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Dropping the H-Bomb

This evening as I was walking home from work, I overheard a couple having an animated discussion about dropping the H-Bomb.  The stalker that I am, I creepily loitered by a street meat vendor, pretending to be conflicted about a lamb kabob while listening in on the rest of their conversation.

Alas, these were not Japanese tourists, nor disturbingly-hawkish Americans.  Instead, they were former graduate students from Harvard, discussing the best way to “drop the H-Bomb,” a.k.a. to tell people that you went to Harvard.

hbombThe H-Bomb is referred to as such because of its cataclysmic result, no matter the initial intention.  Some people drop the H-Bomb everywhere, proudly showing off their Harvard knee socks, cuff links, and embroidered crimson hankerchiefs. Others would rather tell you that they went to Bunker Hill Community College than Harvard, forcing you to dig deep to get it out of them (“Where did you go to school?”  “In Boston.”  “Where in Boston?”  “Cambridge.”  “What school in Cambridge?”  “Just a small school by the river…”)

Harvard’s reputation necessitates a certain prudence when dropping the bomb.  Some imagine that Harvard is just a stomping ground for douchy guys who tie cashmere sweaters around their necks.  Others believe that it’s a torture factory that turns nerds into white-collar criminals.  General consensus, though, is that Harvard students are sleep-deprived, bookworm zombies with limited social skills, poor hygiene habits, and argyle socks.  (Some of that is not far from the truth.)

So inevitably, when you drop the H-Bomb, you get one of three reactions: awe, indifference, or “fight me.”

  1. Awe: “Wow! What was it like?  Do you really have Quidditch matches on Sundays?  You’re like a genius, aren’t you?”
  2. Indifference: “Hmm. I heard they’re no longer serving hot breakfast.”
  3. Fight Me: “So what did you get on your SATs?  That’s not that impressive.  I heard there’s a lot of grade inflation there.  Did your parents go there?  Are they super rich?  Your grandfather donated a statue, didn’t he?  Whatever, I make more money than you.”

Holworthy colorMore often than not, the reactions fall into either #1 or #3.  At these extremes, Harvard alums are either deified or insulted.  Deification, however, can turn into insult in a hurry: forgot what the capital of Italy was?  “And you went to Harvard?”  Mistakenly thought Winston Churchill was still alive?  “And you went to Harvard?”  Was taken to the hospital after you threw up tequila in the streets?  “And you went to Harvard?”

Ultimately, unless you dropped out of school with a billion-dollar idea like Bill Gates, all Harvard alums will suffer from the Saturday Night Live effect.  The SNL effect is based off the premise that most people believe SNL isn’t as good now as it was in the past.  That’s mainly because the only skits we see from the past are the good ones, whereas all the crappy skits were burned to a crisp in California wildfires.  Similarly, as a Harvard grad, we are immediately expected to become the next boy-genius President, or else we’re just huge failures.  It’s tough when everyone expects you to pull a Church Lady out of the hat every single time… But, such is the curse.

Thus, many Harvard grads are incredibly insecure–and this is why we love the H-Bomb.  The H-Bomb gives us some recongition, good or bad, that we were mildly important at some time.  We derive some smug satisfaction out of being loved or hated.  So we talk about the H-Bomb.  We write about the H-Bomb.  We name campus sex magazines after the H-Bomb (now defunct).  And we pile up our H-Bomb degrees, whether we need them or not.

But in the end, we need to find the Church Lady, to find that something that will define us outside of Harvard.  I know that in the future, the douchy, nerdy, future white-collar criminal in me will always be there, thanks to my four years in Cambridge.  At the same time, I’m pretty sure I’ll sully the prestigious Harvard name by forgetting some easy world capitals along the way.  So, I want to pull off a #1 without having to drop the H-Bomb at all.  It may take me years, decades, or lifetimes… But, such is the dream.

