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

Chapter 10

Life's Lessons

What do you know now that you didn’t know then?

We all seem to think that we’re somehow different — that the natural laws of aging don’t apply to us. That our missteps are the fault of bad luck, not poor reasoning. That we’ll always have time later to right our wrongs, get close to our children, and find our true calling.

If there’s one thing the advice of these 1963 Harvard Business School grads makes abundantly clear, it's that no one is exempt. The most successful of these alumni — depending on how you define “success” — have still known their fair share of tragedy, illness, and other setbacks.

So, while all the graduates have their own take on what he or she knows now that escaped them in 1963, there’s a bigger message that those who are still finding their true path should take to heart.

That message is that it’s not about the diploma, the bank account, the résumé, the summer home, the books authored, the stock options, the wine cellar, or the luxury sedan in the driveway. "Keep your perspective," they say. "Realize that your purpose in this world is, first and foremost, to make a better life for others."

To those who see their own 50th class reunion as an imperceptibly distant point on the horizon, this may all sound like trite platitudes. "But take our word for it," says the Class of 1963. One alumnus put it as simply as it can ever be stated: “Be kind. Soon we’ll all be dead.”

Andy Petery

Life is about change. You must embrace the future and learn from each triumph and tragedy, forever determined to move onward and upward. Do not be a bystander. Make taking risks intelligently part of your repertoire.

Contemplate your failures more than your successes — not to lament where you fell short, but to learn the valuable lessons that will ensure you will not fail the same way again.

Do not despair over forces beyond your control. If you believe in God, as I do, your faith can carry you through even the darkest times. Find solace in the fortitude of your integrity, and focus on those things you can control.

Time is fleeting. Invest as much of yourself in your family as in your career — a lesson I had difficulty realizing. As some of the things you once place great emphasis on slowly fade away, family will be your foundation forever.

Know that everything you do will affect those you love the most.

Embrace humility and learn from your mistakes, but do not let them consume you with the paralysis of indecision or the depression of regret.

Understand that money is not the end game. It is, however, a great enabler. Money helps satisfy your curiosity concerning the world. It will enable you to travel and expand your horizons. It will also provide you with independence and the ability to support your family and friends in need, as well as give to your community, educational institutions, and church.

This is the real value of money, as I learned from my father. Earn it honestly, take risks intelligently to achieve extraordinary rewards, and give back generously.

Take care of your body. Exercise regularly. Do not smoke or drink excessively. Your body is the vessel of your soul.

Contribute to your team. Participate in sports — especially team sports —as long as you can. Some invaluable lessons can be learned from team sports, such as the interdependence we have on one another and that the whole really is more than the sum of its parts.

We are always indebted to others for our successes, including our strong forbearers — mother and father, members of our family, teachers, colleagues, mentors, and priests. 

Even if your marriage is blessed with children and happiness, it still presents a challenge and requires a series of adjustments.

Finally, in everything you achieve, take satisfaction from your own efforts, perseverance, mental strength, and judgment. Yet, always acknowledge the contributions of those family members and friends upon whose shoulders you stand.

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Jose M. Faustino

I switched fields twice in my academic career — I believed the entire experience was part of growing up. The lesson here for young people: Do not hesitate to switch interests, majors, or fields of concentration. Find your preference or your passion, then focus on it to your heart’s content.

Success is a journey – not a race. Prepare well, retain good practices, and make a habit of effective strategies:

  1. Do not be content to be average. Mediocrity breeds boredom, poor opportunity, and an unsatisfactory lifestyle. Instead, decide to excel in everything you do, and be distinctive, if not unique, in your approach.
  2. Take well-analyzed risks, particularly when there is everything to gain and little to lose. Do not be afraid of rejection when you have competently and ethically tried to succeed.
  3. Be skilled in political strategy. Interpersonal, leadership, and motivational skills are all important for success, but few consider political strategy. In my mind, there is organizational politics in any group with more than three people.
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Douglas T. Tansill

There is no substitute for integrity. In a world where greed and taking shortcuts seem to be major themes, there is nothing that can replace one’s reputation. The ability to look back on life and say, “I did it the right way” is a treasure. There is no do-over when you lose your integrity and reputation.

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One: No matter how successful you become, there is always someone more successful, so don’t take your own worth too seriously, nor become arrogant in its revelation.

