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

John H. Schwarz

Careers

Look for work in areas where you have built-in confidence based on your own experience or preferences. It’s not to say you can’t succeed in areas in which you never thought you had talent, but your shortest path will come through your strengths.

If you like your work, your chances of success will be higher. In the workplace, make your first priority improving your organization, department, or work unit rather than worrying about how the company will help further your own ambitions. Take pride in making everyone better wherever you are. Success takes care of those who create success for others.

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Marriage & Family

Take your time finding the right marriage partner. Find your own identity before imposing yourself on someone else. Understand that commitment to your work ambitions has to be balanced with commitment to your family, even if achievements in business may at times suffer. In the long run, you can reach your goals without sacrificing your family life.

Teach your children both through mentoring and by example. Build their self-esteem, but teach them how to succeed with humility. Demonstrate team play at home so the family learns the art of working together. Be firm and consistent, but also understanding and flexible. Don’t expect your children to be you or to satisfy your dreams. Let them be themselves.

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Wealth

Money is one of a number of ingredients that help to make for a good life. When money becomes a scorecard, it can corrupt and compromise people’s judgment. Money should be a byproduct — not a target. The target should be honest achievement.

I was not someone who made getting the highest offer out of HBS a goal, and have maintained that perspective throughout. It’s led to having enough money to never feel a need, but it also has forced some limits on how we live. We don’t buy the most expensive car or house, and my wife worked to help pay for college educations. We have never felt the worse for it.

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Life's Lessons

The life lessons that have best stood the test of time for me were more about things my parents taught me and less the results of hard knocks or academic experience. They helped provide the self-esteem, confidence, and peace of mind to survive a lot of ups and downs. Among those lessons:

These may seem pretty clichéd, but combined with native intelligence, they went a long way. I’m not sure I would do anything differently in my life. Everyone makes mistakes, but how one rectifies and recovers from them is critical to defining one’s life.

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Charity & Spirituality

As long as people do not attempt to impose their beliefs on others, they should be free to practice and rely on their faith however it suits them.  It’s one of the tenets that makes America, America.

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Leadership

Successful leaders know how to balance focus, discipline, and understanding in dealing with strategies and with people. They need to be good anticipators and thoroughly understand their team and its strengths and weaknesses. They need to be perseverant but not stubborn. Maybe most important, they need to know how to gain from a loss.

My biggest failures as a leader were probably being to be too averse to controversy, too unwilling to take the harder short-term road to reap the greater long-term success, and leaving failing subordinates in place too long.

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Happiness & Success

Success can be simple. It’s feeling good about yourself and sleeping at night. It’s feeling good about your family and knowing how to work hard, but also how to enjoy yourself. It’s peace of mind and feeling like you have some control over most challenges.

At age 25, I probably placed a little too much stress on perception as a measure of success. I’ve learned it’s not what others think, but what you think.

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Growing Older

Don’t retire until you have truly exhausted your love for your work. Don’t retire without some plan to keep busy at something other than recreation. Keep intellectual pursuits high on your list of activities.

Understand and adjust to what retirement can mean in terms of too much togetherness with your spouse. Give each other space as existed when you were working.

Accept aging and have a good sense of humor about it.  Stay active, be social, and generally good health will follow.

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