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Bailouts By The Numbers

Got Money?  / You Know It / Take it out your pocket and show it then throw it / This a way / That a way/ This a way / That a way…

citigroup$700 billion: TARP (also known as “stocking stuffer” on Wall Street)

$787 billion: Obama’s new stimulus package

$18-$50+ billion (and rising): Auto industry

$75 billion: Mortgage bailout for 4 million homeowners… ($18,750 per homeowner)

aig$80 billion+ (and more than $150 billion more in guaranteeing its loans): Citigroup

$150 billion+ (and rising): AIG

$400 billion: Fannie and Freddie

Total of just these bailouts: $2.2 trillion

In Comparison:

oprah-rich1$14.3 trillion: GDP of United States ($4.8 trillion: GDP of #2 Japan, $4.2 trillion: GDP of #3 China)

$65 billion: Market cap of Enron in its heyday

megamillions$58 billion: Net worth of Bill Gates

$1.5 billion: Net worth of Oprah

$750 million: The record amount that Obama raised during his run to the White House

 

Madoff’s $50 Billion Disappearing Act

madoff115: Countries with less than $50 billion in GDP (including the Dominican Republic, Kenya, and North Korea)

235: Times you’d have to win the Mega Millions $212 million jackpot

820: Number of Empire State Buildings you could buy, according to a recent appraisal ($61 million)

bentley1,786: Years you could (over)pay A-Rod ($28 million/year)

146,630: Number of new Bentleys you could buy 

Hitting the Fan

$300 billion: Market cap of GE in 2008

$71 billion: Market cap of GE today (around $7 a share)

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Always Doing What is “Practical” = Boring

Many people like to give job advice along the lines of being “practical.” Choose a major in college that is “practical”. Do internships and pursue work in industries that are “practical.” Being practical often refers to majoring in a field that will get you a job. It’s taking a job that will pay you well and get you further along some sort of practical career path to success. It’s the road most traveled.

The benchmark of practicality is often related to salary, job security, and chance for some kind of success. Acting and writing is not practical. Banking and marketing is. Unpaid work is not practical unless you’re trying to better position yourself for business school, law school, or med school. Practical jobs are steady, pay well, and will lead to other well-paying, steady jobs. The impractical jobs are risky.

Of course, it’s not a bad thing to be practical. But when is being “practical” just another synonym for being “safe”? After all, success does not always come from practicality. Dropping out of Harvard was probably not a safe move, but it worked out well for Bill Gates, Matt Damon, and Mark Zuckerberg. Quitting a stable job to write a novel worked out for JK Rowling. Will Smith turned down MIT to launch his singing and acting career.

Then again, our practical side reminds us that there are just as many (if not more) failed writers, singers, and Harvard dropouts who faded into oblivion by forsaking a more judicious, traditional path. A few years ago, I was at the UPS store in Cambridge when the guy packing my boxes mentioned he had gone to Harvard. He had been a chess champion, dropped out to pursue a career in chess, but failed to make it on the international circuit. Now he was working at UPS to support himself, while writing a book on chess and his travels.

There was a part of me that thought, “Wow, this guy went to Harvard and is now working at UPS and packing my boxes… what a failure.” But as he cheerily stuffed bubble wrap inside my boxes, the UPS guy told me about his travels around Europe, a chess match he had in the Soviet Union, and his hope that his writing would eventually land him a book deal. His life experience sounded far more interesting than anyone I know who had taken the boring old, “safe” route.

I’m not sure I could do what the UPS guy did and shove aside all thoughts of practicality: I think that our perception of success is still too easily determined by job titles and salaries and risk aversion. But there is financial success and professional/personal success, and perhaps we too often focus on the former. So, if we can get around the inclination to link what is practical to some narrow definition of success, then maybe taking the road less traveled won’t seem so risky after all.

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Chasing the Dream, Quitting Your Job

Following up on an old post, “Why Young People Hate Their Jobs”, the recruiting firm Experience Inc. recently published a study which reported that 70% of college grads leave their first job within two years. The Experience survey, however, also reported that young people aren’t leaving their jobs because they’re unhappy, but simply because they’re not in the career they “expected” to be in.

So, we’re happy… but we still want to quit our jobs.

It sounds like an illogical argument, but it makes sense. People like to say that your career finds you; that deep down, you know what you’re meant to do. Warren Buffett knew he was meant to invest. Bill Gates knew he had a budding idea in Microsoft. JK Rowling knew she could bring to life a character named Harry Potter. But not all of us are Buffetts, Gates, and Rowlings–we may not all be confident that we can revolutionize PCs or make billions in the stock market. We may have to find our own career, and deep down, it may not come to us naturally. What if Buffett had chosen to become a professor instead? What if Gates settled for doing IT support? What if Rowling had stayed at her job at Amnesty International? None of us want to shortchange ourselves by settling for a job that doesn’t meet our high expectations… even if we are happy.

