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Novel advice for incoming STEM freshmen

Students interested in a career in investing and technology should read more fiction

September 2, 2019

1:07 PM

2 September 2019

1:07 PM

When college and university students arrive on campus this month, they will choose their courses with an eye on future summer internship and postgraduate career opportunities. Enrollment in the humanities is in free-fall, while the rapid growth of American technology companies suggests that STEM is the only path to a prosperous career. But as the novelist Sigrid Undset writes, ‘there is nothing in the experience of man which shows that the raw material of human nature has ever changed.’ My advice to students interested in a career in investing or technology: read more novels.

Business school courses offer practical case studies to learn from others’ strategy success in key functions and industries. Novels provide character studies of the personalities, motivations, and incentives you will encounter among your colleagues, customers, and competitors.

If you are tempted to underestimate a co-worker or a potential employer emphasizes prestige over performance, read Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark to learn how exceptional talent and ambition can emerge from unexpected and overlooked places. The pioneers and missionaries in Cather’s novels venture into the vast frontier of the New World without any assurance of success. They seek new opportunities without losing reverence for worthy traditions. In business, you will be tempted to view every custom and practice as a bureaucratic artifact, but some things endure because they are proven. In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Bishop Latour praises Father Joseph’s French onion soup but it ‘is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.’

Just as you learn to appreciate the work of your talented colleagues, Cather admired the writing of her friend Sarah Orne Jewett. The character of Mrs. Blackett in The Country of the Pointed Firs is a model for anyone confronted by a dissatisfied customer, client, or LP: ‘Tact is after all a kind of mindreading, and my hostess held the golden gift. Sympathy is of the mind as well as the heart, and Mrs. Blackett’s world and mine were one from the moment we met.’

P.G. Wodehouse created the perfect employee in the infinitely resourceful Jeeves. His employer Bertie Wooster offers a recommendation surpassing anything on LinkedIn: ‘I’ve always said, and I always shall say, that for sheer brains, Jeeves, you stand alone. All the other great thinkers of the age are simply in the crowd, watching you go by.’ Jeeves had more than raw brainpower; he could silently anticipate Bertie’s essential need and offer a creative corrective for any misunderstanding and escape every predicament.

Not everyone will be as helpful or respectful as Jeeves. In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited you meet Hooper, ‘a man to whom one could not confidently entrust the simplest duty.’ He sleeps soundly while his manager lies awake fretting. You will meet many Hoopers but try not to hire them. John Henry Newman is less well known for his novels but Loss and Gain is worth your time to learn how to avoid wasting time in the office or at conferences when ‘the truth bursts on you, apparent diræ facies, you are in the clutches of a bore. You may yield, or you may flee; you cannot conquer.’

If you begin a career in sales, and I hope you do because it is a worthy profession that only a snob would denigrate, you will savor the battle fought in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers over the executive authority of Dr Proudie. Her husband is the new Bishop of Barchester but he is reduced to titular status by Mrs Proudie who ‘stretches her power over all his movements, and will not even abstain from things spiritual.’ Her power is contested by the bishop’s chaplain, who ‘understood correctly enough to what attempts the new bishop’s high spirit would soar, and he rightly guessed that public life would better suit the great man’s taste than the small details of diocesan duty. He, therefore, — he, Mr Slope, — would in effect be Bishop of Barchester.’ The ensuing struggle is a masterclass in complex account strategy involving multiple influencers, obstructors, and enablers, along with opaque decision making, and the supreme imperative of a signed and executed contract.

In Little Tilling, the fictional town of E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels, you learn how to control your emotions in the face of provocation by your competitors and rivals. ‘Lucia had a deadlier weapon than sarcasm, which was the apparent unconsciousness of there having been any. For it is no use plunging a dagger into your enemy’s heart, if it produces no effect whatever on him.’

You may consider leaving a well-known company to start or join an early stage business. Then you should read the perfect novella, The Death of Napoleon, by Simon Leys, who imagines the emperor’s escape from St Helena. When his body double dies, Napoleon is believed to be dead. Stranded in Paris without loyal followers or his towering reputation, he wins a final victory on a different field of glory. Leys paraphrased Newman when he wrote that a ‘university is not a factory producing graduates, as a sausage factory produces sausages. It is a place where a chance is given to men to become what they truly are.’ Read John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and you will understand why summer jobs in retail, hospitality, and even hot dog stands teach more valuable lessons than many resume-filling internships.

‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!’ is the advice of novelist Henry James and a worthy goal for all aspiring entrepreneurs and investors.

This and more novel and profitable advice awaits you on the bookshelf.

Stephen Schmalhofer works at a venture investment firm in New York. He is a graduate of Yale College.


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