Things the Williams Freshmen Should Know

I went back

All that I remember about the day I arrived on campus nineteen years ago this August was that it was hot and that I was not looking forward to two-a-days. Like pretty much every incoming freshmen at pretty much every school, I’m sure I was a volatile mix of anticipation, fear, excitement and a few dozen other emotions endemic to teenagers. But mostly what I remember was that it was hot.

One thing I’m sure of, however, is that there was no note waiting for me from my future self. It’s not clear to me even now that I would have been any more willing to listen to an older version of myself than I was, say, my parents. All part of being a teenager, for better or mostly for worse. It couldn’t have hurt, however. Because shortly after my arrival in the Purple Valley, I pancaked.

Nothing in my brief history up to that point had prepared me for my performance, which bore an unfortunate resemblance to a slow-moving car crash. I failed. Repeatedly. I turned things around academically midway through my sophomore year, but my GPA never really recovered from the beating it took the year before. Not that that has mattered much, professionally, but like most Williams students, I’m competitive, and I wish that my performance had more accurately reflected my abilities, rather than the lessons I had yet to learn.

Lessons that my future self could have passed on to me, were such things possible. In lieu of that, I offer you new people the following with no warranty whatsoever. These are just a few of the things I wish someone had told me, so I feel obligated to tell you now. And as my good friend Sean Bowler ’98, who was taken from us all far too early, did for his students when he said farewell at Salisbury, I will try and keep it short. And I will fail at that too.

Cole Field Really is the Coldest Place on Earth

You are not wrong. If you play sports or go there to watch them, you will think this at some point. Whatever they may teach you at Williams about climate change and meteorology, Cole Field is likely to be, at any given point in time, the coldest place on earth. Prepare all you want; there’s nothing you can do about it. We tried everything, from long underwear to those awful, burning chemical heating packets, and we still froze. As you will.

I just wanted you to remember that I told you so.

There is Always Someone Better Than You

This one was easy for me, because I was never King of the Hill in the classroom or on the field of play. It was quite obviously an adjustment for a few of my classmates, however. Accustomed to being the big fish in the small ponds they hailed from, it was jarring for some of them to be second best, or just as often, third or fourth. But that’s what going to a place like Williams is all about, because at least in that one aspect, the campus is exactly like the real world. With the exception of a very small number of us, there’s always going to be someone who’s smarter than you. Or a better athlete. Or both.

Where you can’t change this through hard work, you need to acknowledge the situation and then find ways to compete. Because that’s life. The playing field isn’t always going to be even. Or fair. But neither do the best always win. Show some adaptability.

A Poor Performance Doesn’t Make You a Bad Person

Looking back, it’s almost shocking that I recovered as much as I did academically, given how horrifying my grades were that first year. And, it must be said, my first semester as a sophomore. But while I accept full responsibility for getting myself into that mess, the credit for my recovery belongs entirely to someone else. Part of it was reducing my athletic workload – and the related social calendar – from one sport to two, part of it was a few fairly significant changes in my social life, but the man who more or less singlehandedly salvaged my Williams tenure was Professor Thomas Kohut.

It’s not easy to pick a major when you’re barely holding your head above water in all subjects: how can you ask a professor to be your advisor, when you both know you’re failing? And it’s even harder when your professors look on you with a mixture of disdain and disappointment. Not that I blame those who did: I deserved their scorn.

Fortunately for me, however, there was one exception. Professor Kohut, perhaps out of pity, earned my trust by relating some of his own struggles. Better, he threw me the rope I desperately needed, agreeing to serve as my advisor. With that came an honest and frank appraisal of where I was failing, and what I needed to correct. Coming from someone who spoke to me as an adult, rather than at me or worse, down to me, it was fine.

His opinion, one subsequently confirmed, was that I needed smaller, more interactive classes to hold my interest. The difficulty of the material was not, for the most part, my problem; it was rather my engagement with same. Professor Kohut’s recommendation – order would not be too much of an exaggeration, I think – was simple: I was to take smaller classes on subjects that held some interest for me with professors that would care whether or not I was in class.

Here was a talented professor who knew I’d missed skipped a few of his classes, and yet had no intention of condemning me for it. Instead of writing me off as a lost cause, he took the time to sit and speak with me about his own experiences, and how he thought that I might improve. It may well have been the first time in my academic career that someone treated me as an adult, but in any event it made a difference.

So what I would tell you, Future Williams Graduate, class of ####, is this: do not write yourself off. If you got in, you can do the work. You may think, at times, that you’re an idiot, but the folks that run admissions are most certainly not. What you need is to understand that we all make mistakes. What’s far more important is how we recover from them. Seek out the professors that understand this and genuinely care – Kohut and Shanti Singham were the two that I had the most respect for and success with, but there were dozens – and stick to them like glue.

