Here are the major life lessons I learned at Harvard in one free, 10-minute post.
I took a road trip with some friends of mine this weekend. They are expecting a kiddo soon, and the conversation at some point turned to education. Would they want their kid to attend an expensive private college or a public university? Was an Ivy League education worth the money? One of the parents had gone to a top Ivy League college, and the other a top-rated public school. It was a heated discussion.
I went home and thought about it a little more. Where did I stand on the issue? In order to have a firm opinion, I wanted to unpack what I felt I had actually learned during my time at Harvard. What follows is my best attempt at a summary of what I gained from my education. It does not take into account the cachet of the school’s name, the companies that recruit at Harvard vs. other schools, or other real advantages to potentially going an Ivy League route.
What did I actually learn by going to an Ivy League school that helped me achieve success, and is it replicable elsewhere for less cost?
Academics Were Meh But Ultimately Unimportant
We’ll start with the most obvious aspect of education: the academics were a mixed bag.
The professors at Harvard are rewarded for their research. Advancement is based on recognition in their field, not teaching ability in the classroom. I would say about 30% of my instructors were some version of good, and that was with me deliberately selecting classes which had high student reviews for instructor capability. I had several small seminar-like classes which were generally rewarding, but I had more than an equal number of larger intro and intermediate classes that contained hundreds, where TA’s were the real facilitators of your education.
I suspect my academic education was on par with what you could get at a good public school, or at least not materially different enough to swing a decision. It was really my education outside the classroom that helped me find success in life.
Awareness: The Greatest Divider Between Success and Mediocrity
The biggest advantage Harvard gave me was opening my eyes to possibilities I had never even considered. I had never thought about attending an entrepreneurship program abroad. I didn’t even know it was possible for a college student to run a multi-million dollar company until my friend pointed out that the guy we saw vomiting into the toilet at the party last weekend was actually a successful business owner outside of class.
I wouldn’t have dreamed of cold-emailing a Supreme Court justice or a top-rated breast cancer researcher as a freshman to try and get internship work at their lab until I heard of others doing it. Not everything panned out, but the fact that others were doing it suddenly unlocked a new possibility for me that wasn’t there before. Prior to Harvard, I had been walking around in a world that had a lot more walls blocking my path created by my assumptions of how the world worked.
The dangerous thing about walls is that you don’t question them. They’re just there. I don’t know of any other solution to taking these walls down besides watching someone else walk right through them.
Said simply, the cure for this is just exposure.
Fortunately in today’s connected world you can get some of these stories not just in your dorm room but on the internet. There are certainly some made-up or exaggerated stories, but I think people’s reaction is too often a knee-jerk search for some disqualifying factor. Instead of acknowledging X is a possibility, they jump straight to trying to negate its existence. The dude had a rich dad. The girl’s mom was in fashion and she was trying something in fashion. What a disservice to yourself! That person probably does have some sort of advantage. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for you – perhaps it lowers your probability of succeeding. But you should be overjoyed by reading the profile, because your chances went from 0 (you didn’t even consider it a possibility) to .001% some value greater than zero.
The “Why Not Me?” Reflex is the Second Greatest Divider Between Success and Mediocrity
What I’m getting at above is that Harvard teaches you to develop a “Why Not Me?” reflex. Back to Saturday party vomit boy. When you see a dude making a fool of himself and spewing total inanities at a college party, you have to wonder to yourself, “what does he have that I don’t?”
Seeing huge success stories in a humanizing situation reminds you that you have more in common with the successful than you have in differences.
Harvard constantly had me asking “why not me?” If someone else got picked as the chair for a committee I wanted, I’d ask “why not me?” If I heard someone scored an internship at a place that typically didn’t accept sophomores, I’d think “why not me?” If I wasn’t where I wanted to be, it was my fault. Was it actually always in my control? Of course not. But success requires a sense of agency, and if my choices were to sometimes incorrectly ascribe things as my fault vs incorrectly ascribing things as out of my control, I’d take the former every time.
After years of conditioning, the “Why Not Me?” coupled with exposure to new things will eventually lead you to put yourself out there in ways you wouldn’t have tried in the past. You’ll cold-email the president of the company you’re interested in. You’ll raise your hand for extra work when there are three people way more qualified to take it on. Exposure plus a “why not me?” attitude is the one-two punch conditioning you need to preogress beyond the average. You need both.
Intelligence is Overrated
That brings me to things I learned were not important. Intellect is noticeably absent from the above. That’s because I learned that intelligence is overrated. Before I went to Harvard, I thought intelligence – particularly academic/analytical intelligence – was the single greatest predictor of success. After all, that was what we had all been rewarded for in school.
