It’s been a busy week here in Oxford, what with my parents visiting and with many events, dinners, and shindigs around town to take them to. As I ponder my own decisions for the next few years, I have the creeping worry in the back of my head that I need to really buckle down and focus on work, on writing books, on … something big in the next few years. Taking care of your parents, and living with them in a small apartment, can be challenging, and as I try to run around between seminars, getting groceries, and telling them what to visit and when, it’s hard for me to understand how any academic or scholar with a family gets things done. Baby steps …
One of the events in recent days (the other was an event with Russ Feingold, but with Chatham House rules, so I am not at liberty to comment on it in detail) was a talk by Patrick Pichette, the highly energetic and self-described “unconventional CFO of an unconventional company.” Pichette himself was a Rhodes Scholar from Canada in the 1980s, and the purpose of his talk, as he saw it, was to give young people some sense of how to approach their own careers – how to be imaginative, embrace surprises, and do something along the lines of the Rhodes Scholarship’s mission of “fighting the world’s fight.” As someone currently going through existential thoughts about career choices and trajectories nearly daily, it was a welcome chance for reflection, even if I can’t agree with all of Pichette’s remarks.
The gist of Pichette’s advice can be summed up in a single word: relax. It’ll be OK. As he himself pointed out, when he graduated from Oxford with PPE (Politics, Philosophy, and Economics) in 1989, he had made sure in the course of his final year to attend as few recruiting events as possible. (This was in the day, as will be familiar to many readers of this blog, when corporations regularly beat down the doors of university career services offices, with McKinsey, BCG, Goldman, and others, big players, albeit before the period when McKinsey actually rented office space inside of Rhodes House so as to better recruit outgoing Scholars.) After graduating from Oxford in the summer of 1989, Pichette deliberately went off-line, so to speak, and went hiking in the Pyrenees for several weeks before returning to Toronto (where his then-girlfriend and now wife was going to be stationed long-term) in order to find something. And find something he did: he began to work for McKinsey as an Associate and later a Partner for much of the 1990s, with stints at Canadian telecommunications companies in the middle.
It was only much later that Pichette received a phone call from Eric Schmidt of Google, who was looking for a CFO at the time. While Pichette was comfortable in his then-position at Bell Canada, Schmidt insisted on a dinner meeting, and the rest is history. Right now, Pichette has a huge portfolio (with, it sounds like, surprisingly little accounting), basically running around from big logistics problem to big problem: whether it’s running Google’s bus operations (the company buses in its employees to the offices for free, not only from San Francisco –> Mountain View, but also from the suburbs of Bangalore to the office, a slightly more challenging feat) to one of its latest projects, installing ultra-high speech Internet in Kansas City, KS.
What to draw from this career track, one wonders. In his own view, Pichette argued that fit was key. In his case, he was a highly energetic person, bored by academic ritual, lectures, and so on, as well as consulting speak and business jargon garbage. So rather than playing by the rules in either setup, he tried either to get out of it as soon as possible (in the case of academia), or play by his own rules (within McKinsey). While at the latter, he would routinely volunteer for fact-finding missions to out-of-the-way towns whose mills and factories were owned by McKinsey clients, if only to interact with the factory workers, and just hang out at the complex all day to get a sense of how things really worked. All of this resonates deeply with me: I know that if I had to deliver the kind of McKinsey Powerpoints and Excel reports that I’ve seen friends do for months on end, a part of me might die. I’ve been privileged to live in some pretty neat places throughout my life thus far, and make visits to quite a few other cool ones – Germany, Russia, Georgia, Tajikistan, Buenos Aires – and I also think that a part of me might be crushed to live the life I know some friends live, namely out of a hotel room (even if a nice on) in Houston, Milwaukeee, even Zürich for months on end. I’m all right with being nomadic for now, and may be keen for settling down in the suburbs one day, but hopefully only in a major metropolitan center, if I can swing it.
