I recently sat down for a discussion with a group of Undergrads at the University of Chicago. One of the topics that the folks sponsoring the get-together asked me to touch on were my experiences in College. I thought about the toga party (a proxy for my time in a fraternity), the concerts that I had been involved in producing and staging and other activities that I was involved in. I decided that a more productive approach might be to focus on what I had learned (with a big “L”) in College.
Here is what I said:
- I learned that I was no longer the smartest guy in the room. This was a real shock, because until I entered The College, I was. At the UofC I was average or a bit below. But, the experience in The College impressed on me the value (to me) of having really smart (even smarter than me) people around. Valuing smart people as colleagues would be a continuing theme throughout my career and embracing the idea that not being the smartest guy in the room was OK and worked well for me. One might even say it was a cornerstone of my success.
- I also learned that tenacity could make up for what I lacked in pure intelligence. This had its up and downsides. Early in my career (maybe this went further than “early”) this manifested itself in a near Pitbull level of persistence that distinguished me and produced results. It was often at odds with good working relationships.
- Finally, and most importantly, I learned how to learn. When I arrived at the University of Chicago, I could memorize and regurgitate. When I graduated, I could think (see skills below) and to learn on my own. This perhaps more than anything kept me relevant and productive throughout a 40+-year career. The world changed around me and I could adapt because I had the skills (and desire) to change and adopt the skills necessary to be competitive in an increasingly fast changing world.
My ability to continue to learn combined with a desire to improve my skills permitted me not just to survive, but to thrive and advance to places people thought impossible. For instance, one of the partners at PW told me that I would never become a partner because I was a “technical guy” and didn’t have the gravitas for that position. I took that as a challenge and sought experiences that would improve my ability to interact with our client’s senior management. This included taking classes designed to develop my listening skills and a decision to teach at the Booth School (then GSB) at the University of Chicago. Teaching a group of Booth MBAs forced me to improve my communications skills and MBAs were a good proxy for the people that Price Waterhouse partners had to deal with to be successful.
There were also three skills that I acquired (actually, began to develop) at the UofC:
- An ability to think. This involves several sub-skills:
- Seeing patterns. Whatever field of work one undertakes, it is essential to be able to see patterns. Whether you are a doctor (and looking at a set of symptoms) or a IT engineer trying to solve a difficult sorting problem, the best in each field see the patterns and are guided to good decisions by being able to interpret and act in what they see.
- An ability to synthesize. I have often said that I have never had an original thought in my entire life, but I am able to look at very complex problems and a set of possible solutions that I have seen elsewhere and modify what I have learned and apply it successfully to the current problem.
- Making decisions based on evidence. I won’t get political here, but good decisions have two inputs and a process. Good decisions require: 1) a thorough understanding of the facts, 2) judgement (an application of a philosophy) and (the process) a systematic review of the facts and philosophy to a achieve the outcome that is demanded by the inputs and not some arbitrary thought or bias. This systematic application of facts and logic is thinking.
- And finally, an ability to construct and make arguments. If you can’t communicate your ideas, they (and you) aren’t much good to anyone.
- An ability to write. To me there are three attributes to good writing:
- It needs to be clear. Good thinking (see previous bullet) leads to good clear writing;
- Unless you can make a compelling argument (or tell a compelling story) you aren’t going to influence your readers and why else would you want to write;
- And finally, you need to make it interesting. I have read so many really good papers that don’t get read because they are not interesting. F. Codd’s description of relational databases is an excellent example. He is writing about game changing thoughts, but his writing (what was laborious and dense) delayed the understanding and acceptance of those ideas.
- And finally, an ability to work with people. I know that there are many of you who might question whether I ever possessed this skill, but I assure you that it was worse before I entered college. I would say that my shortcomings in this area are probably the thing that held me back most. I see this skill as essential to success in any field that requires human interaction.
I closed the discussion by pointing out that the world is changing and it is changing faster and faster. To be successful these undergrads are going to have to deal with a rate of change that is unprecedented in human history and that the ability to learn and adapt after they leave school will be essential to their ability to keep up and stay relevant into the future.
Copyright 2017 Howard Niden
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