It worked for me.

The Swim Test

No, I have no idea why Williams has a swim test. Yes, you have to pass it.

You Need Math, Especially If You Think You Don’t Need Math

One of the worst things to happen to me at Williams was the first test I passed there, the Quantitative Skills Assessment. By passing it shortly after arriving I was obligated to take exactly zero math courses. Which I promptly did. In retrospect, this was a mistake.

This isn’t about or Freakonomics. Or at least, not entirely. You may never face that time your elementary school teachers warned you about, where the ability to save the quadratic equation is a life or death affair. But it’s a safe bet that whatever your chosen occupation – entrepreneur, author, real estate agent, chef, artist, teacher, and, yes, I-banker – the ability to do math is going to be of benefit.

Are you going to become Nate Silver, and jump from an economics and accounting background into a career as a baseball statistican, parlaying that into a role as a nationally recognized political observer? Seems unlikely. But would it be useful to know how to use numbers to make better decisions, whether you decide to run a brewery, a healthcare non-profit or the marketing department for a Fortune 50 organization? Yes.

Businesses – most all of them, today – are increasingly about numbers. Whether you think this is a positive or negative development doesn’t, I’m sorry to say, matter much. They’ll go on without you. The fact is that industries that functioned for years on intuition and tradition are increasingly run algorithmically: baseball’s Exhibit A in that department. This means that math – and its first cousins statistics and economics – should be staples of your Williams education. I took neither, largely because I had no idea they’d be so important later, and I’m still paying the price. There’s a reason I’ve had to subsequently take a statistics course at Harvard, and that reason is that I was dumb.

Don’t be like me.

There Are Lots of Things You Can Do Besides Consulting and Investment Banking

Unless things have changed radically at Williams, virtually no one will tell you this. This is not to say, please note, that there’s anything wrong with either profession. I myself was a consultant, and my brother – a Bowdoin grad – was an investment banker, and we’ve done all right. Both professions are, if nothing else, excellent training for jobs that you’ll have later in life, as they can teach you quite a bit about how businesses are run and how they can fail.

But it’s equally important to understand that if you don’t interview with one of the firms coming to interview, there are a host of things you can do with yourself. Which, obviously, I can’t cover here. But look around, and think not just about what you think you should do, but what you want to do.

Beirut is No Substitute for Beer Pong

I understand that they’ve outlawed Beer Pong on campus. This is sad, because a better drinking game has yet to be invented. There was a time when the Slippery B – if it’s even still called that – was the Beer Pong capital of this country. It’s depressing that those days are behind us, and that that elegant game from a more civilized age has faded from the average student’s memory.

The People You Meet Matter

Later, when you consider going to business school, and I’d wager that a lot of you will entertain the notion eventually, one of the Pro’s you write down to weigh the decision will be “networking.” Which is legitimate. Of the friends and former classmates that I know who’ve gone for their MBAs, networking has been at least 50% of the reasoning for shelling out the money and losing the years.
The same principle, though you may not realize it at the time, applies to your Williams education. Maybe you don’t meet the next Mark Zuckerberg, or, in our case, the next Bo Peabody, but given that you’re going to be on campus for four years with some aggressively bright and talented people, you might want to meet a few. Or at least remember who they are, so when you read about them later, you can comment knowledgeably.

Question Everything

I’ll be the first to admit that as a history major, I should have adopted Euripides‘ mantra – “question everything” – far sooner than I did. Which was just a few years ago. Nevertheless, you now have the opportunity – as a young freshman – to grasp this important lesson at a much more profitable age than I.

One of the things you learn as you go along, you see, is that everyone is wrong all the time. We jump to the wrong conclusions, we misread the available data, and sometimes we just guess incorrectly. But when you’re younger, it’s natural to assume that at least the folks older than you – your parents, your professors, even the seniors – have it together. They don’t.

Sometimes, of course, you just need to go with the program. Socrates questioned everything, and ended up dining on a hemlock milkshake. But where it’s practicable – and particularly where conventional wisdom is concerned – do not forget to employ your critical thinking.

Too many of us do these days; just watch the news.

Learn Everything You Can About Everything

Someone wants to teach you how to knit, guys? Learn. I’m not joking. You never know when the ability to knit will come in handy; a good friend of mine was wooed, at least in part, by a knit hat from her now boyfriend. Pick up anything and everything you can. Parkour. Frisbee. Guitar. Japanese. Whatever. You’re going to be around people who know a great many things you don’t, and even if you don’t master them, you never know when the exposure will be useful later in life.

More to the point, unless you retire early, you’re not likely to have another period in your life where your primary mission in life is to learn. Later, you’ll be distracted by reunions, work, a family, and a few thousand weddings. Even if you don’t think you know that many people.

