I recently finished Ahead of the Curve, a real-life account of the author’s two years at Harvard Business School. As I hoped, the book contains a thoughtful, honest and seemingly balanced assessment of the merits of attending business school and its potential role in the pursuit of a fulfilling life and career. Thankfully, the book mostly avoids gratuitous, sensationalist anecdotes for the sake of selling more copies. Although everyone’s circumstances is unique and only I can decide what is right for me (and will live with the outcome), this book is a helpful resource for framing and making that decision, and I highly recommend it to business school hopefuls and current students.
“Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School” is a non-fiction book that was published in 2008 and was written by Philip Delves Broughton, former Paris bureau chief of the London Daily Telegraph and member of the Harvard MBA Class of 2006. It’s a quick read at 280+ pages of text and the author’s clear narrative style makes it a compelling one as well.
Book Summary (***Spoiler Alert***)
The book begins with the author already immersed in the first few weeks of Harvard’s MBA program, struggling to make sense of the new classmates and concepts he encounters. One night, unable to sleep, he asks himself, “What have I done?” Retracing some pivotal points of the author’s life, the reader is then given the context for the author’s decision to transition, along with his wife and infant son, from an accomplished British journalist living in Paris to a 30-something, career-changing MBA student in Boston.
Back in school, as the first year progresses, the author is adapting to his new environment. He becomes friends with classmates, better understands his courses and starts to appreciate the opportunities that are now available to him. At the same time though, he is never fully comfortable with the school and what attending it seems to imply for his life, as he watches the vast majority of his classmates seek jobs that he doesn’t want and as he notes how speaker after speaker describes sacrificing family for career.
By the end of the MBA program, the author is sanguine about his decision to resist pursuing a job that he knows he would not enjoy, but that still leaves him (and his family, now with the addition of a newborn son) with a $175,000 bill for his MBA degree and no immediate job prospects. Yet, the author is confident that, armed with his newly-earned education and network, he will be able to create the kind of self-directed earnest life that he seeks. The book ends on a hopeful note, with the author being approached with a business opportunity that arose from a school project.
Although, as the author points out in his preface, this book represents just one of nine hundred viewpoints within the graduating class of one particular MBA program at a certain point in time (and it is likely not the most representative one at that), I found it useful to get a glimpse of how someone with similar misgivings approached his endeavor. Perhaps, this book resonates with me because it is preaching to the choir.
Still, this book is a good read for anyone who is currently considering business school (particularly at Harvard) or their next career move, whether in or out of school or even the business context. At it’s core, it is an inspirational story about someone eschewing the path of least resistance to almost-certain riches for a much riskier, but potentially more fulfilling, approach to life and career, which I think anyone can appreciate.
To be clear – none of this is to say that one career path is necessarily better than another for everyone. Someone can find their calling in finance, consulting or some other industry just as much as someone teaching, working for a non-profit or founding their own company. As the author might say, the important but very difficult thing to do (particularly in business school) is to follow your own path, wherever it might lead. It doesn’t matter if you end up doing the same thing as other people, as long as you’re doing it intentionally and fully aware of its consequences.
And, even if someone can avoid getting caught up in what everyone else is doing, success is far from assured. But, perhaps the pursuit itself is already a kind of success, and has the power to sustain in the face of adversity. That’s what Ahead of the Curve seems to say and what I’m starting to think, anyway. In any case, I realize that these are high class problems to have, existing only because fundamental needs are not an issue. So, it is with optimism and gratitude for having options that I continue to weigh my decision.