So, yes, I am happy with my current job. But I’ve been thinking about what I want to do, and I’m not convinced that I’m going to stay in my current role after two years. One plan I have is to go to business school and develop a start-up. Another plan is to work within the public sector, focusing on education. A third plan is to quit my job, live on the beach, get a Costco membership (those free food samples serving as my daily meal), and become a writer. Three rather different paths… and for me, each one is intriguing in its own way.

I suppose the downfall is that we have all these grandiose plans and ambitious visions, but at what point do we give up and settle down? It may be wrong to discourage dream-chasing, but sometimes you have to tell those poor kids on American Idol that, no, they can’t sing. Ambition is tricky–it can help us do great things, or it can unwittingly remove us from positions where we could excel, in pursuit of positions in which we cannot.  As much as I’d like to think I could pull an Orwell and write great prose amongst the lowlifes in Paris, I don’t think I’m ready yet to trade in my corporate job for a cardboard house and a pen.

Still… chances that I’ll accomplish either plan #1 or 2? I think 70% is fair.

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Random Thoughts on… Irony

In Politics

  • Exxon Mobil sponsoring CNN’s broadcast of the VP debate last night, especially given that both candidates embraced the populist approach of bashing “big oil”. (1)
  • Sarah Palin’s performance in the debate being considered a success because she was able to (mostly) complete coherent sentences. (2)
  • When being smart and knowledgeable is actually a handicap to winning an election… Who knew?
  • So, conservatives are conservative when it comes to the economy (favoring less government intervention), but not when it comes to social issues (favoring more intervention in the areas of women’s rights, stem cell research, gay marriage, censorship, etc.)  Liberals are exactly the opposite, favoring more government oversight on policy, but less intervention when it comes to social issues.  Thus, neither party can claim consistency in a truly conservative or liberal approach.

In the Economy

  • In Rihanna’s hit song “Umbrella”, Jay-Z raps: ” No clouds in my storms / Let it rain / I hydroplane in the bank / Coming down like the Dow Jones…” Prophetic.(3)
  • Wall Street bigwigs pushing for more government intervention in the market through the bailout. Yes, it’s necessary, but still, weren’t these the same guys who argued that Adam Smith’s invisible hand would solve all worries? Well, the invisible hand has struck.
  • Even though the Republicans are supposed to be the pro-business party, the two wealthiest men in the U.S., Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, are Democrats. So is billionaire George Soros, Lloyd Blankfein (CEO of Goldman), Steve Jobs (Apple), and several other money-making businessmen too.  So the argument that Democrats (and their policies) are totally anti-business may fall flat…
  • While on the topic of the financial crisis, President Bush is the only president in history to have received an MBA… and from Harvard Business School no less. Bush most likely will fall into the same chute as Jeff Skilling (convicted CEO of Enron) when it comes to disreputable HBS alums.

In Everyday Life

  • Non-drowsy Mucinex commercials making mucus seem cute. Talk about putting lipstick on a pig.
  • The Jonas Brothers succeeding. How come Hanson flamed out ten years ago? Hmm…bop.
  • The Tampa Bay Rays are in the MLB playoffs while the Yankees are sitting at home.(4) And the Rays made the playoffs a year after they got rid of the “Devil” in their name. Coincidence? I think not.
  • Britney making headlines for a song, of all things. Where did all the K-Fed, hair-shaving, alcohol abusin’, baby mama drama go? I think I prefer that to her singing.

(1) If you were wondering, the Exxon Mobil PAC has contributed 87% to Republicans this year, vs. 13% to Democrats.

(2) Sidenote: When did we start celebrating mediocrity and requiring down-home folksiness as a path to the Presidency? Shoot, I haven’t prepared for this question… help! Maybe I can just wink my way out of this one. Or divert the question to something about energy… Think it’ll work? You betcha!

(3) “Umbrella” was released on March 29, 2007. Since then, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has fallen 2,195 points, or about 17%.

(4) Yankee payroll: $207m (#1 in Major League Baseball)… Tampa Bay payroll: $43m (second to last). In fact, the 3 other AL playoff teams are #4 (Red Sox), #5 (White Sox), and #6 (Angels) in payroll.

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