Further, I think the attitude Pichette evinced of having what we might call a startup mentality even within big organizations is crucial. One thing Patrick underlined was that he was shocked at how desperate all of his friends seemed to get jobs at the McKinseys of the world, and how, once they were hired, how tentatively they acted, how scared they were that they might be fired at any moment if they did anything too original. One has to jettison this attitude, Patrick suggested, all the more so if you’re getting paid consultant salaries. His thoughts also made me think in more historical directions. Over dinner with a friend this evening, I was reminded that George Kennan, the U.S. architect of the containment doctrine, was tapped in 1933 to accompany William Bullitt, himself a fascinating figure and the first U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, to found the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Things were going all right between Kennan (who was 27 at the time) and Bullitt when official business apparently called Bullitt away from Moscow for several weeks, and Kennan was effectively charged, as a young man in his late 20s, with building up the Embassy – relatively successfully so, at least in the friend’s anecdote. Sure, given the proliferation of U.S. Embassies and Missions around the world today, barring the crack-up of, say, China into successor states, I wonder whether this is the right sector for someone interested in starting institutions. But it also gives me comfort against a wave of attitude that I sense coming occasionally from the tech and startup scene in Silicon Valley: that tech-related startups are the only, or the only legitimate arena, in which one can flex entrepreneurial gusto, and that if you are not involved in this sector in particular, it somehow shows, to paraphrase a beloved Russian oligarch, that you are lagging behind in vision, discipline, and perhaps even sex drive or masculinity. So there’s one takeaway from Pichette: do things. If you’re interested in the world, or doing an activity X … go do it, rather than circling around, getting anxious, and worrying about whether it’s the right thing. Hell, when I see the story about Kennan, I wonder if I will consider myself a failure or disappointment in some sense if I’m not deputy chief at the U.S. Consulate in, say, Herat or Port Moresby in a few years’ time.
And yet I worry, for here we were, members of one of the most élite institutions in the world being wined and dined, presumably there because we took some risk, some adventure that made us unconventional, being told by a former graduate to take risks … and yet had he not come through here and gone through McKinsey, itself known as one of the most homogenizing élite institutions around? I worry that however well-intentioned Pichette’s advice, I find it hard to take him 100% seriously when it comes to talk of risk-taking, thinking about “fit,” and adventure being rewarded when I look either at his career, or at the paths that others around me sometimes take. McKinsey itself is often so vague as an institution, and so temporary in the role it plays in peoples’ lives, that it seems hard to talk about it having “fit” of one kind or another for unique, diverse individuals today. Too often, when I look around, whether it was at Princeton, or, occasionally, at Rhodes House, too, I do not see people and institutions taking big risks, going on adventures, taking up kooky or obsessive projects, and being rewarded for it. At Princeton, the Faculty awarded my year to give both the valedictorian and salutatorian award (in 2008!) to students who would immediately go on to work for hedge funds – this from an institution that bills itself as “in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” Based on my vantage point (I have never interviewed with a consulting firm, but have many friends who do), I see those getting ahead who took easier courses to pad their GPA, took the well-worn route of internships over the summer at smaller regional banks and so on before gunning at the big boys, and maybe getting a job going into fall 2008. When I was in the Bay Area, I worried at times as I met and saw people who often times had eclectic interests, even obsessions – be it the mountains and hills of the region, crazy ethnic cuisine, favorite books, authors, or topics, etc. – but often times these interests, such as yoga, running triathlons, or bicycling, were structured into extremely, sometimes mind-numbingly so, corporate careers. And I can confirm that consulting remains a popular choice for exiting Rhodes Scholars, still often accompanied by many of the creative justifications one heard at Princeton from 2004-2008. In short, I hear a lot of talk about how risk-takers and adventurers are rewarded, and yet, at the same time, I see, if not the majority, then many of my contemporaries jumping gleefully into bed with highly conventional corporate career paths — even as they were supposed to have been indoctrinated by the élite institutions into an ethos of giving and public service.
Without going into too much further depth on this, the whole situation makes me worry. At de Klerk’s talk, we were told that a system cannot go on long-term if an élite views itself as such, and does not remain firmly grounded in a democratic attitude of giving back to those who didn’t have similar social or educational opportunities. In the case of Google (which, let’s remember, is technology, not consulting- or finance-driven as a company), I’m more than happy to have some friends and colleagues working there to improve open access to information. But still, I wonder: do we have values that encourage sufficient risk-taking, or a culture wherein not doing McKinsey, Yale Law, or Goldman Sachs isn’t tantamount to failure?
It all makes me think of the closing lines to an excellent Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn story (if I may close on one of my obsessions …). Here, Solzhenitysn ends his story of Martyona, a simple peasant woman who is killed in a freak accident, reflecting on Matryona’s basic goodness in a country that has lost its way from the simple traditional values (which for Solzhenitsyn are vastly different than my own personal vision for American society, but that’s a different story) that use to preserve it. What follows is my own hasty translation:
And indeed! They all had a pig in every hut. All except for her.
And what could be easier? Feed the greedy little piglet, not knowing anything in the world besides food! Cook for him three times a day, live for him – and then cut his throat and eat bacon.
But she didn’t.
She didn’t chase after the latest dress. For clothing that would beautify monsters and villains.
Not understood and abandoned even by her own husband, having preserved the life of her six children, but not socialable, foreign to her own sisters, strange to her sisters-in-law, stupidly working for others for free — she didn’t squirrel away property to her death.
A dirty white goat, a hobbling cat, and her ficus trees …
We all lived along side her and didn’t understand that she was that “just man” without whom, as the saying goes, a village cannot stand.
Nor a city.
Nor our whole country.