One of the most important lessons I learned in business school didn’t come from a teacher and it applies everywhere in life

I wrote before about “Business school’s first major lesson: how to resolve ethical dilemmas.”
Today I’ll talk about another important lesson I learned in business school, also within the first couple weeks, also applying in many places in life I would not have expected from a vocational school.


First I have to note my mindset before starting business school. I considered the most relevant parts of my life that I’d co-founded a company and I knew more math than probably anyone in the school.
I thought business school would be a fun experience filling in a few gaps of how to make spreadsheets and learning some networking skills.

What happened

One of the major cores of business school is knowing how a business runs and one of the fundamental tools to understand how a business runs is to read and understand its financial reports — mainly the balance sheet and statement of profits and losses. These reports are like a doctor’s patient chart. Any competent doctor can read a chart and tell you tons about a patient at a glance. The charts evolved to show useful information quickly and efficiently. You wouldn’t work with a doctor who couldn’t read your chart. How could you trust them to treat you if they didn’t understand your condition?
Same with financial reports. Just a balance sheet and P&L can tell someone who knows how to read them a lot about a company. The trick is knowing how to read them. They have a lot of numbers and different types of businesses have different trends and patterns.
They’re complex. And I only know one way to learn to handle complexity: experience. Start with simple things and build. I had almost no experience and nearly all my classmates did. In particular, my study group mates — the four people I did all my homework with — were rock stars with financial reports. Three worked years of eighty-hour weeks in banks and one worked eighty-hour weeks consulting, all doing this stuff daily.
They seemed like magicians to me. In seconds they’d glance at a sheet with hundreds of numbers in dozens of rows and columns and tell me the health of the company, which department needed attention, how to change its sales policy, and so on. After an hour of looking at the same charts I found nothing.
Eventually I learned. They patiently explained things to me, but understanding took time. By the end of school I hadn’t reached the level they started with.
In short, I was blown out of the water.
I had thought I signed up for a walk in the park.

What I learned

I learned humility.
I learned I wasn’t in for a cake-walk. I was going to learn a lot, and in areas I not only didn’t have experience, but in forms of learning I didn’t know existed because you learn business skills through experience, fundamentally working with others.
You can’t learn if you think you know it all already. I consider myself lucky that I got humbled so fast and so thoroughly so I could get more out of business school.
Anyone who knows me knows my confidence today borders on cockiness and arrogance, or maybe my cockiness and arrogance border on confidence. But that’s social playfulness to polarize, as in my post “When you want to polarize.”
By contrast, I believe I have something to learn from everyone. I learned from my mistaken expectation that business skills would be easy compared to the math I knew. No way. Business draws on a completely different set of skills, many of which I had never developed.
And, of course I realized business didn’t uniquely have skills I didn’t understand. My academic background taught me to understand different fields of knowledge but here I was learning different types of skills and practices. For a school to be vocational didn’t mean it was less or easier.

Why I consider myself lucky

I found learning to read balance sheets and P&L’s important, which the humility of getting blown out of the water helped with, but the greater value to me came when I started learning leadership and other soft skills. I don’t remember what I thought leadership meant before, but I don’t think I thought much of it. I considered emotions an odd side-show.
The humility from the beginning of school opened me to a new side of humanity I had closed myself off to. And I’ve come to find this side at least as important as the intellectual side I’d valued so much more to that point.
I can only hope I’ve retained most of that humility and that I’m not missing too much stuff I lack the humility to see and learn now.
I’m sure I could use more. Rather, that I’d learn and grow more with more of it.

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