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How I Survived (Barely) as a Jazz Musician at Business School
Nobody was a less suitable MBA candidate than me at age 23
I occasionally share some details here of my peculiar life. But I prefer to focus on fun and carefree times. I’ve been blessed with more than a few.
But, like everybody, I’ve also dealt with difficult or awkward times—and especially because I keep putting myself in unusual situations. I often advise young people to go outside their comfort zone as a pathway to personal growth. I believe that’s a wise life strategy.
And nobody can say I haven’t done that myself.
I’ve been the fool who rushed in where angels fear to tread. Sometimes it pays off. Sometimes it’s a total debacle. But I take the Nietzschean view—namely, anything that doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.
But my greatest moment of discomfort happened at age 23. That was when I showed up as a new student at Stanford Business School. I would spend the next two years there.
I was completely unprepared for this new phase in my life.
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I had zero business experience. I couldn’t tell a debit from a credit. I wouldn’t recognize a mortgage derivative if it was staring me in the face.
A few months earlier, I had been living an easy bohemian life as a jazz musician and scholarship student of philosophy at Oxford. At Oxford, I was something of an eccentric, too, even by the lax local standards—and those British elite institutions have a high tolerance for quirks. When Oscar Wilde had been an Oxford student, he sometimes took his pet lobster for a walk down High Street—if I recall correctly, he used a silver chain as leash. Over at rival Cambridge University, Lord Byron kept a pet bear in his room.
I wasn’t that extreme. But I still was an oddball, by any definition, and operated in a quasi-fantasy world of my own devising. When I strolled down Broad Street with a cowboy hat on my head, people stared with jaws agape. It couldn’t have been much worse if I’d been wearing Wilde’s lobster on my noggin.
I was not a suitable candidate for a MBA program. In fact, few people were more poorly equipped for a professional career of any sort than me. Even without the cowboy hat, I looked like a desperado, strange and unkempt. More to the point, I was impractical and dreamy-eyed—lacking any natural talent or predisposition for management.
Bartleby the scrivener was a more reliable worker than me, and with more potential for advancement (as the term goes).
But I knew that my scholarship would soon run out. My financial situation was already tighter than the middle seat on a JetBlue flight.
I needed a safe career path—and I had some doubts whether my philosophy degree would be much of a meal ticket. Fortunately, there was one thing I could do—take standardized tests. So I made two trips into London on cold wintry days to take the law school admission test (LSAT) and business school admission test (GMAT).
I aced those bad boys, and in short order, I got accepted to law schools and business schools at both Harvard and Stanford. Now this could be a real meal ticket, complete with corporate expense account.
For a few days, I dreamed big—and even considered getting both a Harvard law and a Harvard business degree. I looked in the mirror and tried to envision myself as a future Senator or Secretary of State or some highfalutin judge.
But the truth is that I’m allergic to politics and institutional power—and I suspect they feel the same about me, maybe even worse. I have authority issues even when I am the authority. And, as my whole career has demonstrated, I’m much, much better at advising than managing. Hence, over the years, I’ve actually worked to avoid getting put in positions of power.
I’m just doing everybody a favor that way.
But I picked Stanford Business School and for all the worst reasons. It was just two years—while law school is three years and the joint law/business program is four. That meant I wouldn’t have to borrow so much money. And I opted for Stanford over Harvard because of the weather. Laugh at that if you will, but I had spent too much time riding my bike through the English rain—which is less poetic the more you get drenched.
I wanted to dry out, and sunny Palo Alto seemed like the place.
But here’s the problem. I couldn’t even run a lemonade stand without things going sour. I didn’t belong in business school.
A few years later, Stanford’s Graduate School of Business stopped accepting people like me. No matter how well you scored on tests, you couldn’t get into the program unless you had some impressive business experience.
I was almost the last exception they made before changing the rules. Hey, maybe they even changed the rules because of me.
It didn’t help that I’d be one of the youngest students in the program. Even worse, I was competing against hotshots who had already flourished doing high level stuff for Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley, while I had been playing Miles Davis tunes at low-paying bar gigs. They just exuded slickness, while I was as awkward as Lenny Bruce in Sunday School.
I got a taste of this my first day. The classmates in my small section included a number of future billionaires—including Joe Lacob (who now owns the Golden State Warriors) and Tom Steyer (who later ran for President). Sure, they could never play Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence,” even with a lead sheet. But they fit comfortably into a MBA program—which I most certainly did not.
I had only one claim to fame: I was the most unusual student in the program. I sometimes heard people describe me as a “renegade MBA”—not a role I chose or relished. But that was how I was perceived, despite my best efforts to fit in.
A few people even asked me about it point blank. “How did you get accepted here?” It was almost as if they were trying to find the loophole, the glitch in the system.
And I invariably responded, with total sincerity: “I’m really not sure. But I think I’m the person they accepted to make the classroom experience more diverse for the other students.”
