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The thought of my first class assignment – 300 pages of intense reading – brings to mind George W. Bush’s post 9/11 words: “We have seen your kind before, and we know how to deal with you.”
I down a shot of vodka.
It’s Thursday night. I’m at TNDC (Thursday Night Drinking Club) downing shots of liquor with similarly-minded classmates figuring out that the best way to deal with Chicago GSB’s notorious rigour is moonshine.
I only have a few hours to go before my Friday morning class.
I down another shot.
Noticing my nervous countenance, a fellow classmate comments: “You know, from a game-theory perspective, if everyone did not complete the readings for tomorrow’s class, we would all be fine, since the course is graded on a curve.” Slam: a heavy mid-western hand angrily lands another shot of vodka before me.
“Your analysis is flawed,” the bartender thunders as he pushes the shot glass towards me, “since the incentive to cheat is too strong, everyone will cheat, and do the readings. Your game theory example works only if there is perfect collusion between all the students.” Conversations cease, as all first-year GSB eyes affix the bartender. “Don’t be amazed,” the bartender continues as he calmly works the taps, “I’ve had years of experience serving GSB students. I know more game theory through osmosis than you can imagine. And a good bit of finance and accounting too!”
Back in my apartment, I lie on my bed in a perfectly inebriated state, wondering why I chose to come to the most academically-intense business school on the planet, over the more relaxed Boston. I shut my eyes, and my thoughts wander to undergraduate days at the London School of Economics, where I took three courses with the Chicago-trained economist and holocaust survivor, Professor Morris Perlman. “Always challenge the assumptions and implied premises of all arguments, for it is from there that the most pernicious of philosophies originate,” the late Prof Perlman announced on the last day of classes, before reading from a seemingly innocuous Nazi propaganda text that asked for the elimination of Jews for the beautification of Germany.
It was then that I had made a pact with myself to study at the University of Chicago whenever the time came to pursue a second degree. Nine years have passed since that day in London – which have included stints at an investment bank on Wall Street, running an outsourcing business in India, and penning a book on Bollywood – but I have stayed faithful to that pact.
The following morning, I walk over to the spanking new Chicago GSB building. I nod at a fellow classmate from India sitting across the state-of-the-art classroom – his t-shirt reads “Chicago GSB: Challenge Everything” – he nods back with a smile. I already feel better. The class begins. It is a three-hour intellectual workout. Rationality, logic and rigour are the only currencies of value here. There are no sacred cows, the professor – a Nobel Prize winner – included.
This is a different kind of school, with a philosophy that pervades absolutely everything.
Class over, I head to the Kovler café for some sushi and green tea with my mentor. “Chicago GSB is not for the incumbent,” he says, “it is for the challenger. We challenge the status quo, the frontiers of knowledge, we challenge everything using the most rigorous intellectual tools available or we devise them if not available; we are not the traditionalist scions of political or business dynasties who fear upheaval, we are the future creators of upheaval and we love it.”
Combative, I think, as I sip green tea; but then, as the son of a middle-class army officer and doctor from India, with a mischievous penchant for challenging the status quo, I like the sentiment. This is the intellectual razor’s edge and I feel at home here.
A few weeks later I am in the woods of Wisconsin, negotiating a rope-course with my classmates. The seeming fun and games are crafted to provoke introspection about issues that the average business school student often overlooks.
Chugging beers with my classmates on the shore of Lake Geneva, after a day of outdoor activities, I realise is that this location is going to play a very important role in my two-year experience here. Chicago is our campus.
Discovered a new jazz bar? Blackberry your class and soon there will be a bunch of people toasting with you at that new venue. Events happen constantly around the city; and what a wonderful city it is.
For someone who has lived in New York, London, New Delhi and Mumbai, I was pretty sceptical that it could live up to my high expectations. But Chicago has not disappointed. My 20th-floor apartment in Millennium Park offers a spectacular view of the lake and is surprisingly spacious.
I sit on my couch and focus my gaze on a schooner in the distance, and the words of Julie Morton, head of career services, echo in my head: “Follow your passions, ignore the herds, stay true to yourself, and you will chart a meaningful life.”