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

Charley Ellis

Charles "Charley" Ellis founded Greenwich Associates, a strategy consulting firm focusing on financial institutions, in 1972. The firm's clients include commercial banks, investment banks, securities dealers, investment managers, and insurance companies in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. Charley also holds a doctorate in finance and economics from New York University and has authored several books and articles on finance. He served as president of the Institute of Chartered Financial Analysts for more than twenty years and has taught finance at Harvard Business School, Yale, and several other institutions.

Marriage & Family

Make family life your first priority. Marry someone you admire and are always learning from, who admires and learns from you. Help each other grow and share values, plans, experience, laughs, and time together.

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You have the talent and capability to create a great life for yourself and for our society. The opportunities are numerous. The need for leadership is compelling. You live only once, and life is short. So your choices matter greatly.

Don’t waste your chance to make important contributions. Work on important opportunities and problems. Be an ethical exemplar and committed leader. Become a recognized expert in your chosen profession. Reach out to and concentrate your time with the best people in your profession. Avoid those who are OK or less on values, character, and ethics.

Choose a career you really enjoy. You’ll make ample money doing work you like with people you admire. You’ll be able to provide your family with everything of real value, so why give up joy for dough?

Find a firm that understands the real value of good ethics.

You may consider starting your own company, ideally with one or more friends you trust and admire. If anyone can talk you out of it, let them — because it’s only when you know you must do it that you’ll have the determination to overcome all the obstacles and challenges and have the persistence to figure it out and make it fly.

If you decide to go ahead, give it all you’ve got. Building your own company is the greatest freedom you can ever have — and it’s fun!

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Spend moderately, invest substantially, and be moderate in “helping” your kids. Do not give them a lot. You’ll mean well, but will be doing them harm.

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Knowing that all people are complex in values, motivations, and objectives, and that groups of people are complexes of complexities, all of which are hidden from view, you will be surprised by wrong behaviors — including your own.

So maintain active reconnaissance and objectivity to catch misbehavior early. Flood the system with positive ethics to prevent or discourage bad or mediocre behavior.

Nobody who has lived by self-demanding high standards has ever said, “I wish I hadn’t.”

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Life's Lessons

If I’d known back in ’63 what seems so clear to me now, I’d have been far more deliberate and selective (or selfish or less democratic) in how my time was allocated: concentrating more time with the people I admire most, concentrating time and treasure doing more of the activities I’ve found most rewarding, concentrating investments in outstanding companies, spending more time in great art museums, and being far more careful to avoid “character-free” characters.

The secret of life is to get lucky and stay there — and make the most of it every day.

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Growing Older

Invest in you. Read forever, with a focus on important books. Travel widely. Keep learning new things and new kinds of things. Try writing, speaking, and teaching — all three oblige you to keep learning.

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