If I Knew Then

Advice on careers, finance, and life from Harvard Business School's Class of 1963

As the 50th reunion of Harvard Business School's Class of 1963 approached, we asked the class members if they had any advice to pass along to younger generations.

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Ever an opinionated bunch, the 1963 grads had plenty to say. But you might wonder: What could those on the initial trajectory of a life or a career possibly learn from a group of mostly white, mostly wealthy, mostly men in their seventies or eighties? Despite their undeniable success in the business world and government, these 1963 graduates lived the majority of their adult years during much different times.

In 1963, the average price of a new home was $12,650 — a fraction of what even the most modest home sells for today. That year, gasoline sold for 22 cents per gallon, the minimum wage was $1 per hour, the average starting salary of a Harvard MBA grad was $9,500, and the national debt was a $286 billion drop in the $17 trillion bucket it is today.

The world these 1963 graduates entered was also starkly different in terms of technology and culture. The members of the Class of 1963 lived most of their lives without the Internet, the eurozone, climate change, and a society with an enlightened of view of racial and marital equality. Could these people possibly have a relevant thought to share with those in their twenties, thirties, or forties?

It is, in fact, because these Harvard grads have lived through all these massive changes that their perspectives count for so much. They have been a part of both the “before” and the “after” pictures of a world transformed.

They entered the business world when commerce was mostly confined to national borders, and they ushered in the notion of the global village. They went to work in the age of secretarial pools and longhand ledger sheets, and led the charge into a digital, wireless landscape. They landed their first executive jobs during a time when women and people of color were strangers to the boardroom, and delivered us to an era when the leader of our greatest organization is the son of a Kenyan.

In short, the Class of 1963 is uniquely qualified to dispense advice, because its members have both the experience and perspective that only the long view can provide.

There is another, perhaps even more compelling reason to seek the counsel of these Harvard grads. As a stroll through any art museum or a reading of Shakespeare will quickly inform, the big questions we humans grapple with aren’t about the emergence of 3-D printers, foreign currency transactions, or health-care reform.

The truly essential questions of life simply haven’t changed that much in the past 50 years. Or the past 500.

The human experience is not defined by our relationship to technology or business or money. It’s about our relationships with each other. The enduring themes of love, family, faith, and self-acceptance are the ones we most seek to understand with the benefit of some inspired, experienced guidance.

If you were going on a long and treacherous hike, who would be the best person to ask about the path ahead? Someone a few yards away from the trailhead? Someone who’s made it halfway to the destination? Or someone who’s walked almost the entire trail — and who can tell you about the washed-out bridges, the sections that seem impossibly steep, and the vistas of indescribable beauty that lie ahead?

The graduates of Harvard Business School's Class of 1963 have accomplished much in the years since their graduation. But it might be said that their greatest contribution is quite recent. It is the wisdom that they took the time to think through, write down, and share with all of us.



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