Two: For a successful marriage, don’t eat crackers in bed.

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Bill Agee

It has been said, “Happiness is achieved not by having what we want — but by wanting what we have.” This is precisely where I find myself at this time in my life.

Certain practical lessons I have learned could possibly be helpful to others:

First, I would recommend postponing marriage and children until later in life. In my view, there is no more important decision any of us will ever make. Despite all the statistics that confirm the unlikelihood of marriage succeeding in the teen years, I somehow missed that lesson and caused myself and others a lot of unnecessary anguish. While I was fortunate enough to have been given a second chance at finding happiness, not everyone is that blessed, and the process of beginning again is anything but easy.

Second, I learned the hard way how important it is to maintain a healthy balance in life — between career and family, work and relaxation in particular. Achieving and maintaining this balance requires regular soul-searching as well as self-discipline. It is all too easy to rationalize when promotions, bonuses, and perks are being waved in your direction. The consequences of imbalance are easy to recognize: poor physical health, broken relationships, and spiritual poverty.

Third, I would advise anyone with a genetic predisposition to alcoholism to be wary about using this recreational drug. While treated as almost a social requirement in some settings, it is nothing less than toxic for anyone with this weakness. Having been sober for almost 20 years, I can attest to the freedom and joy that overcoming this illness can provide.

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Ralph Linsalata

Put your family first and, when things go wrong at work, put the problems aside and enjoy time with your loved ones. Family vacations are the best times you will ever have.

If you find an industry and position that you like and are good at, stay in it until you have achieved significant success, even if it means you have to join a less-than-first-tier firm.

You will have the most enjoyment working with people who are smart, of high integrity, and committed to achieving something substantial.

Never stop learning, and be willing to take a risk in your career.

Success is highly dependent on many variables — not just you. Do not fool yourself that you can do anything and turn around any product, project, or company without the right people and resources. 

Constant and honest introspection and visualization of what you want for your future are important.

Almost everyone has good intentions and excellence within them, if they’re put in the right position and given the opportunity to learn and develop.

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Judy Ley Allen

I have learned that the life lessons my parents tried to teach me were right after all, but sometimes I had to try the opposite just to be sure.

  • Always be good to others.
  • Look on the positive side.
  • Do your best.
  • Care for those less fortunate.
  • Work hard.
  • Lead a balanced life between work, family, and friendships.
  • Never say an unkind thing about anyone — it will always come back to haunt you.
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Early on, know your strengths and weaknesses. Celebrate your uniqueness. Gravitate toward what satisfies your inner self. Try to understand where you came from and how your early experience helped or hurt you. Beware of heroes. Feel good about yourself.

My obit will probably include a host of awards, high positions, and achievements, — and I’m proud of them. But there is a certain joy that surpasses all understanding. I would like to have found that.

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Joan O. Rothberg

My career is unique because it spans a half-century — from when there were no business opportunities for a bright female MBA to now, when there is every opportunity for women. Overcoming great obstacles in my early career gave me a sense of accomplishment and personal pride. I led the way by example and helped other women achieve their potential.

I know now what I knew then: never, ever give up, because things and attitudes can and will change.

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Ron Leslie

  • Choose your partners well.
  • Be gracious.
  • Take your responsibilities seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.
  • Never answer questionnaires.
  • Our HBS-induced arrogance is demeaning to others and to ourselves.
  • Children are a blessing.
  • Sex never gets stale.

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Charley Ellis

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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Bob Griffin

Of all the things I thought would provide a happy and successful life, the one most undervalued was the attention paid to wife, children, and other family during the beginning years. Sacrifice of family for job achievement for the “long-term good of the family” was a myth.

The long-term measure of success has less to do, in my view, with monetary achievement and public acknowledgement than with the privilege of being able to provide a path of progress and growth for the family and being part of a loving, supportive family unit. For me, that success was sometimes elusive, but I’m grateful to say it has been a steady foundation later in my life.

