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Boston's lesson

punjab Updated: Apr 22, 2013 09:15 IST
Rajendra K Aneja

"Do you need to get back to rigorous studies?" asked Patricia. "I am getting rusty, and this programme is for people with 20 years of experience," I replied, hoping she would donate some savings to finance my re-education. She did not.

Anyway, I landed at Harvard, with 150 other managers, directors, army commanders and bureaucrats, from 55 countries, to school for eight weeks. First surprise: young clergyman John Harvard, whose name the university bears, did not donate much money; he bequeathed £779 (50% of his estate), and 400 books! Thus, the Harvard monogram proclaims, "Books Tell the Truth!"

Second surprise: Harvard is a monastery! Wake up at 5.30am, exercise; breakfast at 7am, classes from 8am to 5pm. Dinner at 6.30pm. Then, living-group homework between 8pm and 11pm. Later, revise next day's case studies.

Certainly, the professors were brilliant. Prof Yoffie taught us to encompass the strategy of mega corporations in one simple line. Prof Furhan guided us through labyrinths of international finance.

Dean Light and Nobel laureate Robert Merton explicated causes leading to financial meltdown. Prof Vietor reduced complex country budgets to simple balance-sheets. "Identifying a consumer need is the seed of any successful business," opined Prof Quelch.

To sleep for five hours was a luxury. Weekends involved incremental classes, meetings, working-dinners. We read cases during mealtimes, in taxis, restaurants, even at the barber! It was an intravenous injection of concentrated knowledge.

One day Prof Kotter lectured us on leadership. Then he advised us that even though we may learn 7,000 new ideas at the course, on return, we should focus on just two. His ultimate warning was: "If I meet you at an airport five years hence, I will only ask you, 'What are you doing in your life?'"

That was a lesson: what are we doing with our lives? Do we matter in the lives of the poor and the weak? Marketing, finance, production teach us to sell shampoo, shoe-polish, shaving-cream. But, is that our principal goal in life? How do we build a better community, leaders who make a difference?

Five weeks and 2,500-page readings later, my eyes were red, swollen. Then, I would sneak out and take long walks in the lush-green lawns of the campus, dodging the darting squirrels and turkeys. It was fall time as dry brown leaves fluttered in the cold, freezing breeze.

We pondered how our lives could have been, had we come earlier to Harvard! Harvard is a factory, producing presidents for countries and corporations, eg Obama, Bill Gates, Rahul Bajaj, etc.

In eight weeks, 150 students from multifarious continents interwove into a stout community. We willingly gave up preferred pleasures, to keep the team bonded. The minds exercised, but the hearts ruled. We knew we could lean on each other, anytime, anywhere. Eight weeks, 900 hours of hard academic labour, forged us into caring friends, alumni.

So when I heard about Boston being traumatised last week by the bombings at the Marathon and the subsequent manhunt for the two culprits of the crime, my mind raced back to my days at Harvard, where we learnt, above all to live in harmony with the 55 participating nationalities, irrespective of ideology or religion. If this lesson had been widely disseminated, then we could have saved the four precious lives lost in the Boston bombing.