Advice to the Next Generation of MBAs
“Too many tears were shed last year at the GSB,” Shirzad Bozorgchami wrote after his first year at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “Many of my classmates and I went through what I would now consider to have been unnecessary pain and hardship – both academically and socially.”
Sound familiar? We learn many of our toughest lessons in school. Our best can always get better. There will always be peers who are smarter and more capable. And our deepest beliefs don’t necessarily stand up to scrutiny. When we enter an academic pressure cooker, such lessons can threaten our confidence and self-image. Some respond by becoming more open and less fearful. Others retreat into themselves, growing cynical and resentful, losing sight of their goals and the bigger picture.
Bozorgchami, who is now known as Shirzad Chamine, fell into the latter group as a Stanford MBA in the late 1980s. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Chamine’s epiphany came when his classmates told him that he was too judgmental during a class exercise on interpersonal skills. It served as an inspiration for a ‘What I wish I knew then what I know now’ letter, which has been passed around to Stanford and Wharton students for nearly a quarter century.
Written between his first and second years at business school, Chamine’s letter documents his regrets, the hopes dashed and opportunities lost. However, this personal reflection also details his transformation, the hard-earned wisdom that comes from an emerging self-awareness and the desire to seek redemption.
Now, the letter is circulated to first year students, as a way for second years to warn incoming students about the potential pitfalls awaiting them. “History has a way of repeating itself,” Chamine observed in his letter, “not just because people are stubborn and slow learners, but also because people may not know history well enough. I believe one of the factors that contributed to the problems last year was that a historical perspective was not provided to us.”
Alas, the letter was composed long before the internet and globalization shepherded the era of disruption. In 1987, Chamine probably couldn’t even conceive of crowdsourcing, the cloud, and social media. Back then, the cold war was winding down, while the crack epidemic was spiking. U2 and Whitney Houston dominated the airwaves, while Dirty Dancing and Wall Street had captured our imaginations. And six sigma principles were only starting to seep out of Motorola. Despite how technology and business models have evolved over the past 25 years, Chamine’s letter reminds us how little the important things have changed.
Like all first years, Chamine tells us that his class was also “unwise and immature.” They too crafted tough outward personas, while silently wondering if they truly belonged at Stanford. Some chased high grades and academic honors, not realizing how little they’d matter once they left campus. Stifled by ego, they sought comfort among their own, finding only mediocrity. And many feared challenging the norms, afraid of being cast out or found to be wrong. And all of them experienced setbacks. “You may want to prepare yourself for a lot of rejections,” Chamine warns, “something that you may not necessarily be used to.”