Episode: 48 |
Will Bachman:
Advice to My College-Age Self:


Will Bachman

Advice to My College-Age Self

Show Notes

On the show today our guest is Julia Bunte-Mein, a sophomore at Harvard College, who spent one day with me over her winter break on a Winternship.

I’m pretty sure that I learned more from Julia than she did from me over the course of the day. One of the things I learned was that if I were applying to Harvard today, I would have had a lot less chance of getting in, as the bar has been raised over the past couple decades. Read full episode notes.

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Will: On the show today, our guest is Julia Bunte-Mein, a sophomore at Harvard College, who spent one day with me over her winter break on a [winternship 00:00:10]. Julia has worked as a researcher, writer, for Let’s Go and has had internships in Belgium, Spain, Australia, and Southeast Asia. She is the social enterprise director for Harvard Women in Business and all-around, incredibly impressive.
In this episode, we turn the tables, and Julia interviewed me, mostly about the advice that I would give to my college aged self and related topics. It’s a lot of fun being interviewed by Julia and I hope you’ll find it useful, maybe, you’ll even share the episode with a current college student. Julia it is great to have you here and have you on the show.
Julia: Thank you for having me.
Will: Today we’re going to turn the tables and, like we talked about, and understand you’re going to interview me. I am ready for your questions.
Julia: Great, I have many to ask.
Will: Okay.
Julia: I’m an undergraduate at Harvard, so I have to ask you, as you went to Harvard College yourself, if you could go back in time and be a sophomore, like myself, is there anything you would do differently?
Will: Well, thank you for asking. I have thought about that over the years, of how, if I were going to do college again, based on what I know now, which is maybe a little bit more, but maybe I’ve forgotten enough to make it equivalent, what I might do differently. Let me share some thoughts around, I guess, five different areas.
Julia: Great.
Will: I’m going to talk about habits, relationships, skills, knowledge and exploring. And, maybe, even sort of governing those we’d also just preface it by saying, “Look, in terms of my recommendations, are not necessarily what you should do, or what anybody else should do, because it all depends on what your objective function is.” If you’re going to college and your goal in life, right now, is to go to medical school. Well, that suggests a very different path than what I’m going to be talking about. Because your goal should be to do great in your pre-med courses or whatever. If your goal is to go into journalism, then join the Harvard Crimson, or join your college newspaper, and really write some great clips, and write some great stories, and do some internships with … that’s not what I’m going to talk about.
It depends on what your objective function is. I guess, I’m gearing this towards somebody who, maybe, wants to probably have a career in business, something. Maybe do something entrepreneurial, but doesn’t have some super fixed idea yet of what that is and is in exploration mode.
Julia: Sounds like me.
Will: That’s the way, I guess, I was at your point. Let’s talk about habits first. This might not be the normal place to start, talking about college, you normally think, “Coursework or whatever,” but college is your first time as an adult away from home. In high school, you had your parents, you had school, coaches, teachers, overseeing much of your day, controlling a lot of what you were doing with your time. College is the first time that you have a chance deciding how you’re going to spend your time and setting up your habits that can carry through into the rest of your adult life.
And it’s also a time when you have more flexibility and control of your schedule. Yeah, you probably have 16 hours worth of classes per week, or 17 hours, or whatever. Maybe you have a job, but you have a lot of flexibility. You’re probably not married. You probably don’t have the kids. You have a lot of control over what you can do and you can actually shape habits that are going to be useful longterm. In terms of that, I’m talking about physical exercise. If someone isn’t playing a sport now, find some kind of physical activity in college that you’re going to actually still enjoy when you’re 50.
That might rule out some sports more than others. It might favor things like tennis, like squash, like playing maybe basketball, because an old guy can still find a pickup basketball game.
Julia: Swimming, maybe.
Will: Swimming is great. A lot of adults, they love to swim. Running is fine, but it’s almost like, I think, finding a sport that’s fun to play and that you can do socially with other people. Physical exercise, number one, trying to do something like that every day. Diet. Maybe you’re living in a dorm, maybe you’re living on your own, but when you’re at home, parents are feeding you and you have some choice, but now you have a choice, so really, start establishing your diet and controlling that a little bit more. Thinking about what do you want to put into your body? Maybe cutting out sugar, completely, maybe, really focusing on fruits and vegetables. It sounds kind of silly to be talking about college and eating fruits and vegetables, really, longterm health.
