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The Right To Be Rightly “Educated.” – A Personal Journey.

Posted by intellisg on June 14, 2007

harvard.jpgHOW many Harvard graduates does it take to change a lightbulb?

Only one – he holds the bulb and the world revolves around him. It’s supposed to be a private joke that’s reserved for those who had the privilege of an Ivy League education, but there’s a serious under current. For one, it implies there’s a mythical quality surrounding an Ivy Leaguer that somehow allows him to “open doors” which would otherwise remain firmly closed.

How true is this myth?

On the first cut, I have to admit. There’s certainly no doubt, an Ivy League education opens more doors than I could have ever imagined in ten lifetimes. I was head hunted even before I graduated. Fast tracked when I entered the job market and even solicited endlessly to jump ship. Another bonus about an Ivy League education is, it offers a network of stimulating interaction among some of the world’s top professors and students. The old boys network that is – and trust me the cables run deep and far. It definitely pays dividends without doubt.

There’s also a “shock and awe” aura about an Ivy League education that never fails to work its magic on others. Usually, I slip it in casually during a cocktail session somewhere between crashing into a knot of lovely ladies and scaring off the competition. When it rolls out, it’s usually followed by a chorus of “ohhs” and “ahhs,” that’s the cue for the other guy to slunk away leaving me with the spoils.

The same magic also works pretty well in the boardroom. For one Ivy Leaguers are one of the few who are often allowed to throw their weight around while some courteous chap adds, “he’s a Harvard grad.” The others shut up. They look down and make teeth suckling sounds. Yes folks, Ivy Leaguers like Swiss time pieces definitely come with a veritable assurance of cerebral reliability. After all, we are reminded, the schools we attend are not for any Tom, Dick or Harry. They are character forging cauldrons of talent, intelligence and drive that comes with the assurance of a pedigree.

Things should be “easy street.” You say. The world after all is an oyster and all I really have to do is dive in and fulfill my destiny – the rest of life should be a gravy train. Yes, that’s only true if there weren’t pesky people like darkness around. You know the type don’t you? The guy that’s slightly rough around the edges, but nonetheless keeps a strange Octagon edition leather bound book in his cubicle that suggest he has enough Swiftian touches to come across as even well read and cultured. You just know he had it tough in life. It shows – it always shows with the ones that had to run through the mill. You know the type don’t you? The student who always sits at the back of the class, swaggers in with his oil stained overalls and dirt underneath his finger nails, worked his way through 2 shift jobs, fought running battles with debt collectors and loan sharks. Lived in a box room next door to drug pushers and prostitutes, proved to us all that a man could just as well survive on dog food and eek out a pair of sneakers in three year cycles and still had enough attitude to reduce his lecturers to a nervous wreck and now he’s in my face!

I didn’t like him! Not one bit. He bothered me enough to ask: what’s that guy’s problem? He must have a chip on his shoulder the size of Alaska? Why can’t he play ball like the others? Why can’t he just give in to me? Like the rest. I don’t like the way he leans back and punctuates my presentations with irritating finger drums. I don’t like the way, he smiles wryly at me and throws out cryptic one liners that sticks all day in my head like chewing gum and even when I scrape it off, there is still enough of it to remind me. I didn’t quite get what he meant – what’s his problem? Why can’t he just fall in line?

I knew he was trouble the first moment I saw him. Too calm and assured hardly the type who even bothers with small talk even when the other guy mentioned, “here comes the Harvard man!” I reminded myself there’s always a trouble maker in every office. Though by then, I had managed to weave my Ivy League cum Jedi mind trick on the others, it didn’t half work on him. Instead he kept on my case. How many publications did I have to my credit? Were they refereed? Can I see them? Not once did he even cast a glance at my amulet of power, my alma mater lapel pin! The others played ball of course, they always do, they were the civilized people, you can always tell, they always have that tone of deference when they start a sentence and it ends with a pause waiting for you to respond, but not him.

