(1) Academic - U.S., 70´s: those preparation blues


Compelling Event

    The University of Pennsylvania, founded by Benjamin Franklin, is a fine university, the home of the world-renowned business school Wharton. The university is one of the eight Ivy League ones. (The others are Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, and internationally the less well-known Brown and Dartmouth.) At Penn., this prestigious institution of higher learning, I can modestly claim to have had a fairly spectacular performance. It set me apart from 99.9% of the students there -- unfortunately in the wrong direction.

 

The cumulative error

    Of an entering class of 1,100, of those who managed to graduate at all, my grade point average ranked among the last ten. Furthermore, it took me almost seven years to complete, barely, the normal four year Bachelors program. (The sole ray of sunshine in these black clouds was that of 300 undergraduate economics majors I was one of 12 selected for the honors economics courses at Wharton. Obviously the selection was based on aptitude tests, not achievement ones!) If you take the delay into account, an argument can be made that I reached the "one in a thousand" category, graduating flat dead last.

 

Lesson learned

    I was a world-class authority on how not to study, how not to learn, how not to perform, how not to succeed. If there were a ridiculous, foolish, idiotic, totally useless way to tackle an assignment or to try to learn or accomplish something, I was certain to be a master of it. Taking a leave of absence minutes before being expelled with extreme prejudice, I pursued higher education elsewhere, with similar results.

    Eventually I decided to try something completely new and enlisted in the Marine Corps. There I learned self-discipline, but not humbleness. After my military service I returned to Penn. for another attempt to complete the long overdue Bachelors, this time without difficulty. I then left for Europe.

    My “safety” when I applied a couple of years later for my MBA was the University of the Americas in Mexico. At that time its MBA program was not yet accredited. My BA, as poor as it was, did come from the Ivy League. And my test scores (GMAT) would probably astonish them. So I arrogantly completed the application in a couple of hours and mailed it off, got that done before contemplating where to apply next.

    The rejection letter suggested I should apply to the undergraduate program. If admitted (!), I could repeat part of my junior and all of my senior year for a second BA. Given satisfactory grades, I could then re-apply for graduate school. Talk about getting doused with a bucket of cold water full of ice cubes! 

    I learned my lesson. I did not spend hours, or tens of hours, preparing my other applications, but, literally, hundreds of hours.  This extraordinary effort led to my being admitted at every law and business school I applied to, including Yale and the top business schools, as well as receiving a full scholarship offer, unfortunately not from M.I.T. or Harvard. (I did not apply to Wharton, having already studied there, or to Stanford, as its international orientation was more Pacific rim than Europe.)

    Thrilled that my first choice, M.I.T., my “impossible dream” had decided to take a chance on me for an accelerated program limited to 30 candidates, I decided to continue the "maximum effort" that had served me so well in applying. I reversed my previous study habits 180 degrees. I prepared! At the time I was living in Bonn, Germany. I organized receiving all the textbooks for the first semester six weeks before my scheduled departure for the U.S.

    I quit work and hired a PhD in theoretical mathematics from Stanford who was in Bonn for a post-doc to be my math tutor. The entire six weeks before departure I was the first person to enter the Bonn university library when the doors opened. I was the last one to leave at night when the doors shut -- every single day. I worked through the beginning chapters of the textbooks for all the classes I would have the first semester at M.I.T., having my tutor correct anything quantitative.

    At M.I.T., just as I had feared, I was surrounded by all kinds of people who were a whole lot smarter than I am. Worse, and unexpected, they all seemed to need much less sleep than I did. However thanks to the preparation, I was able to hit the ground running. In fact, I actually managed to surprise myself with the results.

 

Aftermath

     Preparing thoroughly works. Unfortunately, I lacked consistency and was poor in follow-up after graduating. My casual attitude towards my career right after my MBA led to my stint in Iran. I had prepared no career plan. I was merely seizing what looked like a lucrative opportunity. When the Shah fell, my assets in Teheran became untenable. My three years there were of marginal professional and no personal value. I had not even learned the language.

 

Relevance

     So a major, complex, multi-party negotiation is coming up. How much preparation (studying the business drivers of the other parties, scenario generation and role playing) is being done? Not enough, I suspect.