes, surprisingly strict social hierarchies, and an aggressive (typically self-imposed) social expectation for connecting with others, HBS can get very annoying for certain personality types.
At least in the first semester, there was social pressure to keep up appearances through academics. In line with the need to establish appearances, academics represented one of the ways you could establish competency.
Especially in the first few weeks, academics, and being able to make smart comments in class is one of the most obvious ways to demonstrate competence in front of others. Being able to teach others, specifically in more technical class like Accounting, is also one of the most obvious ways to build a helping relationship with others. Coupled with the natural urge to over-achieve, academics in the first few weeks can seem to be unnecessarily intense, largely driven by social pressures.
HBS takes significant pride in their case study method, even if it might appear to be a slower way to teach technical classes like accounting. This basically means that one should expect an intensity of academics, both culturally, and from a time perspective, given the need to attend 4- 6 hours of classes in person a day, and the need to study for classes beforehand to make comments or to prepare for being cold-called (i.e. being asked at the start of the class to give an overview of the issues at hand), can result in spending ~30 hours/week on academics alone.
How did I view the experience?
One of the best advice I got was to view HBS as an investment that will return over 30 years, instead of 2 years. From a utilitarian perspective, this means understanding two things which are easier said than done:
- To be patient and focus on building real relationships as you never know where and what you will be doing in life.
- That it is very difficult to predict who will be wildly successful in a way that would be helpful in the long-run.
As someone who was trying to understanding what to do in life, one of the most useful things HBS was for me was to find a group of peers who were impressive in their own right/fields, that I respected, that who were all equally lost about what they were going in life, and being able to have conversations about how to think about life. The quality of these conversations were far better here than pre-HBS conversations with mentors, colleagues, etc, as they tended to introduce a greater diversity of views and backgrounds.
To end on a positive note!
One thing I respected tremendously about HBS was the emphasis on personal vulnerability. With a genuine desire to understand more about oneselves, and a desire to find common-folks within HBS, there is an overwhelming desire by many people to share personal traumas, experiences, biases about themselves to the Class and Section, through MyTakes (sessions focused around sharing personal experiences/stories from your background) and other sharing sessions. On some level, HBS generates a difficult to replicate feeling that everyone is a peer, and that we are all collectively going through something unique and rare.
- Dress code: The dress code (especially post-covid) is definitely casual. I came in thinking some folks might dress in suits, but it’s a jeans and shirt vibe — with some folks coming in during August in shorts/sweats.
- Careers Department: The CPD is very clearly geared for helping folks enter consulting and PE (from an IBD background). Outside of those industries, while I’ve found the CPD folks to be generally friendly, to not be incredibly helpful. While CPD can be helpful in surfacing job opportunities, it does not help with helping you land them and 99% of the job process comes from your classmates. Do not expect to be handed Tier 1 jobs on a platter. You are with 1,000 other hungry people who are gearing for introductions, internships and information.
- There be consultants: I would wager that the consultants find HBS to be the best fit, given the significant number of people who come from an ex-consulting background, and thus previous social circles (~300+). As a VC, there were probably about 30 ex-VCs in my class of 1,100 students.
A few reads I felt were useful
- Reflections from the Class of 1963: https://hbs1963.com/
- Cameron Armstrong’s reflection of HBS as a veteran: https://www.wysr.xyz/p/harvard-business-school-a-veteran
I realize that a lot of what I have written may not reflect your own experiences — HBS is an incredibly varied place with a huge variance in paths that can be taken. If there are any other important experiences or things that I have missed that should be included here, feel free to let me know at email@example.com