Think About It: What They Don't Teach You at Harvard University

Don Meyer, Ph.D.
Don Meyer, Ph.D.

“Thinking is easy. Acting is difficult. To put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Although it has been nearly 30 years since Mark H. McCormack wrote his classic book What They Don’t Teach You at the Harvard Business School (1989) I am still thinking about it. At first it was the title that caught my eye. One must be quite bold to criticize a Harvard University education like that.

But from the moment I started reading that book I realized McCormack was not criticizing Harvard University. Rather, he was writing about the limitations of learning only from the classroom. His whole point is that there are just some things you can’t learn from books or even from formal curriculum in an educational institution.

To be successful in life, there are life skills which must be mastered. He speaks of the need to be able to read people. He actually said, “I have often said that I can tell more about how someone is likely to react in a business situation from one round of golf than I can from a hundred hours of meetings.” Real life reveals real life.


McCormack wisely observed that the effective leader needs to “observe aggressively” to pick up the nuances of tone and personality and style of those we are trying to lead or influence. We need to “talk less” and “listen more.” We need to “take a second look at first impressions” because they are not always accurate.

He also referenced the need to “keep growing” after graduation. We cannot rely on knowing everything we will need to know once the last formal class is over. I think this may be one of his most important insights. Even one graduate who feels learning stops at graduation is one too many. Learning actually only starts after the tassel is turned.

I also liked the way he described the importance of leadership conduct. “If you don’t react, you will never over react.” The impressions we create by the tone in our voice and the look in our eye may be far more important than the words from our mouth.

In 1983 Howard Gardner wrote about the different ways we learn in his book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Rather than seeing intelligence as dominated by a single general ability, he articulated eight abilities which demonstrate different intellectual capacity.

The person who has “visual-spatial” skill recognizes physical space which fits the abilities of architects and sailors. The person who has “bodily-kinesthetic” skill has a keen “body awareness” like athletes, dancers and doctors. The person who has “musical” skill shows sensitivity to rhythm and sound like all musicians. He also describes “interpersonal, intra personal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical” which are evident in other professions.

Some have criticized Gardner’s definition of intelligence as too narrow but he does show how differently we learn and live. I think this is what one of my professors had in mind when he said, on average, the best students in life are the “B” students and not the “A” students. For that class, he was a great encouragement to me.

Sometimes we speak of the classroom as the “ivory tower” inferring that it is a place of idealism which is far removed from the real world. And there is some truth to that perception. This fits McCormack’s description that there were some things you just can’t learn in the classroom. Few would disagree with that reality.

That is probably why Tim Elmore wrote an essay titled “Helping Students Transition from Backpack to Briefcase” (10/2/2013). We all know that the set of skills needed to earn an “A” are very different than the set of skills needed to get a promotion or to make a sale or to start a business or to create a work of art.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA

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