That bugged me!

Enough to even raise my voice slightly at his condescending line of questioning more than once, but it just bounced off. Not before I registered something sinister, perhaps he was toying with me? I felt slightly vulnerable but I am sure there is enough still enough of the old magic to remind him, “idiot, you are talking to a highly trained and motivated scholar” or maybe he’s thinking: “this is another easy street.”

If I was pressed; why he didn’t endear himself to me. A whole lot of it had to do with his relationship with the other senior managers that intimidated me. The trouble maker had an air about him, “he was there but yet he wasn’t there.” If you know what I mean, hardly the model team player but diabolically intelligent to be given his “own space” by management. And he knows it. I read his project papers on the side and they were brilliant. With him at least, the bosses always said “Cool, let’s do it” and whenever he said something no one could really understand. All of them would laugh that in-between laugh, that sort-of-with-it, sort-of-against-it-kind of laugh, that nervous laugh that older men usually acquire when they know, they are dealing with someone who may one day take over their job. I didn’t like it. I know it sounds self-serving and perverse even, but I wished, I had the same power to intimidate others. For one, it would make me feel safer. Now I found myself having to deal with an “unknown quantity.”

It’s disconcerting.

It bugged me, especially when I too started to laugh like that the rest – that laugh that tucks you away in a sweet little quiet corner of nowhere – leaving you wondering: why didn’t I think of that before he did! That should be my idea!

It’s irritating and very frustrating!

In truth I knew deep inside, the troublemaker saw right through me. I called it our “private conversation,” it was never ever verbalized, but it was there all the while. That delayed look whenever that just hangs there longer than it should. When I wasn’t fast enough or when he sensed hesitation. He just saw right through the lie – into the truth.

And what is the truth about an Ivy League degree?

First of all, let me just say you are never not going to get this from anywhere, not even from Time or Newsweek magazine, because most people don’t go around selling themselves short just to make a point not even in a blog. So here goes. I know an Ivy League degree is very much a part of every Singaporeans dream. But a lot of is hype – and the writing is already plastered all over the walls, if only you care to read it.

Though it remains true high flying investment banks and consulting firms like Goldman Sachs and McKinsey still trawl their cadres of corporate mandarins from Harvard, Princeton and Yale and other Ivy League schools. Recently most corporations have shifted their recruiting emphasis away from the Ivy Leaguers in favor of second and even third tier institutions, where they believe value is better commensurate with pay – it’s a fact that no one likes to admit openly least of all Ivy Leaguers themselves and one reason why its happening is because, most of these hard nosed firms who are at the front end of delivering value and generating wealth – know that Ivy Leaguers don’t necessarily perform better than employees who have graduated from “lesser” colleges.

That wasn’t so hard after all – telling the truth. I feel much better now. There’s more to this can of worms.

Surprise, surprise! In fact, they have found to their detriment the sense of entitlement that comes from elitism frequently sabotages peak performance. For one most firms these days have reached that pay ceiling – what most economist call the point of “diminishing returns” when it comes to hiring Ivy Leaguers – a watershed that simply means they no longer perceive the value to continuing to profile higher incentives to retain so called talent. The other is wholly self-inflicted, most Ivy leaguers overestimate the value they bring to an organization and to prove the point consider this.

If you look at the top “self-made” billionaires on Forbes’ Richest Americans list, only one holds an Ivy League degree: Warren Buffett who has a masters of science from Columbia. Many others and please excuse me here while I puke on my cat, college dropouts: Bill Gates (well, Harvard, but still a dropout); Microsoft’s Paul Gardner Allen (Washington State dropout); Oracle’s Larry Ellison (University of Illinois dropout), and Dell’s Michael Dell (University of Texas dropout). And the list of luminaries that “made-it-with-out-making-it,” appears to be growing longer and longer with each successive generation. All this has a scouring effect on how businesses regularly connect the dots to define personal and organization success these days – people aren’t stupid, they can add, superimpose, extrapolate and draw conclusions – “hey all these guys are drop out’s” – “something just doesn’t add up here!” – “are those boys from the Ivy league really worth it?”

