The Real World… or By the Book

I had a meeting with a client the other day, a seasoned, accomplished exec who drew the distinction between the view of newly minted graduates (he drew particular exception to HBS grads) and the way things work in the ‘real world’.  It’s not a new complaint, and like most debates that I term religious arguments, no amount of objective evidence is likely to change any opinions on any side of the issue. How we do things is frequently at odds with how we were taught to do them.  The first time I heard the issue raised, I was in B-school (alas, not Harvard, as I for one would have been thrilled to have graduated from HBS), where an accounting professor listened to a fellow student say that people at his company urged him not to get too wrapped up in the class, as that is not how it’s done in the real world.  To which our professor, who was also a practicing accountant, replied, “I feel sorry for those people.  There isn’t anything that I teach that I don’t use every day.” Up to that time, I was anxious to throw out books and schools, too.

So which is it: the real world, or by the book? Extremism makes me nervous, so I’m not inclined to fully embrace either side.  But I don’t know everything (sorry to burst your bubble), so it’s helpful for me to learn from those who have studied and experienced matters before I got there.  Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you want Sully Sullenberger to… literally… wing it over the Hudson, or to act as he has been taught and practiced repeatedly in landing US 1549?
  • Would you expect astronauts to perform differently from the way they practiced maneuvers a zillion times in the simulator?
  • Do you want your surgeon to forsake the training she has acquired in treating you?

These are pretty obvious examples, and I’m sure you or I can find legitimate reasons for situational exceptions.  It’s those changing or unexpected conditions that don’t neatly line up with the way we have been taught that create the rub.  But in every instance, our learning – both scholastic and experiential -- should inform our actions, not be abandoned because it’s not a perfect fit.

I’m not making an argument for book-smarts over street-smarts or for education over experience. Indeed, we learn far more from experience than we do in a classroom.  My preference is to apply what we have learned, not suspend or invalidate it... until that becomes the right thing to do.  See the predicament?

I said up front that this discussion wasn’t going to change anybody’s mind.  Where do you come in: real world, or by the book?