Drugs and alcohol, so for me, if I were going to do it again, I mean, I drank very little in college and I’ve never consumed illegal drugs. I would do that again, in terms of not consuming much. It sounds kind of fuddy-duddy, but I think a lot of people maybe … There’s plenty of time later in life to have a substance abuse problem and there’s a lot more in college to do.
Meditation, that’s something I didn’t do in college, but as you read Tim Ferriss, Tools of Titans, read all sorts of books by successful people. You find out a common theme among a lot of successful people is mediation, and a lot of people recommend it. I would have probably started that earlier. It doesn’t have to be an hour a day. It could be five minutes a day. It could be one minute a day, but I would have started that.
Julia: In college, as you remember, it’s quite hard to find alone time, usually you have a college roommate, or you’re going to the dining hall, or the library, but you’re never really alone. Where would you recommend mediating?
Will: Well, I mean, I guess there’s a lot of different answers to that depending on your specific roommate situation. In my memory of college, a lot of people tend to go to bed later and wake up later. So, I think, one way to win the day is to get up earlier. Getting up at 5 AM and going to bed at 9 PM, there’s probably all sorts of places to mediate at five in the morning. That’s one idea, because it doesn’t create a lot of noise, so wake up, go for a run 6 AM, mediate for five minutes in your room. Your roommate is probably sleeping. I mean, that’s one place. In the library, libraries are typically quiet places, supposed to be, go into stacks. No one is going to get upset if you close your eyes for five minutes.
I guess, that’s my thought on that.
Next habit would be journaling. Another habit of many successful people is what Julia Cameron recommends in her books, Morning Pages, of writing in a journal. Not to keep a diary, so much, of here’s what I did yesterday, but free range, open thoughts of writing down your thoughts in a journal, so whatever comes to mind. It’s been shown by a lot of people to really impact your creativity. Another type of journaling is gratitude journaling. Another type of journaling might be once a week to pause and reflect, like what did I actually learn this week, what went well, what was I trying to accomplish this week, what did I actually accomplish, what I’m going to do differently next week, in your classes, in your social interactions, et cetera. But getting some weekly pen on paper, potentially, instead of electronic can be very powerful and I didn’t really know that at the time.
Focus, I think that a big differentiator that will differentiate people who become highly successful in the 21st Century is ability to focus. There’s so many distractions that learning to tune out electronic distractions and truly do deep focused work gives you big, big advantage. 50 years ago it may not be such a big deal, but now it’s so much harder that even among a lot of smart people, the person who can focus is going to win.
And I’d say, financial, so college is probably a great time. You might be on a more limited budget to set up some system in your life to really track your finances and budget and track your spending by category, to set you up as you graduate and start having more money over time that you’ve built that as a habit.
Those are some things I think that are fundamental base habits. And maybe one that I’d mention also is just managing your own productivity and to-do list. Coming up with a system that works for you to get things done and to track the things that you’ve got to get done. Then how do you prioritize and do those. Those are foundational habits, so habits.
Julia: Great. I have to agree. I think they all sound like recipe for success at college. One pushback though on the point of going to bed at 9 PM, and waking up at 5 AM. I am also a morning person. I wouldn’t say to that extreme, I’d maybe go to bed at 11:30, midnight, get up at 7:30, eight, but compared to most people I know, that’s quite early. I know I’m a morning person, so I stick to that habit because I know it works best for me. But I did an experiment and decided to try out what it would be like to be a night owl and went to the library at night, didn’t leave until one or two in the morning, slept in, and I realized previously I was missing out on this whole other world. The library, especially the social library, Lamont is just packed. You see everyone there at midnight, so I was thinking, “Wow, what have I been missing? There’s this whole social component here, studying at night.”
But, ultimately, I decided it still wasn’t the best for me. I would get up early and study, get my day started, but it is something to consider.
Will: Well, I guess, that roles into the next big chunk of relationships. You bring up the social aspect of it. I guess, I would ask … one thing I would ask myself would be, how valuable, really longterm, is that form of interaction. Malcolm Gladwell talks about weak ties in The Tipping Point and, in terms of thinking about strong ties and weak ties. Strong ties are with the people you’re closest with, obviously, your family, maybe your roommates, your best friend in college. People you spend the most time with and get to know them most. In turns out that most introductions in life that turn out to be valuable, for example, introductions to job opportunities, to investment opportunities, potential future spouses, and so forth, are probably going to come from your weak ties. And it’s not because your weak ties know you better, or love you more, but it’s just that it’s a lot more of them.