Our magic spell doesn’t work any more.

See what I mean, it had to happen. It was just a matter of time. The naked truth and it’s humbling.

I am not suggesting employers aren’t still influenced by where a candidate graduated from. Only these days the weightings that are typically ascribed to a good education are tempered with a heavy dose of common sense.

On a personal note, I realized a good education isn’t necessarily an end as it’s often painted out to be – at best, it’s only a means to an end and even then one’s education doesn’t really end as much as begins the moment one enters the work force. We all start from a spectrum of advantages and handicaps in the race of life – as reflect on my brush with the trouble maker. I realize life is very much a marathon and who will eventually take the tape is anyone’s guess and though education may even certainly feature – it’s far from being the sole deciding factor. Much of what adds up to success has everything to do with the one or two million small invisible stuff that we regularly do or choose not to do, day in and day out, which we classify as the litany of the mundane and uninteresting.

It all comes around.

As for the trouble maker, he picked up and moved on – there were many rumors of course, but what did you really expect, he’s a controversial figure – some said it had something to do with an “irreconcilable difference” with the new boss. Others just labeled him as one of those who wasn’t cut out to hold down a job. But whatever the account, I am sure wherever he is, he is still poised on his haunches, ready for anything, front legs straight and extended, hind quarters set to spring, ears cocked, and hair erect down the full line of his back. Above all, his face grins enigmatically and throughout, from the erect posture to the long smirk – all seeming to say,

“Watch me now, and then tell me if you’ve ever seen anything even half so clever.”

It’s a stark reminder, if you think you are highly educated and kosher meat. The adage that favors the dark horse will ultimately equalize the scales of life: the bigger you are, the harder you will fall! If you rest on your laurels of just trading on your academic record – the moment of truth may reveal itself, tomorrow, next week, year or decade but come it must and will.

When your nemesis simply cruises past you with that all too familiar enigmatic grin that says it all –of course once you get over the shock you will scramble and struggle to close the gap, but you just know it’s a licking that will leave you short on the ticking – there’s never ever any doubt you’ve been outclassed.

Sure you could ignore it and pretend it didn’t happen. That’s what most people do – not by choice of course, but because they have too – you can’t blame them: to preserve their world that is – but you know deep down inside what the score really is and that’s when you will start asking yourself: perhaps, I’ve got it all mixed up from the word ‘go,’ life that is – or maybe I’ve been living someone else’s life that some man on TV sold me? –worse still I am just wasting my life away! –and with these thoughts: your world will just come crashing down!

Much can be said about agony of defeat, but picking up the pieces isn’t such a bad thing, not for me at least – it offers a way of returning to the basics and grounding oneself firmly to what is truly real and important in life, family, relationships and values. They rest if you think long and hard about it, don’t really matter. In a world where people and their sense of worth are increasingly being defined, measured and valued by others. I realize that I have a choice: I don’t need to play that shitty game. It’s perhaps the only way to remain humane, sane and level headed these days. That could well be the only real “education” life offers to ALL of us who still believe in such a thing as: The Right to be Rightly Educated – high or low, mighty or powerless, rich or poor – life offers us ALL the same opportunities to see the world slightly differently from the way its usually depicted by others– and that’s something they never ever teach you in Harvard!

How to be your own man, that is.

(By Scholarboy – Education / Philosophy – EP 999272 – The Brotherhood Press 2007)

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7 Responses to “The Right To Be Rightly “Educated.” – A Personal Journey.”