Then you show up at college, and you meet a ton of people who, honestly, are pretty intellectually average. I am confident if you ask most Ivy League grads, they would tell you there were quite a number of people who didn’t seem very smart in their classes. And some of the biggest success stories were among those more ‘average’ seeming students. I can look down any Forbes 30 Under 30 list and see a handful of students I knew directly or through friends of friends who you wouldn’t have pegged as academic stars in school who are doing real things in life now. It was a real eye-opener to me, and humbling beyond measure. When I look at the bigger success stories that have come out of my class now 5+ years out, very few of the smartest have made much of a distinction. Generally the main profession in which superior intellect truly mattered was in the hard sciences and in those who pursued an academic track. The rest of us? Once you got above a certain level of intelligence (the level required to read an article like this), other things like persistence, family connections, and luck have mattered more.
I say this, by the way, from the perspective of being distinctly average for my college class. At work I had a reputation for being fairly intelligent, and it was my calling card for my interactions with CEO’s and how I distinguished myself from other investors. But my reaction to my first slow cooker was to see if it was working by putting my hand against the heated metal sides. I’d like to say this was a youthful indiscretion, but it happened when I was 25. Whatever, I came out okay in life, and I don’t have enough intelligence not to put my hand against a several hundred degree metal object. I’m saying you’re probably plenty smart to do what needs to be done.
To Succeed You Need A Way To Translate Jealousy Into Something More Productive
Here’s the elephant in the room. It’s not fun to be surrounded by stories of people who are way more successful than you. Come on, you know how it feels. Your friend shows up 20 pounds lighter to the pub where you’re stuffing your face with a double cheeseburger and onion rings. Your co-worker gets the promotion you’ve been eyeing for the past two years. It sucks. You’re human, and it’s supposed to feel bad.
What I learned from repeated exposure at Harvard was that to be successful, you are always going to be surrounded by others who seem more successful than you (whom you learn from), and you have to find a way to translate your jealousy into something else or you’ll go crazy.
I wasn’t alone.
About half of students at Harvard reported feeling depressed at some point in the past year. It’s a crucible of emotion. It’s well-documented that there are high levels of insecurity amongst highly successful people.
My personal way of dealing with the jealousy was to tell myself it was about effort. Sure, sometimes there were special family connections or other advantages, but you would be surprised how often it was just a fairly ordinary person eventually hitting it big. When the jealousy struck, I’d ask myself what I was doing to further my own goals. I’d wonder how many hours that person put into their project, how many Saturday nights they turned down friends to do more work, and I’d ask myself what my goals were worth. And it was cool if I wasn’t willing to make X sacrifice, but I couldn’t complain about it if it were a deliberate decision.
I’ll be honest and say it’s not a perfect adaptation. You simply translate a negative feeling into a different negative feeling that motivates you to actually do something. It still doesn’t feel amazing, but writing a story that gives you agency and control does make it more palatable, and it helps you make progress in your own life to boot.
The alternative is to deliberately surround yourself with people who are less successful than you to make yourself feel better. That’s an incredible small, sad way to live, and it deprives you of exposure to exactly the kind of new knowledge that will help you be more successful.
I’ve come to the conclusion that being successful means exposing yourself to some level of these negative emotions. Now that I’m retired, I spend a lot less time exposing myself to these success stories that make me feel inadequate. That means I’m a lot less stressed. But the very real outcome of this is that I am probably not achieving as much as I could if I had been. Maybe there are a few people who truly don’t let feelings of inadequacy touch their lives and somehow still end up incredibly successful. Most of us are human, though, and I think accepting there’s a trade-off here between mental happiness and exposure for success will make us happier in the long run.
For this chapter in my life, I’m happier with less stress of this kind, and I accept that I’m probably not going to be crowned my class’s most successful graduate. Or even the 500th most successful graduate. Adulthood is about making your own priorities. That’s cool.
As I look at the list of what mattered in my Harvard education, I’m convinced you can replicate the major levers in a non-Ivy setting. Again, I won’t touch the cachet, networking, and other non-education facets of the experience, but you can certainly take away some of the most important life lessons on success without paying the $278,400 it now costs for four years of attendance.
Look around you. Are you making an effort to learn about new paths in life (in person or on the internet), or does everyone you hang out with look like some slight variation of you? When you hear about a particularly impressive story, is your instinct to dive in to see if you can learn something, or rip into it to find a way to disqualify its existence? Your mindset will steadily carve a path for future you. Make sure it’s the one you want.
As for my opinion on an Ivy League education, the jury’s still out. There are very real circumstances in which I’d want my child to attend an Ivy college if he or she were admitted, but there are also circumstances where I’d support a good public university over the expense of an Ivy League degree. The world is a more open place, and you can get a lot of the same life education elsewhere as you once got from your college experience.
How has mindset helped or hurt you on your own path to success? What’s your view on an expensive Ivy League education? I am welcoming guests posts from others who may have a unique perspective on the issue, so hit me up on the Contact page.