The main event at the HBS alumni reunion is the section party on Thursday night.
Classes of eighty to ninety are called sections at HBS. All classes are compulsory for the first year, and these sections of ninety students study together in the same classroom, in the same seats, studying the same curriculum all year long. So section mates become extremely close friends.
These section parties are the most eagerly anticipated part of alumni meetings. This year’s section party was held at the house of a section mate. On our fifth graduation anniversary, we hired out an entire restaurant, and the party for the tenth anniversary was held at the home of a section mate who had become a highly successful venture capital partner. This year’s fifteenth anniversary party was held at the house of a section mate who had become a partner at Bain & Company, a consulting firm. The both houses were just immense.
By the time I arrived at this palatial residence with my wife, the party was already well under way, and everybody was holding a drink. All of the people standing and chatting were contemporaries from the same section who had spent a year together, and it all felt very nostalgic. They were accompanied by their spouses, and since almost all had been together since our days at Harvard Business School fifteen years ago, we knew each other pretty well. I also had been together with my wife since joining HBS, so she was well acquainted with everyone as well.
I entered the mansion and greeted everyone individually. I shook the hands of the men, and kissed the women on each cheek. Despite the passage of fifteen years, everyone’s basic personality and presence were pretty much the same. Outwardly, however, some things had changed. Some of the men had receding hairlines and were developing a paunch, and showing more wrinkles, as were a few of the women.
I kind of thought the faces of my classmates had softened a little since the ten-year anniversary. What impressed me this time, I suppose, was that no one really talked about their jobs any more. Each had found their path in life and was satisfied, so it appeared they weren’t concerned about what other people were doing. I felt that everybody had grown out of the intense competitiveness of MBA graduates I had glimpsed during the fifth and tenth anniversaries.
For example, when I showed them clippings of the front cover and an article from Forbes magazine to illustrate what I had been up to, they expressed genuine delight instead of the pangs of jealousy they might have displayed in the past. I felt a little shy yet pleased at receiving their congratulations.
* Please refer to column Making it onto the front page of Forbes Asia
One colleague had shaped up remarkably since our college years. He had worked in the management of Lycos since its establishment and had retired after selling Lycos for market price of several hundred billion yen. Later, he became a triathelete, and was now a top class athlete who was capable of winning his age bracket in one of any two international competitions he enters.
When I asked him about his goal, he looked serious and answered, “I want to win as many competitions as I can.” He evidently trains two to six hours every day and eats a specially controlled diet. Apparently, 60% carbohydrate, 30% protein and 10% fat is the ideal nutritional balance. I had not seen his wife for ages either, and she was simply glowing. She said that she had also taken part in this year’s Boston Marathon. They had been seriously considering moving to Florida for a better training environment, but decided not to at the last minute. They figured that, all in all, Boston was the best place for raising children and decided to stay.
Many female section mates also attended. Most had quit their jobs or were now working part time. It seemed they placed higher priority on their homes over their careers. While some had as many as four children, we were the only couple with five. Even for Americans, the idea of having five siblings presents a bit of a shock. People just exclaim, “Five Boys!” when I tell them how many children I have.
Surrounded by all these section mates, I experienced a flashback to fifteen years ago, when we had had enjoyed countless house parties as graduate school students. In the brief intervals between the endless deluge of case studies, we would drink beer and wine at each other’s houses, and just as now, we would stand around talking, raise an uproar and dance.
Here we were fifteen years later, the same section mates, chatting away with drinks in hand. Different time, different place, yet exactly the same colleagues. It’s really wonderful how, once a few drinks have calmed down the initial jitters, we can so quickly pick up where we left off all that time ago.
We chatted away for a while, soaking up the pleasant atmosphere, but then began to worry a little about our children, so we left the party a little early. Promising to meet everybody again the next day at the Gala Evening, we said our goodbyes and jumped in a yellow taxi back to our hotel in the rain.
The following afternoon, panel discussions were organized by graduating year. For these panel discussions, you chose one of three topics. Interestingly, the topic that drew the most participants was not “The Board Responsibility of the Company Director” or “The Flow of Technology in the Next Generation,” but, “The Work-Life Balance.”
The ensuing debate focused on questions such as, what is success in life, what is most important to you in life, what does it mean to be happy, and what do you want your legacy to be for society. MBA graduates of the same year shared their thoughts on these topics.
I suppose that most people in the United States have, by their mid-forties, essentially realized their desired careers. Having affirmed their lives to this point, many begin to seek a more balanced lifestyle.
I recalled a breakfast conversation I had with a fellow Japanese graduate I had happened to run into that morning in the hotel elevator. This was the fiftieth anniversary of his graduation. According to him, 250 of the 600 people from his year had already passed away. Apparently, many of his contemporaries had wanted to retire in their late forties to spend the rest of their lives working for NPOs or foundations.
He had spent half his life in the U.S. working at an American firm and currently resides in Silicon Valley. He said he was thinking about returning to Japan in the near future, When I asked why, he explained American society tends to cast aside its elderly, and so it would be difficult staying. “If you retire here without a sound financial base,” he said, “you face some tough times.” You certainly don’t see many people over sixty in Silicon Valley. I guess they all want to be happily retired by then.
When I asked other graduates who were attending their twentieth anniversary alumni party what it was like, they answered that many had already retired. I suspect my section mates have also reached the point at which they are thinking about life after retirement. I, for one, have no intention of being happily retired in my forties. I am living my dream job right now, I genuinely enjoy working and I’m proud to be contributing to society.
I met my section mates once more at the Gala Night that evening. They all looked cheerful and seemed ready to enjoy this reunion to the fullest.
The next morning, a jet with my eight family members onboard took off from Boston Logan Airport. I had left the fifth and tenth-year anniversary alumni meetings feeling inspired and encouraged to push myself harder. This time, after fifteen years, I felt a deeper desire to enjoy other aspects of my life. I found myself wondering what my section mates will look like when we meet again at the twentieth anniversary in 2011.
We were welcomed by the blue skies of California.
After meeting an investor in the Bay Area, I was on my way home.
June 7, 2006
Palo Alto Hotel