Comfortably Numb

It is my first few weeks at The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The MBA class of ‘98 teems all around me. Clean-cut kids in their 20’s and 30’s excitedly shaking hands, introducing themselves, sizing each other up. The program does not start until September, but the class has started arriving a month early for an orientation period. With two weeks to go before the course starts, the 760 men and women with whom I will celebrate life for the two next years in an intense environment are already here.

lehmanquad[1]How do you get 760 people from Seattle, Seoul, and Sao Paulo to get to know and integrate with each other very quickly? How do you get a management consultant, a faucet marketer, a nuclear submarine officer, a venture capitalist, and an engine designer on the same level of understanding of calculus, economics and accounting? How do you get an international student from a crime-free city to appreciate the fact that at 2 AM there are only two kinds of people on Philly streets – criminals and victims? How do you get someone, 11 years out of school with a family of four, to get back into the rhythm of life in a school? The pre-term orientation period is designed to set everybody at the same level academically, integrate with each other, party a lot, and settle down at Wharton.

It is week one and I am sitting in a class in math camp. This week is targeted towards teaching calculus to ‘poets’ – right brain thinkers who studied literature, history, and philosophy in college. The kind of people who see the world in words and pictures, not in derivatives and exponential numbers. The problems are therefore business-oriented and expressed in words and pictures. “Every time a bottling run begins at Chateau Thunderbird Winery, there is a cost of thirty-two hundred dollars………” The Professor is not in a suit as I had expected. He has shaggy long hair and a wispy beard. He looks like an aging hippie who has been to several hundred Grateful Dead concerts and who held a vigil when Jerry Garcia died. He wears a T-shirt that says “School Free Drug Zone.”

Diversity is a great virtue at a top business school today. My classmates are living testimony to this fact. Twenty-two years separate the youngest (20 years old) and the oldest (42 years old) in the same class. They come from 53 different countries. There are the usual suspects- droves of students from India, China, and Japan. But I also spot classmates from Chile, Czech Republic, Hungary, Iran, Kenya, Pakistan, Latvia, Turkey, Sweden, and the tiny Portuguese principality of Macau. Undergraduates from schools like Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth, Princeton, and Stanford are well represented. So are schools with lyrical names that roll off my tongue – Benares Hindu University, Ateneo de Manila, Bogazici University, Escola Politecnia, Kwansei Gakuin, Ming-Chi Institute of Technology, University de los Andres, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Obafemi Awolowo University.

It is in backgrounds and past experience that the class presents an astonishing array. As expected there are herds of investment bankers, management consultants, and consumer goods marketers. But in the Lehman Brothers Quad, at a Hollywood Ball mixer, I meet several who are far removed from my conventional ideas of the business world. There are two Navy SEALS, several doctors (including one who currently works in the emergency clinic of the U. Penn Hospital), a Patriot missile officer who was stationed in Saudi Arabia, someone who worked for a non-profit agency that helped conduct the elections in South Africa and Mozambique, a producer of children’s’ TV shows, an accomplished pianist and cello player, an Aspen ski patrol officer, a mental health counselor, and two people who worked as philosophers (yes, wrote, talked, and thought about philosophy as a full time occupation). Why are they all here? The plethora of purposes that led them here is equally amazing. What will the two philosophers do after the MBA, I wonder? Join Intel and search for the Buddha in the innards of digital circuitry as Robert Pirsig postulated?

Wharton, along with other schools, is scrambling to prepare students for the very cliched ‘global economy,’ however nebulous such a concept may be. The tribes of cross-cultural world citizens I meet tell me that many are already advanced seekers on that road. Jane-Frances Kelly is from Scotland. She worked in a Calcutta street clinic with an organization called Calcutta Rescue. For the last three years she has been working in the Czech Republic including a stint with the Olga Havel Foundation, founded by President Vaclav Havel’s late wife. Krishnan Sastry was educated in India, but ran his own software company out of Venezuela and conducted business all over South America. He banters easily in fluent Spanish with the Latin American students and dances the Salsa and Merengue at their parties. Ted Liu’s heritage is Taiwanese but he grew up in Florida. He worked for the Wakayama prefecture in Japan as an English-Japanese-Mandarin interpreter. His past experience in hosting a college radio show was discovered in Japan and so he ended up hosting an English language TV show in Japan! One day in the managerial economics class I notice him in surgical overalls. Intrigued, I ask him about this. In his most recent job, which he is just finishing up, he does blood work-analysis at the U. Penn hospital! Lori Wood studied literature at Harvard-Radcliffe college and then worked as a director of an artist residency program in California. “And, where did you move from most recently,” I ask. “From Morocco, where I was learning Arabic” she replies, “And before that I was working briefly in Ireland and India.” After the MBA she wants to setup an artists residency program in the Sahara! I nod acknowledgingly that yes, of course, all these are very normal things to do.

This spectrum of jobs, nationalities, cultures, and experiences is testing my past approach of slotting people into stereotypical ethnic or occupational slots. To me, this is a chaotic ordering of lives and pasts.

In the first eight weeks there are 177 activities that are scheduled to help me orient, reorient, meet people, and settle down. I have a nightmarish time in picking the ones I want to attend and scheduling them in. These 177 events do not even include the academic classes which, I guess, is what everybody originally came here for. In the first week, scrambling to rush from one session to another, I feel the way I felt in Atlanta during the Olympics, racing from track and field to basketball to the Centennial park. Safer living session, pub crawl, Wharton partners(spouses and significant others) dinner, Revival dance party, Wharton’s kids (of students) ice cream party, Wharton gay/lesbian/bisexual students reception, Wharton charity golf classic, “Into the streets” to work with local charities, tours to several local companies, Workshop titled ‘writing on business issues’, a tour to the Philadelphia Art Museum to see the Cezanne exhibit, an introduction to the Wharton computing environment, a market game that simulates real market buying and selling, training on how to sit at home and search online electronic databases, a professor’s observations on diversity and racial integration in the $80 billion Sports industry. It is a frenzy out here and the only way I am coping is by becoming comfortably numb.

One set of orientation activities that has been arranged are tours to various companies. Included in them are tours to McKinsey (come in a suit), Goldman Sachs, Harley Davidson, Flying Fish Brewing company(venture capital acquired via the Internet, maverick startup, come in shorts, you may have to sit Indian style on the floor), etc.

Seats in all these programs are limited. Therefore there is an electronic bidding system and a trading mechanism in place. Everyone is given a thousand notional dollars. Twelve hours after arrival I have to submit sealed bids for the events of my choice with the 1000 dollars. The instructions I have been given tell me that “The clearing price for any event with k seats will be the amount of the k+1th bid or the first losing bid. A moments reflection or further coursework in microeconomics should persuade you that this second-price scheme will mitigate the “winners curse” of auctions – a tendency to bid and pay higher than the actual value you place on the auctioned item……………….”

This is supposed to be my introduction to the free market. But I don’t get it. My head is spinning. I am lost and bewildered. In my confused conundrum I have bid 8 dollars on a Microsoft Word advanced training program (!) along with two women from Wellesley College and none on the visit to the Trump Casino (Don Trump is a Wharton alumnus).

Did I take a wrong turn somewhere? Oh, kindly lead me to the simplicity movement that I now so cherish. It is insane here, but it is also insanely great!