Last Sunday I was walking on St. John’s Wood High Street (London) when I turned a corner and did a double take. A man heading in my direction caught my attention.
He wore: a crimson-coloured sweater with the word Harvard written across it; a Harvard baseball cap bearing an H inside a shield; and a pair of black shorts with the Harvard university motto, Veritas, also inside a shield.
As a Londoner, I’m used to variety. It’s one of the city’s charms. Seeing a fair-skinned woman with pink-dyed curly hair wearing an olive-coloured kimono top splattered with floral designs, black lipstick, candy red shorts, ivory coloured socks and purple Doc Martins. Walking right past St. Paul’s Cathedral. The contrast. I probably wouldn’t bat an eye lid.
This to say I couldn’t care less about the man’s attire. But there was something else. And it took a split-second to put my finger on it. It was the way he walked. His body language. It screamed for attention. Look at me. Look at where I studied. Aren’t I clever?
He saw me look at his sweater and waited. For me to look up. Our eyes met. Mission accomplished. He gave me a smug look and turned away with great satisfaction.
The scene brought back memories of a funny episode from a few years back and I laughed aloud, causing Harvard boy to turn toward me with furrowed eyebrows. As if I were laughing at him. How dare you, his eyes questioned.
No, no, no my good man, I thought to myself. It’s not you I’m laughing at you.
Similars attract, too
A friend, Thomas, had invited me to a get together he organised in an eclectic part of London known as Camden Market one summer evening.
The group included a mix of people from – mainly – the music industry. Thomas was an A&R talent scout and, because one of the pre-requisites for successfully managing his role was being very social and going out most nights, he had a large network of contacts from the music scene.
He invited lawyers, singers, PR professionals and more. In total, there were some forty guests present. Of them, a very small number were outcasts. Neither musicians nor people of the music world. And somehow we managed to gravitate to one another such that a few hours into the night we were all sat around a table. Three girls and two boys. Five perfect strangers.
Me and the other chap on one side of the table and the three ladies across from us.
Desperately seeking attention
Barely half an hour had passed since the five of us sat down to chat and the chap next to me had already mentioned, in varying ways, where he worked four different times. McKinsey here. McKinsey there. McKinsey this. McKinsey that. A real proud soldier he was.
As the evening progressed, the conversation drifted to startups and entrepreneurship. One of the girls at the table, referring to the venue, commented on the number of people standing by the bar and then followed on by asking a rhetorical question: “I wander how much this place earns?”
Before I continue, let me tell you what each of the individuals did for a living. So we had the guy next to me, who was a management consultant at – drum roll please – McKinsey. The girl who asked the question was a lawyer with Freshfields. As for the two other girls, one was Chief Technology Officer for a small fintech company in Shoreditch (London) and the other was a designer. Or so we thought she was. After all, she said, “I design interiors, experiences and environments.”
So after the lawyer asked her question, the management consultant jumped in and began pontificating. He went on and on analysing footfall, local real estate and demographics, consumer spending and more. And when we thought he was finally finished, he pulled out a notebook from his McKinsey duffle bag and threw it on the table for everyone to see. The Harvard emblem.
After pretending to rummage in his bag for a pen, in order to leave the notebook on the table long enough for everyone to recognise the symbol, he flipped open the notebook and began jotting down numbers. He verbalised his thoughts so we attentively followed along.
“C is equal to the number of customers that visit the establishment each day. D is the average price of a drink. F is the average prices of a dish.” The consultant carried on this way.
Some of us tried to get a word in but he half-heartedly acknowledged our remarks. As if he were an adult surrounded by children he pretended to take seriously by nodding his head up and down slowly when they occasionally spoke, only to carry on with what he was doing, which was infinitely more important.
Once his calculation-cum-lecture came to a much awaited end, he circled a figure on the page several times, with pressure, to highlight it. Then he spun the notebook around 180 degrees so it faced the girls across the table – nevermind me – and smiled.
“There,” he said, tapping the hallowed figure with his Harvard-labelled pen. “That’s how much a place like this earns. With a margin of error of plus or minus 5%.”
Then he sat back and reclined on his chair with an air of triumph. A smirk appeared on his face. He turned toward me and winked. That’s how you do it buddy, his eyes said to me.
“Impressive,” I said with a thinly-veiled hint of sarcasm. Sadly, undetectable to him.
That’s when the alleged designer spoke up. “You’re wrong,” she said. “Completely wrong.”
