Do you feel that today’s generation of MBA students are without that larger purpose in life?
I don’t want to generalize. I’m sure there are young people in business schools who do have that sense of mission. But I don’t think it is as widespread as it was. I think that Christopher Lasch in the Culture of Narcissism said it had become the battle of all against all. My own view is not quite that bleak. But I do think that we live in difficult economic times and young people today haven’t really known that expansive sense of growth and opportunity. There is more pressure to think ‘I better get mine while I can.’ I don’t think that is a long-term sustainable strategy. So rekindling this sense of mission and this sense that you can be part of something that is growing and can become better is an important thing to remind young people of.
They were a powerful and highly accomplished group. But they also came of age at a time when most of the rest of the world had been destroyed in a war and the U.S. was really the only game on the planet. So how much did luck play into their success?
Without question, they were lucky in their timing. As of 1949, there were only 50,000 MBAs in the entire country. That is MBAs of any age from any school. In 1985, which is when I was writing the book, 60,000 MBAs graduated that year alone. Like everything else, things have gotten so much more cluttered. Yes, these guys were lucky to emerge in a time when an MBA was still very exotic. There were fewer than 100 schools in the whole country giving MBAs then. Now there is close to a thousand.
But they also worked their tails off. They didn’t expect anything to be handed to them. They always asked for more work, not less. They were a very competitive, driven group. But again not only for their own monetary gains, They wanted to excel. They wanted to be leaders. It was important to them that they would become leaders and that the MBA degree would not only make them a lot of dough but would give them influence and leadership roles.
Larry, you were an unlikely journalist to write this book. At the time, you knew nothing about business and had never written about management or business education. So how did you come up with the idea to write about a class of MBAs?
It had always been my ambition to start writing books, and I was trying for months to come up with a book idea that would interest both me and a publisher. One day, completely out of the blue, an editor at Harper & Row, Harriet Rubin, cold called me. She had already brought this idea to the editorial board and they loved it. Harriet said. ‘We are looking for a writer. Do you want to do it?’
I couldn’t believe it. I was trying to come up with an idea and then an editor I had never met who fortunately for me was a fan of my Esquire stuff said, ‘This is ready to go. Sign on the dotted line if you want to do this book.’
I didn’t fancy myself a business expert. I didn’t then and I don’t now. I don’t have an Ivy League background. I am liberal and a little bit skeptical of the powers that be. I made all those disclaimers in case she wanted a Harvard MBA to write the book and she said, ‘That’s exactly why you should write it.’
I was somewhat skeptical. I am a child of the sixties. I was born in 1951. I went to NYU for a degree in liberal arts. I’m an artsy guy, a creative guy. I wasn’t anti-business. I went into this open minded but I wasn’t slavishly devoted to business, either, and I didn’t want to do this book as an extended Fortune magazine article but as a work of social history and cultural criticism. And I wanted to get inside the heads of these people as characters and really get a sense for them as individuals. I didn’t approach it as a business book per se. I approached it as the history of a very interesting group of guys at a very interesting moment in American history and the history of American enterprise.