That’s what I really believed. I imagined the admissions officers sitting around the table one day, after having too many beers at lunch, and saying: Hell, yes—let’s put this jazz musician into the mix. That’ll be fun to watch.
Every day I was reminded of my poor fit.
One day I made the mistake of using an unusual word in a classroom discussion. (The word in question was prosaic—which would have been fine to say at an Oxford dining hall or philosophy tutorial, but not while discussing a case study on coal mining.) This was a big mistake at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
The next student got very witty in his contribution to the case study discussion:
Hah, I don’t know if earnings per share next year will be prooh-saic [giggles around the classroom]. But we’ll damn sure beat analyst prooh-jections [more laughter]. And the competitors might need a prooh-ctologist after we’ve ripped them a new one. [Hearty chuckles all around.]
During the course of the next 15 minutes, several other students made a point of mocking me in vivid terms.
I learned my lesson.
The temptation here was to remain silent. And that’s definitely one of my go-to skills. I can keep my mouth shut with the best of them.
But even this backfired.
One day I was summoned to Professor J----’s office. He stared me down in silence for a moment, and then told me to take a seat. Finally he said:
Ted, I’ve noted that you’re not saying much in class. In fact, I have an assistant who sits in on our classes and counts how many times every student speaks during case study discussions. I note that you are [looks at a printout on desk]. . . . hmmm, you are in the bottom quartile of contributors in class participation.
That’s really not good enough. And it’s really a shame.
Ted, I know you have a different background from the other students, and you could offer a different perspective in our discussions. I’m urging you to draw on that very different background, and make it part of your contribution to the class.
Without further explanation, he dismissed me from his office.
I was dumbfounded. What kind of fresh hell was Professor J---- talking about?
My very different perspective had no bearing on our case study assignments. Sure, I knew a lot about jazz, and had read a lot of dense philosophy and literary books. But how could I turn that into a classroom contribution?
I had no idea. But I really didn’t have much choice. Herr Professor had made his demands. It was up to me to comply.
However, I was going to do it on my own terms.
A few days later, I found myself back in Professor J----‘s class, and this time I took a seat up front and center. If I was going to do this, I had to do it right.
We launched into a heated discussion of a case study involving a massive reorganization at a Fortune 500 company. The CEO had hired and fired, reallocated budgets, changed reporting relationships—and a bunch of other things that tyrannical bosses do to save their own skins.
Professor J---- was almost dancing around the room in response to the various opinions offered hither and thither. But then he stopped in the middle of the room, and looked straight ahead—where his eyes locked with mine.
I gave a knowing nod of my head. That was all he needed:
“Ted,” he said, “what do you think of all this? Has our CEO gotten to the root of the problems? Is he making the right moves. Can you add a different perspective to our discussion?”
I paused for a moment. Then I looked pensively around the room—like Hamlet before his soliloquy. Finally I responded:
Professor J----, I’d like to share a moment in War and Peace, when Tolstoy describes Napoleon’s preparations for the Battle of Austerlitz—which, as some of you know, is also described as the Battle of the Three Emperors. That should remind you of the three competitors involved in our case study, who clearly have imperial ambitions of their own.
But Tolstoy does something surprising here.
You need to understand that War and Peace is more than just a novel—it embodies an alternative historiography, a radical philosophy of action and events. Call it a theory of organizational behavior, if you will. And this theory is more profound and, I would suggest, pragmatic, than the admonitions from Michael Porter, author of our Strategic Management textbook.
That’s because Tolstoy grasps the contingency of human affairs, and demonstrates how macro level planning—or what philosopher Sir Karl Popper calls holistic social engineering—creates the very problems it seeks to avoid.
So you might assume that Napoleon is a military genius, whose risk-taking is driven by brilliant strategic insights—much like our beleaguered CEO. But that’s not how Tolstoy sees it. He shows how egomaniacal and buffoonish the famous general really is. Napoleon believes he controls events, but events actually control him. His successes owe as much to luck as to his alleged genius.
This is an invaluable lesson, even in the context of our prooooh-saic case study. Leaders fail for many reasons, but Napoleonic over-reaching is first and foremost on the list. They would benefit from a heavy dose of Tolstoyan humility and skepticism. Otherwise it’s just a fast path to Waterloo, and I’m not talking London subway stations.
At that, I fell silent again. And so did the entire classroom. Not even Professor J---- knew how to respond to this.
After a long pause, one of the other students tried to set things right. Putting on a brave face, he said:
Well, I haven’t read War and Peace. But I did read a Jackie Collins novel on vacation—and everybody got screwed. Maybe that will happen in our case study.
But there was hardly a chuckle. I had won the day. And nobody had a sufficient comeback—least of all Professor J----.
After that neither Professor J----, nor anyone else at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, ever asked me again to share my different perspective. This was fine with me.
The right to remain silent isn’t just for criminals, and is a very underrated coping skill. And that’s pretty much how I survived business school.