Save Your Papers

The good ones, anyway. Mine are now lost to history, unless they turn up when my parents move. This is not exactly a major loss for posterity, but there are those that I’d like to have back, if only to reflect on how, even then, I could never use one word when I could use five.

Winter Study is Just as Awesome as it Sounds

When else in your life, after all, are you going to be able to take a course on “Auto Mechanics?” And have it be the only course you’re responsible for?

Exactly. Winter study is what school should be. With the exception of the one year a classmate and I spent freezing to death behind the Clark Art Museum hunting for non-existent turkeys, winter study was uniformly outstanding.

College is About More Than the Classroom

The administration probably isn’t going to put me in the Alumni Review for saying this, but this is for you, freshpeople, not them, so remember: there is more to life than class. No, you shouldn’t cut all your classes. Or even some of your classes. Take advantage of the education, because it’s the best you will ever get. And it’s the last undergrad experience you’ll have. But that undergrad experience should include time with your friends, your boyfriends and girlfriends, and your teammates. Because that, too, shall pass.

I remember playing home run derby down on the women’s softball field with my best friend on a beautiful spring day my senior year as much as I remember any class I ever took. And there were some memorable ones, believe me.

Do What You Love

Life is short. You’re going to hear that a few thousand times, and at this point in your life that phrase will have effectively no meaning. That’s fine. If you can tentatively accept it as true, however, it’ll make some of your more important decisions easier. Many of you will embark on careers that will make you miserable because of the hours, the content, or both. And there’s nothing wrong with that for a few years; paying your dues is part of the process in many industries. But if you’re still miserable years later, remember what you’ve been told: life is short. Do you want to spend it doing work you hate, or would you prefer to work on something that you like or, if you’re lucky, love?

That question is easier to answer, obviously, than execute. It’s hard to get paid to do what you love. Paul Graham believes – and I happen to agree – that there are two primary approaches to this:

The organic route: as you become more eminent, gradually to increase the parts of your job that you like at the expense of those you don’t.

The two-job route: to work at things you don’t like to get money to work on things you do.

Which one of those works for you will – assuming that the idea of doing something you love appeals to you – will depend on your passion and your priorities. Being a starving artist sounds romantic until you’re actually starving.

Eventually, however, you will get to a point in your life where you’ll look back on what you’ve accomplished and reflect. If you’ve been punching the clock for ten years, that’s not going to be a fun conversation, so work on things that matter.

You Will Miss Williams

I know. Every alum says this. But that, by itself, should tell you something.

Enjoy Williams, because like life, you only get one crack at it.

Is Education a Bubble?

My mother’s father spent the majority of his adult life working in the shipyards. He graduated at the top of his high school class, but was the eldest of ten children which meant no college. My father’s father was a scholarship student who later became an Episcopalian minister.

Neither of my parents were thus born into privilege. Both were born into households that emphasized education. You will go to the best school that you can get into, they were told, it’s your ticket to a better life. Which they did. And while definitions of better vary, my parents certainly had a higher standard of living, courtesy – in part – those educations, than their parents.

What their parents did for them, my parents sought to do for my brother and myself. In spite of rising tuition rates, we attended highly ranked, costly private institutions. That they could ill afford, truth be told.

This traditional valuation of education has lately been challenged, both on grounds of cost and of benefit. This is appropriate. We must always question and assess the validity of what we’re told, what we’ve come to believe.

Typically, to answer the question of whether costs are appropriate it is necessary to examine the question of benefits. In the case of higher education, it is not. As this graphic from the New York Times attests (the Washington Post ran a similar story), the cost of schooling has not only outpaced the consumer price index (CPI) and median family income, but healthcare. This trajectory – which has student debt approaching one trillion dollars – is unsustainable, even to the schools themselves.

My wife’s alma mater, Middlebury, last year announced its intention to cap growth of its comprehensive fees at one percentage point above the CPI. Previously, Princeton and my own alma mater, WIlliams, have frozen tuition for one year periods in response to concern about rising costs. No comprehensive solution to tuition costs is apparent at present, however.

The justifications for this escalation are unknown. It’s reasonable to expect that they are a function in part of both rising operational costs and an attempt to offset substantial market losses for hedge fund sized endowments. But as these and many other elite institutions are privately run, the simplest reason is probably this: the market bore, and continues to bear, the costs. The question is for how much longer, and what the unintended consequences are to the institution in terms of student composition.

Accepting that the costs are prohibitively high, however, criticism of the relative merits of an education are misguided.

PayPal founder Peter Thiel reignited this debate with his TechCrunch interview. Cost was his focus, but he also took exception to the idea of exclusivity.