Having quality weak ties is really important. I may have under-indexed on that in college myself. In terms of thinking about relationships, there’s maybe three categories. We talk about students, talk about professors, we could talk about alumni. You could certainly think about other categories, college staff, you could talk about members of the community, those are fine too, if those are important to you. In terms of students, if I were going to do college again, and I was a sophomore again, I would think about what is a way that I could get to know other students in my class in some kind of deep way. That was tough just sitting down in the dining hall trying to chat with people. You can almost do that freshman week, in the first semester freshman year, meet new people, but then it starts to solidify and it gets harder to just sit down and have a conversation with someone new.
I might try to think of something mechanically to make that happen. That might be, I’m going to do a podcast and I’m going to interview every member of my class over four years and just understand their background, or I’m going to do some kind of video interviews of people in their daily life, or I’m going to write about other students, or I’m going to organize a supper club and invite different groups of people, trying to bring people together, have a conversation club. Have some mechanism that would have allowed me to get to know a broader swath of the student body.
Because I think you could sit down in the dining hall with people three days a week for three years, and not know them as well as if you had one hour deep conversation really about something important, on some topic to them. I try to think about how to structure that kind of interaction. That’s students.
I guess, a piece of that also would be thinking about something structurally that I’m going to do to stay in touch with those people over time. It doesn’t have to be a call every week to every one of these 1600 students, but how will you stay in touch? Is it a holiday card every year? Are you going to try to call five classmates a month, or something, when you graduate? You don’t need to call someone even every year, but if someone, like a weak tie, someone that you got to know, checking every two, three years. Hey, just out of the blue. This is Julia. How are you doing? Some way of staying in touch and checking in on what people are doing in their life, because that enriches your realm of experience and also gives you the opportunity to help them.
Maybe you know someone that could be useful to them, or you could recommend a neurologist that they need to see, or whatever.
Professors, so I think I definitely under-indexed on this in college. There are some professors who are super focused on their research and don’t have a ton of time for undergraduates, and you’re not going to change them, that’s it. But there really are some professors, who care deeply about students, and are really quite open to getting to know students. I’ll mention, in particular, and can become lifelong friends. Even though your age difference is so much, when you’re in college, as you graduate and get older, you can become more first name friend basis with these professors over a long period of time. For me, I got to know John Stilgoe, Professor Stilgoe, in the VS Department. Very strong friend, have been friends with him for 25 years, just visited him this fall and it’s been very rewarding for me to stay in touch with him and keep up with his research and exchange letters, and so forth.
I’d say, find some professors that are doing something interesting, even if you’re not taking their course, and go to their office hours. You don’t have to have a reason, you don’t have to be taking their course, like, “I’d love to hear about your research.” Your anthropology course didn’t fit into my schedule, I was really ashamed that I missed it, but I’d love to just hear about what you’re doing. Maybe even pull the recent article that they’ve written. Could you explain how to understand this academic article to me, what it really means?
I think there some superstars that have big lines out the door, but there’s some probably that students rarely visit. I would have done more of that.
Then, alumni, so while you’re a student in college, you have this awesome opportunity to reach out to alumni and maybe only 10% will say, “Yes,” but that means if you reach out to 20, 30 alumni, you can have two or three will respond and say, “I’d love to have a conversation and tell you about what I’m doing in my life.” Especially, if you’re not asking for something, if I had been reached out and say, “You’ve had this great career in real estate, or art, or film making, I’d love to hear about your journey since Harvard.” Probably 10% of the people will say, “Sure, I’ll get on the call with you.”
Especially if I’m not asking them for a job, or a recommendation, or an internship, or whatever, just tell me about what you’ve been doing. I would have done more of that. That’s relationships.
Skills, I guess I would have thought a little bit differently about skills in college. I definitely over invested in coursework. If I were going to redo it, I think that anybody who gets straight A’s in college, I would say that person has missed a big opportunity by over investing in their coursework. I over invested in my coursework. In terms of building skills, yeah, class work is great, academics are great. A universal skill that’s a meta-skill that is going to be useful everywhere is writing. The more writing that you can do, if I were talking to myself, that I could have done, the better. Especially if it’s writing, not necessarily for someone who’s being paid to read it and grade it, but writing that someone is going to be willing to read because they’re interested in what I’ve written.
