One of the first things many of us did before arriving at the GSB was to read “The Letter,” the famous note to incoming GSB students. In it, Shirzad Bozorgchami (MBA ’88) warned us about the temptation of group mentality, saying, “Keep reminding yourself that just because everyone else is doing something, it doesn’t mean it is right for you.” Yet here I sit, at the end of my GSB experience, worrying that, even after having internalized Bozorgchami’s admonition, I ignored it all the same.
I succumbed to groupthink just the other day, hanging out with my friend at Arbuckle. I asked him, “Are you taking DeMarzo?”, referring to the GSB financial modeling course — notorious for its workload, yet treasured by students for the skills with which it equips them. When he disclosed that he wasn’t, I responded, “Wait…. What? Why not?” He replied, “I just don’t care about those skills.” I was taken aback. After all, he doesn’t have a finance background, and, perhaps I have a distorted view, but my perception is that most of my classmates who lack such a background flock to DeMarzo’s course.
True to the GSB, he offered me feedback. He told me my response to his answer made him think that I assume DeMarzo’s course, like Touchy Feely, is a must-take GSB course and that there must be something flawed about his rationale for not enrolling in it. He said he felt he had to defend himself for not conforming.
That I view DeMarzo and Touchy Feely as “required” GSB classes made me wonder: What other, more consequential mental models prevail at the GSB and to which ones do I unintentionally subscribe?
Yasmin Belo-Osagie (MBA ’19) highlights one such attitude. She tells me that “there is a predominant notion at the GSB that the people here are the best and that it’s much more important to invest time with them than with people elsewhere. So, there’s pressure to be friends with everyone here.” She adds, “People here are great, but we shouldn’t forget that the people we knew before and will meet are also valuable.” Of course, it doesn’t help that there is a cultural narrative that one attends a top business school for the network. It also doesn’t help when GSB professors frequently remind us that we are some of the most amazing people on earth. As a result of this attitude, we remain largely insular to the GSB.
Yet another mindset that seems to permeate the GSB is that these two years are the only years in our lifetime when we can travel extensively. And so, we travel. All the time. Mafalda Barros (MBA ’20) observes that “it seems like Stanford is a place most of us have been dreaming about; but once we get here, we’re always trying to get out. I spent a long time to get here, and now I want to be present.”
What strikes me as most dangerous, however, is not the attitudes themselves; it’s what gives all these attitudes their power: our herd mentality. In short, because we respect our classmates so much, we end up relying on their collective judgment instead of thinking for ourselves.
The scary thing about the herd mentality is that, unless we assess our unique situation from a bird’s-eye view, it becomes easy to go through life unaware of the extent to which we conform — just as I was unaware of the extent to which my adherence to the GSB mass psychology had caused me to prioritize the wrong things. As we continue letting groupthink dictate our actions, we risk falling deeper into a life of discontent; and extricating ourselves from such a life path becomes harder. We become seduced by accumulating “wins” — as measured by traditional markers of success — and don’t realize until it’s too late that so many of these victories were only Pyrrhic.
Who knows? Maybe if I had stepped back, perhaps I still would have enrolled in “Touchy Feely.” But at least then, I would have done so from a dynamic connection to what I truly wanted, needed, or valued, and my decision to register for the course would have just happened to align with what is popular. (I do know that I definitely wouldn’t have paid for FOAM membership during my first year at the GSB, and I would have avoided DeMarzo’s course like the plague.)
As I think back to my buddy who decided against taking DeMarzo, I feel fortunate for having people like him in my life. Contrarians like him remind me of a Mark Twain saying: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
So, if you still have a year left or are just arriving to campus, take it seriously that you don’t have to follow the pack, that this is your time, your two years to make of as you like. You fought hard to be here; don’t let anyone else tell you what your GSB experience should be. Except, maybe, me.