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William J. White
  • Life is all about giving back. Start early.
  • Doing something you love is not work.
  • Don’t ever do anything just for the money.
  • Making a contribution to your family, job, or friends is what really drives satisfaction.
  • Grandchildren are the greatest!
  • Phase into retirement slowly.
  • Stay around young people. They will keep you young.
  • Maintain balance in your life through your family, religion, career, friends, and hobbies.
  • Networking is about giving — not taking.
  • Take chances with your career. Don’t be afraid to take a step backward.
  • Keep your sense of humor. There is fun to be found in most everything we do.
  • A strong religious belief can solve a lot of problems.
  • Long, happy marriages are related to many common interests.
  • A wonderful spouse is a true gift.
  • You are never as good or as bad as you may think you are. Stay humble.
  • Curiosity and maintaining an open mind seem to be underrated leadership traits.
  • Don’t avoid the screening tests and early warnings about your health.
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Carol Nicholson Fryeberger

The care and nurturing of one’s family takes an all-out commitment by both parents. There are no shortcuts, but the rewards are immeasurable.

Life is good if you decide that it is. Partake in it with enthusiasm and gratefulness.

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John P. Keller

Don’t take any pills. My mother is still alive at 101 and she hasn’t taken a pill in 10 years. I don’t follow that advice, but it comes from a very good authority.

This is what life is about: borrowing enough money to buy a really nice house and then spending the rest of your life fixing it.

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I have achieved a certain tranquility or serenity which provides me much pleasure at this stage of my life. However, I am not at all sure these same characteristics of life would have been helpful during the peak of my business career.

The lesson learned: There are different characteristics of one’s life as one experiences it. Honor them as they occur.

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Sam Abel-Smith

Be your own man and don’t get influenced too much by friends and parents. Do your own thing. Do what you enjoy and financial success will follow your enthusiasm.

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Warren Batts

When all is said and done, the old sayings are true:

  • It’s family and friends that count.
  • It’s the life in your years, not the years in your life.
  • Money does not buy happiness.
  • Helping others is the healthiest way to live.
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Artie Buerk

Serving as class secretary and following 600 alumni over 50 years has taught me to become an “info junkie.” I am also a voracious reader of periodicals of all kinds. All this information leads one to spot trends and look into the future for new trends — sometimes bad and sometimes good.

Travel is another great spur to personal growth. My wife Sue and I have visited 168 countries, and have roughly 40 to go to exceed the number in the United Nations and reach what most consider the more civilized world.

Finally, community participation and giving back are both very helpful in achieving personal growth

All in all, personal growth comes from looking ahead and giving back as much as one possibly can. Keeping track of 600 people for a lifetime was one of the most educations experiences one could ever have.

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Jim Collins

Ethics and morals have been in a steep decline, in my estimation, particularly since the mid-1960s. We will always have people who will deceive others for personal gain. Deception in both the public and private sectors seems to be at an all-time high. It’s more important than ever that you know who you are and what your values are.

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Paul G. Hines

Be a lifelong learner. Be flexible, open to new and changing ideas. Surround yourself at home and at work with good people. Develop a network of professional resources that you can go to when you need help.

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Melvin Stanford

  • Create a good opportunity and go for it.
  • Persevere — finish what you start.
  • The value of an alternative chosen is measured by the value of alternatives foregone.
  • My mother taught me, “A good citizen leaves things better than he finds them.”
  • Initiative and impatience both stem from human drive and energy.
  • Initiative can be a valuable servant, but impatience can be a harsh master.

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Lawrence D. Ackman

  • Don’t retire. Mental decay will inevitably set in. Stay active in something — philanthropy, business, mentoring, teaching.
  • Don’t risk everything you’ve saved on any one “deal.”
  • The more philanthropic you are, the longer you’ll live.
  • Good business ethics is good business. Reputations are made slowly and can disappear quickly. You can be very successful without compromising your business ethics.
  • Give each decision a small test before going ahead with it.
  • Don’t give children or grandchildren money. It takes away their incentive.

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Eugene C. Bell

I developed a profound respect for the necessity of perseverance to achieve success. I came to appreciate more and more Churchill’s admonition to “never give up.” To succeed, we must keep working out solutions to problems that so often seem unsolvable.

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Wilko Börner

If I could live my life again, I would perhaps put more emphasis on making friends, in addition to being successful and doing something well. In the final analysis, you can only succeed if others allow you to. So you not only have to excel in the basics of your profession, you also need to be liked and accepted by your peers.