Whether that’s student publications or writing for publications somewhere, and now there’s so much more opportunity to do that. It’s so much easier to create a blog and start publishing. I’d say beyond that, college is such a fantastic time to learn from peers, because not only do you have free time, but your peers, often, have some free time to spare, as well. You’re in this environment where you’re often living together, people don’t have kids to take care of, for the most part, so you can say, “You know how to do in design, which, Julia, you do. Could you just show me the basics?” And doing something like that, it’s so much easier, I find, learning from a peer versus trying to take an online course or go to some class. Just like, “Show me what I really need to know.” So coding, in design, things like that.
Then one is just learning from peers, but then I would have sought out more opportunities to, for an organization, or something, to volunteer to do an activity that, in itself, would force me to grow my skillset.
Julia: Like what, for example?
Will: One thing I did do was I entered college not knowing how to use a camera, not really having ever taken pictures with an automatic camera, and I joined the Crimson Photography Department and they taught me how to take pictures, and develop black and white film, and print photographs. Then I actually ended up being the photo chair of the Crimson for a year. Now, that has been hugely useful to me. You might say, “Well, taking pictures is kind of nice.” Most people take crumby pictures. I took crumby pictures, maybe worse than average before I joined the Crimson, but the process of getting feedback from people and telling you why your pictures are crumby and saying, “Get closer. Think about the background. There’s a pole sticking out of that guy’s head. You cut it off. The flash, it’s back lit.” People giving you that feedback forces you to be much more thoughtful about it.
I got some decent photographer and, while I’m not doing that professionally now, one it’s just useful with cameras everywhere take better pictures of my family than I would have. The other thing is, I actually used it in a number of professional context. In my consulting work, over the years, in certain, more operational type projects, I’ve taken pictures when I go visit a plant and incorporated those into my work. Creating videos as part of my consulting work. Having that visual sense is something I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Julia: Back in college, would you have, maybe, taught your friends how to use the camera?
Will: That’s part of it. I’m almost thinking about it. If I were in college now, and I was talking to myself now, I’d be thinking about that’s great, the photography, what are the other things you can do? Volunteer to … If you’re interested in doing, say, public service, great. How can you learn some new skill while you’re doing that? Maybe say, “I’ll volunteer to make the video that we use to send to fund raisers,” so forcing you to learn video editing, or “I will volunteer to organize this conference,” which would teach all sorts of impresario skills. How do you invite speakers, and generate interest, and posters, and invitations? Sort of the impresario skills of organizing a big event and querying a bunch of people and checklists and caterers. It’s not like an academic useful thing, but it’s a super powerful useful skill.
Whether it’s technologies, coding and design, graphic design, or still media stuff, like photography, or video, or just organizing things, or learning how to invite speakers to an event. Thinking about trying to volunteer for, even selling advertising, learning how to actually sell and close a deal. I would have been more thoughtful about how do I expand my skillset and volunteer for things where I’m going to learn something new.
In terms of knowledge, I’d say, knowledge is, in the age of Wikipedia, where any fact is just a Google search away, knowledge tends to be undervalued, because it’s so readily accessible. But there’s something that is deeply irreplaceable of having a deep content knowledge in some area that you can then use as a reservoir to relate other things to. Most college students at Harvard are going to be majoring in something and thinking about developing a body of knowledge that you can build on over time.
Julia: For you, what would that have been, if you could choose?
Will: For me, I majored in physics, and, frankly, today I not only could not solve the problems that I was solving in college, but I probably wouldn’t even recognize them. I mean, it was probably useful training, in some way, and training my mind on how to be super practical about breaking problems down and drawing pictures. That body of knowledge was a little bit more fleeting, for me. I think a body of knowledge around history, around how the world works, and being able to relate things in the past to the present day to recognize that there’s nothing new under the sun. I might have spent a little bit more time in that area.
Julia: Going back to what you said earlier about, I mean, not spending as much time on getting straight A’s, but being more involved in developing these other skills. Would you recommend then, for example, rather than taking four classes, which is the normal amount for Harvard students, taking five classes?
Will: No, absolutely not. I get the idea, but that’s totally not what I would want to do, because the last thing you want to do is push more academics in. What I’m suggesting is the academics are good, sure, I mean, that’s the reason for being there, to some degree. I think the last thing you want to do is pile on more academics and put more focus there, because there’s diminishing marginal returns to that. Whereas, spending more time getting to know other students, in some structured way, where it’s not just idle chit-chat, but deeply.
