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On our final night in Paris, my wife and I crossed the Seine and went to a favourite restaurant behind the Palais Royal. We walked past the fountains and the reclining green chairs laid out by the city for idling and contemplation, both of which I had done a lot of in the two-and-a-half years we lived there.
I began wondering. "Say I went back to my employer and said I had made a terrible mistake? I retracted my resignation and would stay on as The Daily Telegraph's correspondent in Paris and not go to business school.
"What a fool I had been even to consider trading all this in for two years of spreadsheets and tedious acronyms! As if the world needed another capitalist drone."
The feeling grew over dinner and by midnight I was undergoing a full-blown identity crisis. The next morning I was ready to join the rest of Paris on the psychiatrist's couch.
Rewind 10 years to when I graduated from university with a degree in Classics. I went along to presentations by Goldman Sachs and Lazard Freres to hoover up the canapés. I did not have any intention of applying to join them. And I doubt they would have had me.
My interest in business extended to reading a fascinating biography of Sir James Goldsmith and a harrowing summer job selling advertisements for an articulated lorry handbook. I wanted to be a writer, based on a Greek island, venturing forth only for vast fees to report and opine on tragedy, beauty, war, pestilence and anything in between.
So what happened? Well, a 10-year career as a journalist, four in London, four in New York and two in Paris. I saw tragedy, beauty, violence and even an earthquake, though thankfully no wars. I met all kinds of people, from cabinet ministers to film stars, fashion designers to business tycoons.
It was intense, fascinating work, but somewhere along the line, the idea of business school crept into my mind. Everyone believes that the true entrepreneur has little need for business school. It is only those who imagine working their way up a pre-determined structure who find it necessary. For them, the MBA confers legitimacy, indicates commitment and gives you the keys to the club of MBA graduates.
Without a decent MBA I knew it was likely I would be a journalist for as long as anyone employed me. And I wanted to do other things. Whether it was worth the time, cost and hassle took me a long time to figure out.
I took the required GMAT test in 2001, two years before I got around to filling out an MBA application. The months rolled by. I got married, we had a son, we moved from New York to Paris. Business school slipped down the agenda.
But the idea of business school refused to die. On slow days, while standing in a drizzly Calais trying to interview illegal immigrants before they leapt aboard the Eurostar for London I thought how pleasant it would be to sit at a desk making decisions while the numbers ticked upwards in my current account.
I wanted a career change. To what, I didn't know.
I had several friends who had been to Insead and loved it. From what I could tell, they spent much of their time driving at high speed through the forest of Fontainebleau to dinner parties. What wasn't to like? We could stay in our flat in Paris and the programme is less than a year.
But I had fallen hard for the US when I lived there and my wife is from New York. I convinced myself that a good US school, two-year programme and all, was essential to my education and credibility.
My research turned up the usual stereotypes: Harvard was for corporate leaders, Wharton for financiers, Stanford for entrepreneurs, Northwestern for marketers. I know schools hate the newspaper and magazine league tables, but it is difficult for applicants to ignore the impressions they create. You are getting ready to commit two years of your life and tens of thousands of dollars in costs and lost earnings - do you want to go somewhere with a terrific reputation and top five rankings, or somewhere that disdains the tables but promises to be rich in intangibles?
Harvard was an obvious choice and I was thrilled to get in. But even its blue-chip name could not convince the sceptics at home in the UK. My father told me that business school was unheard of in his generation, while an old journalist acquaintance is convinced that I have condemned myself to working in product marketing, a contemptible fate in his jaundiced opinion.
One term in and I feel variously: intellectually stimulated by my wildly diverse classmates and the case method teaching; old, at 32, four years above the class average; a financial slave to Citibank, whose loans are keeping me afloat; baffled by bond maths; mystified by the looping arrows, intersecting circles and floating rectangles of organisational behaviour charts; and liberated, by the variety of prospects which lie tantalisingly beyond graduation.
Media would be an obvious career path, but some days I want to do something quite different.
The lowest point of HBS came in the very first week when we were divided into competing teams to run a greeting cards business. During an initial meeting, I was explaining something to a member of my team, when an ex-management consultant barked: "One conversation! We must have just one conversation!" Apparently the one conversation rule is standard protocol at one consultancy. When people warned me about the Type A personalities at HBS, they weren't joking. I went home that night very depressed.
However, things have improved. The blusterers have quietened down and the academic work has assumed an unremitting rhythm, 56.1 hours per week of classroom and private study according to HBS's characteristically precise directive. The professors are mostly inspiring and committed. Having experienced a British university, it is a pleasant surprise to be able to evaluate my teachers and their courses.
But however much we may pay, this remains a school, with nannyish advisories against tardiness or going to the bathroom during class. This curious dynamic was well articulated during an orientation session when a professor told this story: a student is having a row with a member of the administrative staff and demanding better service. "Dammit, I'm the customer," he screams. "No, you're not," replies the administrator, "you're the product."
The truth is, the professor told us, we HBS students are somewhere in between. At moments like this, my mind drifts back to Paris.
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