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Jon B. Boss

I would be more patient with my investment decisions, with those whose views are at odds with mine, with my children when I came home from a long and tiring day at work, and with my wife when she asks, “Would you please explain that to me?”

I would learn to pause before answering or taking action, and I would ask myself, “Why does the other person have a different viewpoint, and what can I learn from it?”

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Thomas E. Reilly Jr.

The return on showing respect to people — even those not deserving of it — is very high.

Be ever skeptical, because BS is everywhere, but don’t pre-judge or jump to conclusions.

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John H. Schwarz

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:

  • Do your homework.
  • Respect others.
  • Find the good in both people and situations.
  • Earn people’s trust.
  • Be a good communicator but know when to keep a secret.
  • Be humble.
  • Watch the other guy’s back.
  • Learn to tell truth from fiction.
  • Don’t delude yourself.
  • Think outside the box.
  • Lead by example.

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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Eyk Van Otterloo

I did not know, 50 years ago, the importance of integrity, reputation, and image. I believe that integrity is the most important asset one should foster and maintain. It is slow to get established, and can be lost quickly if not nourished at every opportunity.

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I know now that being on the treadmill 24/7 gets you a lot of gratification and money. But the other side of life — the time for reflection, thinking, enjoying leisure, helping others — can be just as rewarding.

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Mathew Frauwirth

Take life day by day — well, maybe month by month. Don’t get hung up on rigid long-range plans. Something will always come up to interrupt them — illness, storms, the economy, etc. Go with the flow.

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Henry A. Gilbert
  • Professional advisors usually tell you what they think you want to hear, rather than offer dispassionate counsel.
  • Health, of course, is everything.
  • Kindness is a path to good health and happiness.
  • Treat your body to exercise for an hour each day, every day.
  • Appreciate the great wonder of a loving wife, children and grandchildren.
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Bob Marbut

When I was young, I loved listening to “Your Hit Parade” on the radio. Number one on the Hit Parade for many weeks in mid-1948 was “Nature Boy” by Nat King Cole, his first gold record as a solo artist. I loved it, but as a 13-year-old, didn’t really fully focus on its message until many years later.

But now that message is one I take literally: The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.

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Donald W. Pulver

Get into the game. Follow your nose. The road is there for you, and you find it leads to much to do. Use challenges as the motivation for progress. Repeat over and over.

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Dick Resch

There’s no substitute for hard work. And never underestimate the power of a motivated, directed, cohesive ownership team.

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Peter J. Solomon

  • Good health beats everything else.
  • If you can build a good family, it is a blessing.
  • It is wonderful to sustain relationships with as many good friends as you can have.
  • An optimistic outlook and good luck are invaluable.

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Shann Turnbull

Understand other people’s values, concerns, and points of view. In another life, I would listen more diligently and empathetically.

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Looking back, I now better appreciate that the events which impacted my life most significantly were ones over which I had little or no control (e.g., born a white male in the USA). My inherited infrastructure impelled more than the product I built on it.

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Mark Hoffman

Lots of opportunities, but in the end, you have only one chance for “a life.” Get some happy, positive ground rules and standards early for your guidance and sanity checks, then go for it. Be kind along the way and you will be happier in the end.

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John A. Moeller

An important lesson in life is learning whom you can rely on, depend on, and trust, and whom you cannot. Only experience and “gut feel” can teach this. Human nature and values — whether of business owners, top management, associates, or staff — vary all over the place. Steering your life, family, career, time, investments, and loyalty toward those you can trust and rely upon is a priority.

Never forget where you came from, and always remember what you are here for. Be true to your values and faith. We are here for a purpose. Enjoy the ride.

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Donald P. Nielsen

Hard work is not only necessary for success, it is also the only source of a feeling of accomplishment.

A strong marriage is one of life’s great gifts.

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Perry R. Pero

The most important lessons I learned were from my parents and teachers in my formative years, and during my five years as a paperboy and five years as a drugstore clerk: the importance of integrity, honesty, compassion, diligence, faith in God, and the Golden Rule. As my father told me, “Every dollar should be an honest one.”

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Dave Puterbaugh

Enjoy the journey! Each time and situation — even the most difficult ones — has blessings and joys associated if you look and appreciate them.

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Chapter 9:
Turning Points
Chapter 11:
About the Class of 1963
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