Julia: Through clubs and extracurriculars, sports teams-
Will: Extracurriculars, or even, just something that maybe is a little awkward, but reaching out to someone saying, “I saw your background, it looks really fascinating to me. I would love to just have lunch with you and hear more about what you did when you were doing that internship that I saw about.” Something like that, or reaching out to seniors and say, “I saw that you did this, you got the PhD, I mean, you got the award for the best thesis. I’d love to hear about the process you went through to do that.” Trying to have deeper conversations with people. Some people might think that it’s a little bit odd, but if you can come up with some excuse to do it. Maybe you’re a photographer and you say, “I’m doing a project where I’m photographing every member of our class, doing a photo session. Then I interview the person afterwards and doing this big project. Would you like to be part of it?” Something like that.
This is the last one, so explore has a number of different meanings. One is in the coursework that you do do, I did to some, and I’m glad I did, but I would push more to gain some entry points into areas that I’d want to continue learning about throughout my life. One area, for example, that was great, was I took a popular course at Harvard, at the time, jazz and American music. And that gave me an understanding of the sweep of the history of jazz and exposed it to me, read a few books, and got introduced to each of the different styles, so I’ve enjoyed jazz music over the last couple decades in a way that I wouldn’t have if I was just listening to it without some sense of the history and sweep of it.
Even though I played an instrument when I was a kid, I don’t really have that, let’s say, classical music, but with jazz I kind of got it. Taking a course maybe in Shakespeare or in architecture, I mean, you’re going to see buildings for the rest of your life, so being able to think about buildings, or, again, history. I probably would have avoided a couple literature courses, which maybe were just books I could have read anyways, but focused on some things that were really expanding, in terms of exposing me to something where I could become a lifelong interest.
Julia: It’s great, I mean, Harvard has a liberal arts curriculum and also have a core curriculum, so it’s conducive for taking electives like that, but what would you say to students at other schools where, perhaps, they applied directly to the engineering school and are only required to take the engineering classes, or a business school, where they’re not required to have distribution requirement? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Will: Well, I’d say that, I guess, most colleges that I’m aware of, even if you’re majoring in engineering, there’s still a lot of distribution requirements. There may also be some flexibility in, even if they’re not requirements, of substituting courses, or doing something in another department, or even with one of the professional schools. To the extent you can, take advantage of that. Guess what, I’m not super excited about your idea of taking a fifth course, but going and sitting in on some lectures of other courses-
Julia: Auditing it.
Will: -is awesome. When I was at Harvard, I sat in on Alan Dershowitz’s course of Criminal Law at the Harvard Law School. You can walk across the river and go to Harvard Business School courses, I think.
Julia: You can.
Will: Just sitting in on some courses and getting exposed to that would be another option if, for some reason, you can’t enroll in it. I would have done, also probably, for the courses that I did take, probably, the smaller the course, the better. I ended up taking a lot of large lecture courses and I think some of the best courses I took were smaller courses, maybe, some totally obscure topic, but it’s a group of a professor and seven, or eight, students. I think that those you’re maybe going to learn more, even if it’s some kind of random topic that doesn’t seem … I’d rather learn European history from Christ to the present versus the French Revolution. Why would I take a whole course on that when I can get the whole millennium of history? Well, you can only get so much and if it’s broader, it’s going to be shallower.
Let’s see, in terms of exploring, I’d say also physically exploring. I did some of this. I set myself a project when I was at Harvard to go and take photographs at every tea stop in Boston. I don’t remember if I actually completed it, but I saw an awful lot of random tea stops in college, and it got me away from Harvard Square. That was a lot of fun. I’d say, explore in terms of language, as well. You speak, I think, what, three languages? English, Spanish, French-
Julia: And German.
Will: -and German, I’m sorry, four languages. That’s awesome. I had taken Latin in high school and I didn’t take a language freshman, sophomore, junior year. I studied Spanish senior year. Then I forgot Spanish, but when I was 29 I ended up taking a few months and studying it again. I went to Guatemala, I came back, I took some salsa lessons, and ended up meeting my wife, who is Peruvian American. She probably wouldn’t have dated me if I hadn’t spoken a foreign language.
Julia: Thank goodness for that senior Spanish class.
Will: That’s right, it wouldn’t have happened. I think, certainly for me, it opened new worlds and even though Google translate, whatever, I’d say the ability to speak a foreign language is so world opening that I would have told myself to do it earlier. Then probably spent a semester abroad or traveled in that country and found some reason to actually work in that country and engage with the population to really build up my language skills earlier.
Julia: Did you do a semester abroad, undergraduate?
Will: I did not undergraduate, but I did when I was in business school. When I was in business school, I spent my last semester at IPADE at Instituto Panamericano de Alta Direccion Empresa in Mexico City. That was awesome. It was all in Spanish.
