I’m having a great time but I’m still at school

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At the end of the day, this is still a school. The first time I heard this message was from Robert Joss, the dean of Stanford, as he addressed students at the start of pre-term.

In the following weeks it was often repeated by other members of faculty. While seemingly obvious, the message was a just-in-time warning from old hands – those who had seen it all before.

When joining Stanford’s group of T-shirt clad, fun-loving, entrepreneurial students, academia was the last thing on many people’s mind. And even if some expected that academic study was going to be an integral component of the overall experience, few were prepared for both the pace and volume that were about to hit us.

Stanford’s fall and winter quarters consist primarily of the Core – a set of courses covering business basics such as Economics, Accounting and Statistics.

As someone with a background in most of these subjects, I thought that the Core would be a walk in the park. The six weeks since the start of fall quarter have proved me wrong.

It has been hard enough for my vocabulary to keep up with “heteroscedasticity”, “deferred tax valuation allowance” and “Von Neumann-Morgenstern utility”, let alone understand the concepts that underlie each.

And if I am having a difficulty keeping up, I can only imagine what my “poet” friends (those with no business or quantitative background) must be going through. Pre-term smiles have turned into expressions of horror. Previously deserted study rooms have become overbooked meeting places.

Coming to Stanford, I heard a lot about its “collaborative” culture, although I did not know how this would work in practice. But this has now taken on a concrete meaning, as non-poets signed up to tutor poets, or as study groups stayed up late to make sure that every member was clear about the concepts of the case or assignment. During the weekend before our mid-term exams, there were special “war room” sessions set up, where those with a background in a particular subject could assist those struggling to come to grips with it.

Outside the classroom, experiences are starting to diverge for some, as they make trade-offs between everything that is on offer.

There is the career shaper. With the year hardly under way, he already has his diary filled with mock job interviews, “meet the company” presentations and short courses on cracking consulting cases. It is quite easy to spot him as he hurries around between various commitments in a bespoke suit and expensive silk tie.

There is the friendly social engineer. With at least three parties happening somewhere every week, she has an amazing ability to attend every single one. During free nights she arranges dinners with second years to make sure that our classes integrate properly, attends wine tasting club events and meets with alumni for drinks.

There is the California visitor. Whether from the east coast of the US or another country, this student dives into the local lifestyle as if it were the last opportunity to do so. Two blonde girls from the UK bought a shiny red Mustang convertible. A Swedish guy is getting up every morning at 5:30 to pursue his recently discovered passion for surfing. A few Americans must be able to walk the golf course blindfold by now.

There is the fitness maniac, the nature lover and the family man. Yet for a large group of students the experience is still very similar. In a “fear of missing out”, they try to manage all or most of the above.

Added to the academic intensity, this is leading to serious sleep deprivation and an increasingly unmanageable situation.

I have so far found myself in the latter group. Reaching a compromise with the “inner nerd”, I have been fairly good at managing the balance between the inside and the outside of the classroom. However, managing the balance between all those activities that make up the outside of the classroom has been more difficult.

With the mounting workload and frequency of activities, I have missed the last sailing session. I have not been to a Private Equity deal update in weeks and the Manufacturing club must have scratched my name by now. A friend and I are staring to flirt with ideas for our own business (probably another dotcom bound for failure, but at least its fun!) and however stimulating our early meetings have been, they are starting to take up an increasing amount of time.

Halfway through my first term, I have reached the point where I need to define more clearly what I want to achieve out of my two-year stay at Stanford.

I had arrived here without a clear objective (pretty surprising for a conservative, over-serious consultant), and to me business school was more of an end in itself than a means to an end.

In future, I will have to focus my energy more. Trying to do everything will result in me not doing anything to a particularly meaningful level.

The one commitment that I have kept insulated from time pressures was to get to know my classmates better.

Regardless of what my overall objective turns out to be, I have always expected the people I would meet here would form one of the most valuable aspects of my experience. So far this has undoubtedly been the case.

Pre-term formalities have made way for much more meaningful friendships. The guy next door is no longer the Olympic trial swimmer, but just the friend who takes me to Stanford stadium and explains the rules of American football to me.

The cool, calm and collected investment analyst is now the friend that risks her car to teach me how to drive on the right hand side of the road (with my maiden voyage over the Golden Gate Bridge at that).

I have not been the only one in awe of the people around me. Given the diversity in our class, a forum of informal discussions was formed where, once a week, a student would talk about his or her background and experiences.

One classmate told us all about starting the world’s largest online chess business.

Another told us about his decision to take two years off between work and business school to teach kids in poor inner-city schools. There was the guy who started a TV show in China and the SEAL (member of the US Navy special forces).

The talks have left me highly inspired. These people were not some accomplished 50 year-olds (in the short time here, we have been visited by Colin Powell, Al Gore, the Dalai Lama, the CEO of Capital One and the Managing Partner of McKinsey & Co), they were my age. They were peers that sat next to me in class. If they could achieve great things, what would my excuse be?

At the end of the day, this is still a school. But it is also so much more.

Hamish Fraser: Close to death before it starts

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