  1. inspir3d said

    Very honest; an eye opening piece, mr Harvardboy 🙂

  2. prima delli said

    Hi SB,

    Very nice. Do keep it up. Most people learn, they simply must. It doesn’t pay to be too overconfident or to go around claiming you are superman. If you ask me, that is just looking for trouble in the long run, someone will come along and put you in your proper place. There’s always someone. Hitler when around talking about a super Aryan race, he got hammered nice and proper into a pulp. Stalin went around spouting rubbish about the superiority of soviet man, he too got a bollocking when the Berlin wall came tumbling down. The Japs started talking abt some Asian master race horse fodder and the US dropped two atomic bombs on them. Mahatir spoke about Asian values and claimed it was the Asian centurty and he ended up with century egg all over his face when Soros pulled the rug under his feet. The lesson is clear for all to see!

    I doesnt pay to be too arrogant, confident and to hold yourself out as having extraordinary skills and abilities.

    I notice in life it is humble ppl who are really successful personally and publicly, they always keep a low profile, work behind the scenes. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. repairman said

    cool runnings sb!

  4. shoestring said

    Bravo, SB. Honest to goodness sharing.

    Those college dropouts who made it big probably felt it wasn’t necessary to have an Ivy League education to achieve what they wanted in life. Their confidence and sense of self-worth weren’t dependent on what others think, so they didn’t bother to run the same rat race.

    On the other hand, those who are arrogant and look down on “lesser beings” because of their elite Ivy League background probably haven’t got much substance within themselves, so they have to hide behind a flimsy string of qualifications in order to get things done.

    I think that is one weakness of some of our scholars. I does explain to a certain extent why, despite having highly educated scholars in top civil service jobs, GLCs keep losing taxpayers money like nobody’s business. It also reflects on the general Singaporean mindset and the fear of losing out – kiasuism. That’s our Archilles heel. We are too scared to face life and other world without those coveted C’s.

  5. Then there are the people who would have qualified for any decent Ivy League school, but correctly see through the fog of elitism and decide not to get involved. Not the wannabes, but the would-have-beens with clean fingernails and no work experience until after graduation. 😀

  6. As It Is said

    That was a very good piece, Scholarboy. I think you have really matured. You are no more a boy, nor, from the tone of your take, are you still a scholar. Maybe, its time to move on …. to change to a more appropriate nick. Cheers and all the best, Ivy leaguer!

    Oh, by the way, I once watched how an Ivy leaguer was humiliated and never recovered because the story went right up to the top and his promotion was with-held and slowed down tremendously. That was because he had offended, through his show of arrogance and pride, those of lesser fortunes but were in the position to make his life very miserable. He was simply ostracized and had not a single friend within that working environment. And he happened to be my boss. He was shocked to find out that his boss’s boss always sat opposite me to have his lunch chat with me, and he started to be extremely nice to me. But soon after the episode, I deserted him and sought out a far-away corner in outer space.

    The moral of the story is: Be human, be humble.

    Try to remain:

    AS IT IS!

  7. handsomeme said

    The worse thing in PAP and GLC is that they tend to mistaken incompetency with risk-taking. So one failure after another, they still think Singapore is still on track when in fact, they did not reflect whether they are indeed the right calibre for the job. Nevermind that, because they be reward for failure, and nevermind that, because they are protected with lack of accountability and transparency to the public. If these clowns going to be reward for failure because they think they are risk-taker and innovative, then they will be arrogant thinking that all they need is to keeping failing and failing using taxmoney !!!

    Those people think because they have high qualification that they are more capable of handling particular job. That’s rubbish. Some jobs require innate talent and certain kind of personality.

    However, our is meritocracy society based on qualification and judge by qualification just to play on safe side (Remember this, no one ever get fire by buying IBM). So gov in order to avoid blame tend to use people who good academically but suffer from men’s fool in realworld ! And the reason they give is amazing insulting to intelligence => We have already has the best of the best (True: You buy them through money or buy them from dean’s list).

    The gov really doesn’t have a sense of proportion but have a sense of Mee Siam Mai Hum (mean BullShit because MeeSiam never has hum in first place, and telling us irrelevant thing). The next stupid quote by the Clown Prince probably would be ‘Male has no pussy, female has no dick.

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