Julia: Wow. Amazing.
Will: It was awesome. It was a little bit of being thrown into the deep end because I was only two norte americanos in the class, but-
Julia: I’m sure your Spanish improved drastically.
Will: It definitely did. Then I’d say, explore the local environment and explore by traveling abroad. Figure out some way to pay for it, so I know you worked for Let’s Go, which is awesome. Finding some way to spend some time abroad and get the international perspective. I would have encouraged myself to do even more of that. I mean, you’re young. You don’t mind staying in a youth hostel. When you’re 45 years-old and have two kids, or whatever, maybe it’s a little bit more awkward to stay in a youth hostel. Do that when you’re young, when you have the ability to do it.
That’s what I would have done differently.
Julia: Great. Well, thank you so much for that comprehensive list. I definitely am jotting down notes for myself. Another question I have for you is, whether, or not, you have a specific role model that, whether it’s more recent, or someone that you’ve looked up to since college, or anyone, or multiple?
Will: You know, thank you for asking that. I actually have a number of role models. I’ll share that list and give some brief comments about each one of them. First, let me just list them out, that occur to me here, and then I’ll say a few words.
Let me talk about my father. And I’ll do this in order, so my father, growing up, John Stilgoe, from the college years. In the Navy, two role models, Rich Correll and Joe Walsh, and then in business school, Mike Feiner, then since then, one role model that I haven’t known personally, but has been hugely important on me has been Seth Godin.
My dad, who is a role model for me both in terms of how to be a father. He was always there explaining things to me, never just doing it for me, but getting me to do the thing. Building a boat together, always having me cast the rod and not casting it for me. In college, John Stilgoe, taught a random course on the built environment of North America, which was probably the most important course, to me, that I took at Harvard. Well, no probably about it, it really-
Julia: I think the course is still offered.
Will: Yeah, it’s still offered, in fact, I went in and sat in on John’s course this fall, which was super fun.
Julia: Yeah, one of my friends took it actually. I’ve heard great things.
Will: It is a great course. You should definitely take it, if you can get in, and just sit in, if John won’t let you sign up for it. It’s a great course and that course was really about going and looking at it. Go and see it yourself and think about the built environment as a subject of study in itself. And why is this physical space the way it is? It’s so much the water that we swim in, it’s so easy to miss, and he really opened my eyes to thinking about not just cities as built environments, but rural, suburban, and all elements of the human informed landscape.
Julia: Was it focused on architecture, specifically?
Will: It’s not so much about architecture, but the course will be about everything from why are suburbs where they are and why, in America, do we drive to the suburb and why do we have front lawns, and what’s that all about, to how do small towns get abandoned? Have you ever been to the town dump, and where is that located? How are those structures built? The common landscape, so thinking about, not just professional architecture done by professionals, but what do barns look like that were built by people who are building via tradition. It’s just thinking about how to take an intelligent walk, effectively, was the course.
That’s been hugely valuable to me, not just thinking about the landscape, but in my professional life, is learning how to just stand and look at a space, look at a client site, look at a factory, look at whatever, and just really soak it in and think about what you’re seeing.
Julia: There’s another class called The Art of Noticing, which sounds very similar, in terms of the skills that-
Will: Sounds like a great class.
Julia: Could you describe your relationship with your professor and why he served as a role model for you?
Will: Well, he’s, I would say that, I don’t agree with everything that John says, and I would be happy to tell him this, but it’s like 90% of it is genius and 10% is, I totally disagree with. Maybe it’s vice versa, but what I like about him is that it’s thinking almost orthogonally to the way most people think about things. And thinking about things in a totally different perspective and in a way … making connections that no other kind of professor that I had would make. Probably the best introduction to it would be, I think there’s a video of John Stilgoe walking around Harvard Yard, where he’s saying what he sees, as he walks around Harvard Yard in Cambridge.
That’s a good introduction, also his book, Outside Lies Magic, is, I think, the best thing he’s written that exemplifies what he’s like in class. He’s written some great academic books that are very excellent stylist, in terms of his writing, and extremely well … obviously, the top of the league, in terms of the academic quality of the work, but Outside Lies Magic is a little bit more popular version of some of … gives a feel for what he’s like in class.