“If Harvard were really the best education, if it makes that much of a difference, why not franchise it so more people can attend? Why not create 100 Harvard affiliates?”

Setting aside the fact that his “20 Under 20” program is itself exclusive and counter-examples such as the Harvard Extension School (disclosure: I’ve completed two classes there), which makes a Harvard education more broadly available (see this Kansas resident Harvard Masters graduate here, for example), the question is why this exclusivity exists.

The answer, to me, is scale. Distinction and achievement are necessarily rivalrous resources.

Between the birth of his father and my father the United States welcomed around thirty-four million new souls. Between mine and my father’s, the number was seventy-five million. Mine and my nephew’s, ninety-two million.

Given that talent identification has been historically, and remains in spite of the best efforts of our industry, systemically inefficient, differentiation is of critical importance in the face of long term population growth. Most employers cannot scale their hiring processes effectively. When applying for jobs my senior year at Williams, I bypassed the initial hiring screen for Anderson Consulting (now Accenture) through a friend who worked there, but my candidacy was subsequently killed because my GPA was below their minimum requirement. I understood this completely. The metric may not have been an accurate assessment of my abilities, but it was an approach that could be reproduced at scale.

One of the functions of education from the perspective of employers has been filtration. An employer hiring a graduate from Harvard or a similar institution is unlikely to able to assess on any important level whether or not the candidate is a good fit. Gaining admittance to and graduating from an elite institution is, however, a non-trivial achievement in the majority of cases. If there were a hundred Harvard affiliates, as Thiel proposes, the achievement would become non-differentiating and thus depress the value for both student and employer.

Seth Godin calls this buying a brand, and asks whether

“an elite degree deliver[s] ten times the education of a cheaper but no less rigorous self-generated approach assembled from less famous institutions and free or inexpensive resources?”

There are a variety of benefits to a so-called elite degree over free resources, from quality of instruction to the network you build. But brand is also part of that, because it provides differentiation in an increasingly crowded workplace.

Fortunately, there are many emerging opportunities for talent to stand out. Github as a resume is a wonderful concept, attacking as it does inefficiencies in the hiring process. Likewise programs like TechStars, Y Combinator, and Thiel’s own “20 Under 20”. These are excellent as far as they go. But unfortunately, these are not provide a model for non-technical industries. Nor do they address issues of exclusivity; they are, in fact, more exclusive than elite educational institutions. Y Combinator’s acceptance rate is approximately 3%, Harvard’s hit an all time low of 6.2% this year. Very few people, relative to population, are in the technology industry. Of those that are, even fewer are admitted to YC-style incubators.

The list of evidence that a college education is not a prerequisite for success is long. Besides well known non-graduates like Damon, Gates or Zuckerberg, see the college dropouts Hall of Fame. I know, work with and have immense respect for both high school and college dropouts; many of whom have accomplished a great deal more in their careers than I may reasonably expect to.

Nor is it reasonable to suggest that everyone will benefit from college: the lack of a strong vocational education system in the United States is a real problem. Both for students that are incurring debt that the education is unlikely to offset and for a job market that is thus shorted trained workers.

From a statistical perspective, however, the question is not whether you can be successful without a college education (assuming a non-vocational career path), but what the probability is that you will be. If the success rate for entrepreneurs was high, venture capitalists would be unnecessary. What are the options if you are unsuccessful? Some doors will be closed to non-college graduates.

Lost in discussion of costs and exclusivity are the soft benefits of college attendance. As I told incoming freshman this past September, much of the value of an elite education are the people you meet, what you learn from them, and the opportunities these relationships open later in life. I have counseled and helped place alums, just as they have done the same for me. Being in close proximity to intelligent and motivated kids for a four year period has value. Networking is not exclusive to education, clearly, but startup life doesn’t necessarily yield the same opportunities for networking and broad based education because of size, the stresses of the job and a necessary lack of diversity: startups tend to self-select a certain type of individual.

Ultimately, assessing Thiel’s argument that education is a bubble depends on definitions. Few would disagree that costs are disproportionate to both value and economic context at present. If this is a bubble, however, higher education must give way to an alternative education model in sufficient volume that its prices drop dramatically. It is difficult to conceive of this occurring: however imperfect the system is at present for both students and employers, would be solutions are imperfect.

Khan Academy and similar efforts, for example, may well disrupt the process of education, democratizing access to high quality resources: an effort to be applauded. But even assuming the process of educating can be disrupted by technology, the process of hiring the educated remains: if you remove the filter that colleges represent, how will employers manage the volume?

Like healthcare, the outsized rise in the costs of an education are not sustainable. But I remain unpersuaded that forgoing a college education would be beneficial to all or even most would be start up entrepreneurs.

If that’s a bubble, then, so be it.