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A liberal education in business

| Monday, March 27, 2017

Katie asked me the other day, “If you could start college over again, would you change your major?” We’ve been playing a lot of these games lately: “If you could start over again … ”

When (if) I graduate in May, my degree will be in finance. I told Katie, if I were a freshman again, I would switch to the Program of Liberal Studies or philosophy. She asked why. I said, “To get more of a ‘classics’ or liberal education, instead of what I could have learned in on-the-job training.”

Later, I thought more and changed my mind.

Some say college teaches you how to learn — one of those cliches that becomes a cliche because it’s true. A very intelligent person is not necessarily great at trivia.

They asked Einstein, “How many feet are in a mile?” He replied, “Why should I fill my brain with facts I can find in two minutes in any standard reference book?”

A true genius understand principles, and therefore understands facts, not for having memorized them, but for understanding their patterns that manifest principles which then predict future facts.

Like in fifth grade, we used flashcards to memorize our multiplication tables, but our known products were limited to the number of factor combinations we could fit in our stack of flashcards; meanwhile, a true genius knows all products from any combination of factors because he or she understands the principle of multiplication.

College teaches us to learn for the same reason the proverb is true: “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” Give a man a fact, or teach a man to learn — the latter is the superior education.

My finance major was full of, frankly, useless facts — international accounting rules, business law minutia, commercial real estate best practices. For real life, I probably learned all I needed to know about finance in one class with Carl Ackermann.

I thought only of the facts when I answered Katie’s question. I changed my mind when I remembered the principles.

Marketing a product for optimal sales is not so different from constructing a personal brand optimal for social interactions; investment decisions to maximize return are not so different from scheduling decisions, investing the currency of time in securities of present and future; lean manufacturing maximizes output of success and happiness from inputs of food, sleep, exercise, work, play and socializing.

Ray Dalio, $16-billion-net-worth hedge fund manager, writes in his self-published, 123-page volume called “Principles:”

“Principles are concepts that can be applied over and over again in similar circumstances as distinct from narrow answers to specific questions. Every game has principles that successful players master to achieve winning results. So does life. Principles are ways of successfully dealing with the laws of nature or the laws of life.”

Dalio is one of the most successful investors ever, not because he understands finance, but because he understands principles.

For all my skipping class, reluctance to study and distaste for business facts, Notre Dame did not fail to teach me principles that are characteristic of a “liberal” education.

In a different major, you learn different facts. But the principles are always the same. The key is learning how to learn.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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