In terms of the role models, talk about John in college. So in the Navy, I was very, very fortunate that I was on a ship that went from the worst in our squadron to the best in the squadron over the course of my three years. Not due to me, we had a fantastic commanding officer, Captain Joe Walsh, and really fantastic department heads. One I was very close to was Rich Correll. He’s now an Admiral and he was a great, great friend and really taught me just how to get things done, and discipline, and often through pointing out my mistakes and correcting me. But he was someone I really sought to live up to and was just a superb leader. Really cared about his people. It was selfless, in terms of sacrificing himself for his people. He would always give himself the toughest assignments and was just something I had infinite respect for and was great to work with him, as well as Captain Joe Walsh, and the other guys on my ship too, but those two really stood out, for me.
I’ve kind of tried to live up to that level of leadership since then. In business school, Mike Feiner, taught a course, High Performance Leadership, and has a fantastic book, The Feiner Points of Leadership. He’s been a guest on this show, so he’s been a real role of mine, in terms of, his book is a very humble book. It’s largely based on mistakes that he says he’s made to illustrate his points. And in class, I thought he was, for me, the most engaging professor, in terms of engaging the class in a bunch of role playing exercises, where right in class he’d say, “No, no, don’t just say that what you would say. Okay, you’re the CEO and I’m your SVP, say it to me as if I’m your SVP. Let’s just role play it.” So we would do that.
He exemplified the kind of leadership I try to live up to. Then Seth Godin, I read his blog every day, and that has been my guidepost for how I’ve tried to build my consulting practice over time, is basically, just the Seth Godin playbook.
Julia: Could you describe, in just a sentence or two, what his blog is about?
Will: Well, it’s about a lot of things. I think, it’s maybe sometimes referred to as a marketing blog, but it’s much more than that. It’s really about life. I’d say the book that maybe … He’s written, I don’t know, 15 or 20 books, or something, but the book that maybe best represents his impact on me is his book Linchpin, where it’s really about how to make a difference. He’s role models himself. He has a blog where he publishes a post every single day and he’s been doing it now for, I think, 4,000 or 7,000, or some large number of thousand posts in a row. He’s there every single day, every single one, I think, is informative and valuable and thought provoking.
It’s about making a difference. It’s about using the tools at your disposal. It’s about building a following, not by spamming people, but by creating something of value. And about, in the world now, there’s no longer gate keepers. If you want to start a blog, you want to start a podcast, there’s no one standing in your way. You can sit there and watch TV, or you can create something. He’s very much about, be a creator, generate value for the world, and be generous, and be generous to the universe, and that whole philosophy and approach I’ve found very, very valuable as I try to craft my own business.
Julia: I’m sure he’d be thrilled to hear this, as it seems to me, that you live up to a lot of his ideals.
Will: That’s very kind of you. He probably hears it like 1,000 times a day, but he’d probably just say, “Check, there’s another one.” I think there’s probably hundreds of thousands of people who follow him, but thank you for saying that.
Julia: Thank you for that explanation and description of your role models. I would love to meet them all, personally. Another question I’m wondering about is pretty open ended, but what would you say is your driving force?
Will: I think it’s a useful exercise to try to boil down what are the words that really represent you. That represent your philosophy and your approach. For me, I would say, it’s four words come to mind. It’s gratitude, generosity, abundance, and particularly, probably the most important for me, is curiosity. Let me unpack that a little bit. Gratitude, I’m incredibly grateful for the blessings that I’ve had and how things have played out. To be able to sleep in a warm bed and have a great family, and a wonderful wife, and three beautiful kids. I feel incredibly, incredibly blessed and to get to do work that I enjoy. I try to focus on doing some gratitude exercise each day and think about what am I grateful for? I’ll just say that, okay, gratitude.
Generosity, probably about 90% of humanity is probably more generous than me, so I don’t want to position myself as someone who is more generous than others, but I think that there’s an approach of, and this ties to the idea of abundance. You can have the mindset that there’s a limited set of opportunities and so I want to get my piece of the pie, or, in today’s age, the marginal costs of production of so many things, of intellectual capital, is so low of sharing that, really, the pie could be so much bigger. Having the philosophy of abundance is that there’s lots of opportunities out there and generosity, in terms of trying to share as much as you can and rather than saying, “If I create $100 of value, I want to capture 99,” to say, “No, if I want 99, I’d rather create $10,000 of value and keep 99.”
Rather than saying, “How can I capture the most piece of the value that I create in the world,” say, “How much do I need?” And then, I want to create as much value as possible and give as much as I can away. That’s that. And then the main driving force, for me, is curiosity. I suppose different people spike on different things, for me, I get most excited in my project work, when it’s something relatively new problem, new industry, new company. I’m learning about something new and facing some kind of new challenge, meeting new people, going to a new city. Learning about new books, learning something new, for me, I found, is probably my primary driving force, which gets me really, really excited and when I do my best work.