It took the consultant a few seconds to process what he just heard. He looked straight at her. She looked straight back at him. He erupted into laughter.
When he stopped, she continued.
The smile disappeared from his face. He fixed his gaze on her, sat up straight and changed the tone of his voice. The way one does in a professional setting, which this was not. Acting all management consultant-ish.
“What makes you think I’m wrong?” he said. “I used a very logical approach and process.”
“I don’t think,” she said, firmly. “I know what you’re saying is rubbish.”
She extended her arm and opened her hand to ask for the pen, which he handed her. She put pen to paper and by the time she was done crossing out the sum he had calculated, it was no longer legible. She then turned the notebook back around and pushed it forward.
He looked down at the mark she left on the page. He smiled and, first, looked over at me and, then, at the other two girls, to get a sense for where the rest of us stood. Unsatisfied, he chose to keep the exchange bilateral and looked back at her.
“So what makes you an expert?”
“Fifteen years in the business,” she said. “I own two bars and a restaurant. One of the bars is right down the street.”
The consultant didn’t respond.
“Let me show you some accurate numbers,” she said. “May I?” she pointed to the notebook.
He nodded yes.
She ripped out the page he had scribbled his numbers on, crumpled it and threw it over her shoulder, discarding it like it was a piece of trash. Next, on a blank page she jotted down revenue numbers and costs for each of the three establishments she owned. When finished, she turned the notebook around and pushed it forward.
“Here,” she said. “High level numbers to give you a sense. And they’re all roughly the same size as this place.”
The consultant looked down. He could barely mask his envy.
“I’m the sole shareholder,” she said. “In all three.”
His face went white. There and then, he realised that she earned at least several times more money a year than he did. He could hardly disguise his revulsion. The rest of us could not help but feel sorry for him as he forced a pathetic smile.
“So how was Harvard?” she said with a big smile.
Of schools and credentials
I receive a lot of queries from people asking me for advice on breaking into investment banking or how to negotiate deals on their own. And every once in a while one of them will apologetically drop in that they didn’t attend a top school or don’t have notable family connections.
I read that and part of me feels bad the sender thinks that way, while another part of me wants to reply, “Just f&@*ing get over it!”
So you didn’t go to Stanford or INSEAD. So daddy doesn’t have friends at JP Morgan. Heck, so daddy works in a gas station and hasn’t got a single friend who holds an office job of any sort. Blah, Blah, Blah. Stop looking backward or worrying about what you don’t have. Take responsibility for forging your own path. Life isn’t fair. So you weren’t born into – what from the outside may appear as – a ‘golden’ family. Are you going to use that excuse your whole life? As far as I’m concerned, if you can read, have running water, food on the table and shelter, then you’re already luckier than most people in the world.
Having a chip on your shoulders because of schooling is no good my friend. Your self-esteem will suffer and you’ll see yourself unequal to the person next to you who studied at an allegedly better school. The result: you will feel inferior and you’ll project it.
Don’t get in the habit of thinking your lot would be much rosier had you studied at Georgetown, IIM Ahmedabad or Tsinghua. You can never know where you’d be if you had and, besides, that line of thinking serves no purpose. You don’t control the past. The days ahead are the ones you can still write. In fact, starting today.
Again. You don’t need a brand name school to become a successful dealmaker or entrepreneur. Or family connections. I tell you, most of my time is spent in meetings with what 99.9% of people would consider very successful people. In fact, at this very moment, I’m on a train headed to meet one of them. Guess what, he didn’t study at a top school. He didn’t have big contacts. Years ago he chose to leave the corporate world’s conveyor belt system, which can turn people into modern day factory workers, in order to forge his own path. He built relationships from scratch. In the early days he was getting government assistance because he had no money. Could barely make ends meet. On top of that he had a child to worry about.
Only a small portion of the people I deal with attended the big name academic institutions. The rest didn’t. Many went to no-name universities and some didn’t even attend uni or they ended up dropping out for whatever reasons. And I don’t mean dropping out of Harvard or the like.
Yes, if you want to land a job in the corporate world then the right school opens doors. We all know that. But if your ambition is to ultimately to run your own business, become a power broker or negotiate exciting deals with some of the world’s most intriguing individuals then YOU, not the school name on your resume or CV, or where you come from, will decide if that happens or not.
Focus on gaining experience in the areas you’re interested in by building your network, being resourceful, thinking creatively and being open to the idea that opportunities are all around you.
Life is a marathon. Some people get lucky right away. Others need more time. With discipline and consistency you will achieve success.