This column originally appeared in Forbes
Harvard captures the imagination like few other institutions. World leaders from President Barack Obama to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon are Harvard graduates. Business titans like Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, A.G. Lafley of Procter & Gamble and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs are too. I've found the academic training I received at graduate school there invaluable--but I learned even more outside the classroom than in it. Here are three key lessons that helped my career that Harvard didn't teach me in the classroom.
I learned the first lesson from my own students. I was a teaching fellow at the time, educating them on China's modern history and political system. I probably learned more from them than they from me.
Every day students would come to my office overlooking Harvard Yard, and we'd usually end up talking about more than just China. We'd discuss their hopes and, more often than not, their fears. They were afraid of not keeping up with their peers and not living up to their parents' expectations.
They felt this way pretty much across the board. Rich kids and legacies thought they'd gotten there because of their families; minority students worried they were there because of their skin color; brains from humble backgrounds worried they weren't rich enough to be there. As their teacher I could see that they all deserved to be there for different reasons. But they themselves couldn't easily gauge how their work measured up against others', and this fed their insecurities.
The most brilliant of them, though, didn't let their fears stop them from thriving. They did the opposite. They had plenty of fear in them, but rather than let it dominate them they used it to motivate them to prove those fears wrong. They worked harder to confirm for themselves that they really did belong. Often the most insecure of them were also the most brilliant.
Businessmen need to conquer their fears too. They need to know how to control their worries and see opportunity where others don't. Too many businessmen have been letting fear rather than rational thinking determine their decision-making ever since Lehman Brothers collapsed, and too many investors have been making hasty, panicky decisions. Many equity investors sold all their holdings out of fear and missed the bull market of 2009. Many companies alienated and hurt their workforces by cutting too much. Others stopped investing even in high-growth areas.
PepsiCo and Disney are two companies that didn't let fear paralyze them. They looked coolly around and found opportunities while others were too terrified to make big moves. They announced multibillion-dollar investments in China and other emerging markets in the depths of the financial crisis. Now that we are in the beginnings of a worldwide recovery, those investments are putting them ahead.
The takeaway: Harness fear and use it for positive results, as my most brilliant students did and as the best businessmen do. You can make money in good and bad times if you keep your head on straight, as hedge fund investors like George Soros and John Paulson know.
The second thing I learned was to do my own due diligence and not blindly trust so-called experts. Harvard professors are impressive people who are generally thought of as experts in their fields. I found it hard not to regard them with awe. But I remember a meeting with one professor who was famous for advising governments about the inner workings of the Chinese government. One day he told me about two senior Chinese leaders, one a vice premier and the other of a similarly high rank. The professor told me that the two hated each other so much they would do anything to hurt each other as they competed to become the next president of China.
I asked him, "Did you know that the vice premier is married to the sister of the man you say is his enemy?" The professor's face turned red, and he tried to backtrack. When I told the vice premier's family, they laughed and told me to tell that Harvard professor that the two men had just bought adjoining villas.
In today's world it is difficult to know when to trust even your financial advisers. You have to do your own due diligence, even with experts. Due diligence is hard work and costly, but you have no choice. (See my article "Warren Buffett Is All Wrong About Goldman.")
Finally, I learned that young people need to take stepping-stone positions when they start their careers. Something like 70% of Harvard graduates start out in consulting or investment banking, not just for the money but because those jobs provide good training. If you narrow your focus too early, you risk being pigeonholed. For that reason I am critical of specialized programs in subjects like financial engineering or e-commerce. You're better off getting a more well-rounded degree.
Young people sometimes ask me what kinds of jobs they should take right out of college. My advice: Do something that won't limit your opportunities as your career progresses. Don't worry about money until you're 30. Until then, find great mentors and make sure you do things that give you exposure to different industries--and, importantly, a little sales experience.
In my own career I would have been stopped from advancing had I not learned how to overcome my own fears--I had a lot of them, believe me--and how to take expert opinions with a grain of salt and how to look for opportunities that provided great training and broad exposure. I learned all those things while I was at Harvard, but I didn't learn them in the classroom.
Shaun Rein is the founder and managing director of the China Market Research Group, a strategic market intelligence firm. He writes for Forbes on leadership, marketing and China. Follow him on Twitter @shaunrein.
Disclosure: disc: none