Julia: Just touching on that last point on curiosity, how do you go about keeping things fresh after working in consulting for over 10 years? You started your company 10 years ago. How do you change it up and keep things new and exciting?
Will: Well, I suppose, there’s different types of consulting, and some strands of consulting it’s really about doing the same project over and over again. We know how to safe money on office supplies and we’re going to help every company in New York save money on office supplies. That’s great. I mean, that’s a valid way of making a living. I’m maybe more of a generalist, where I work across industries, and I work across functions, and I fill so grateful that I’ve been able to find a way to make a living doing that. That, for me, I’m frequently placed in a situation where it’s a new industry I’m not super familiar with, new company, new problem, new challenge and I just think consultants, management consultants, are really blessed to get to do that kind of work.
To me, it’s one of the closest things to professionally, the professional equivalent of being a liberal arts major. It’s basically, you’re getting to employ writing, talking to people, and learning about some topic, some quantitative skills, problem solving skills, and research skills, and trying to understand some history, so for me, it’s really a continuation of a liberal arts education and it’s the only thing that I want to do. I really don’t want to retire. For me, the chance to keep doing consulting for the next five decades, if I’m lucky, would be sort of how I want to spend my life.
Julia: That’s a really great analogy. I had never thought about it, consulting, as the equivalent of a liberal arts education, but you’re so right. What about outside of your career, in your personal life, how do you explore your curiosity?
Will: Well, that’s a beautiful thing about being married to a wonderful woman. My wife is … we get home from a trip and then about a week, we relax, and then she starts thinking about the next trip. Thanks to Margerita, we’re always thinking about the next travel and exploring the world, or even when we’re here, exploring New York City. Then being blessed with three kids, who always have new stuff going on and helping them explore their interests. Right now, my daughter is into trapeze and building robots and my son is into Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons role playing games and coming up with his own role playing game. Helping, being there with kids, is probably the easiest way to continue your exploration as you’re growing up.
Julia: Right, and I imagine, just even walking through the streets of New York City every day, there’s always some new surprise around the corner.
Will: There can be, if you are open to it.
Julia: True, true.
Will: You can just be stressed out and walk to work.
Julia: Or staring at your phone, like most people.
Will: Yeah, staring at your phone, or going to the same place to eat, but we love living in New York City for the theater and for exploring different cuisines. Over the holidays, we set ourselves a mission of each one of us was assigned … we got to pick our own country to say, “We’ve never had the cuisine of Senegal. We never had the cuisine before of Belize, so we’re going to find a restaurant. We’re going to have South African food for the first time.” New York does allow you to do that.
Julia: Great. My last question is about books. I am an avid reader. I would love to know if there are any life changing books you’ve read that you’d recommend to someone my age, or anyone, in particular?
Will: Wow, that’s great. I guess, a lot of books come to mind, but the three off the top of my head would be, number one, would be, Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, which maybe you’ve read already.
Julia: And he teaches at Harvard.
Will: Right, there you go, so check that one off the list. That’s fantastic, I think, to reflect on our own biases. Number two, I’d say, would be The Works of Shakespeare. I hadn’t really read so much in college, but it’s been my passion the last seven, or eight, years. I read the collected works and then it’s been my mission to see every play performed. Now, my son’s really into it, so he’s seen probably about 22, 24 of the 30-odd plays. I return to those again and again, both on audio book versions and seeing the plays. That’s number two for me.
Then number three is maybe a bit more of a consultant specific book, but really good for anyone who is in professional services, which is The Trusted Advisor, by David Maister. Which is really a must read for anybody who is in a profession where part of your role is about building trust. Most of us think trust just happens. He lays out the equation for what trust equals.
Then I’ll add a fourth one for a book that is super valuable for any independent professional, which I read just last year. I’ve given this book to … I’ve given about 50 copies of this book away because I like it so much. It’s the Irresistible Consultants Guide to Winning Clients by David A. Fields. He’s a good friend of mine, and it’s a fantastic book. It’s a slim volume, quick read, and it’s a great overview for management and David was the first guest on this show.
Julia: Great. I’m excited to get reading away.
Will: Thank you Julia for, on short notice, I put you on the spot to agree to take my role and be a host.
Julia: Oh, no. My pleasure, this has been so fun. I’ve learned so much.
Will: Fantastic, alright, thank you so much for joining today.

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