The main event at the HBS alumni reunion is the “section” party on Thursday night. Classes of eighty to ninety students are called sections at HBS. All classes are compulsory for the first year, and sections students study together in the same classroom, in the same seats, studying the same curriculum all year long. So section mates become extremely close friends.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that the section parties are the most eagerly anticipated part of alumni meetings.
This year’s section party was held at the house of a section mate. On our five-year anniversary, we hired out an entire restaurant, and the party for the ten-year anniversary was held at the home of a section mate who had become a highly successful venture capital partner. This year’s fifteenth anniversary party was held at the house of a section mate who had become a partner at Bain & Company, a consulting firm. The house was enormous.
By the time I arrived at this palatial residence with my wife, the party was already well under way, and everybody was holding a drink. All of the people standing and chatting were section mates and their spouses. It all felt very nostalgic. As my wife and I had been together since HBS, she was familiar with everyone, as well.
I entered the mansion and greeted everyone individually, shook hands with the men, kissed the women on each cheek. Despite the passage of fifteen years, everyone’s basic personality and presence were pretty much the same. Outwardly, however, some things had changed. Some of the men had receding hairlines and were developing a paunch, and showing more wrinkles, as were a few of the women.
I kind of thought the faces of my classmates had softened a little since the ten-year anniversary. What impressed me this time, I suppose, was that no one really talked about their jobs anymore. Each had found their path in life and was satisfied, so it appeared they weren’t concerned about what other people were doing. I felt that everybody had grown out of the intense competitiveness of MBA graduates I had glimpsed during the fifth and tenth anniversaries.
When I showed some clippings of the front cover and an article from Forbes magazine to illustrate what I had been up to, they expressed genuine delight instead of the jealousy they might have displayed in the past. I felt a little shy, yet pleased at receiving their congratulations.
One colleague had shaped up remarkably since our college years. He had worked in the management of Lycos since its establishment and had retired after selling the company for several hundred billion yen. Later, he became a triathelete, and was now a top-class athlete capable of winning his age bracket in one out of any two international competitions he enters.
When I asked him about his goal, he looked serious and answered, “I want to win as many competitions as I can.” He evidently trains two to six hours every day and eats a special diet: 60% carbohydrates, 30% protein, 10% fat. I had not seen his wife for ages, and she was simply glowing. She said that she had also taken part in this year’s Boston Marathon. They had been seriously considering moving to Florida for a better training environment, but ultimately decided against it. They figured that, all in all, Boston was the best place for raising children.
Many female section mates also attended. Most had quit their jobs or were now working part time. It seemed they placed higher priority on their homes over their careers. While some had as many as four children, we were the only couple with five. People just exclaimed, “Five boys!” when I revealed how many children I have.
Surrounded by all these section mates, I experienced a flashback to fifteen years ago when we had had enjoyed countless house parties as graduate students. In the brief intervals between the endless deluge of case studies, we would drink beer and wine at each other’s houses and, just as now, would stand around talking and dance.
Here we were fifteen years later, the same section mates, chatting away with drinks in hand. Different time, different place, yet exactly the same colleagues. It’s really wonderful how, once a few drinks have calmed down the initial jitters, we can so quickly pick up where we left off all that time ago.
Promising to meet everybody again the next day at the gala, we said our goodbyes and jumped in a yellow taxi back to our hotel in the rain.
The following afternoon, panel discussions were organized by graduating year. For these, you chose one of three topics. Interestingly, the topic that drew the most participants was not “The Board Responsibility of the Company Director” or “The Flow of Technology in the Next Generation,” but “The Work-Life Balance.”
The ensuing debate focused on questions such as, “What is success in life?” “What is most important to you in life?” “What does it mean to be happy?” and “What do you want your legacy to be for society?”
I suppose that most people in the United States have, by their mid-forties, essentially realized their desired careers. Having affirmed their lives to this point, many begin to seek a more balanced lifestyle.
I recalled a breakfast conversation I had with a fellow Japanese graduate I happened to run into that morning in the hotel elevator. This was the fiftieth anniversary of his graduation. According to him, 250 of the 600 people from his year had already passed away. Apparently, many of his contemporaries had wanted to retire in their late forties to spend the rest of their lives working for NPOs or foundations.
He had spent half his life in the U.S. working at an American firm and currently resides in Silicon Valley. He said he was thinking about returning to Japan in the near future. When I asked why, he explained American society tends to cast aside its elderly, and so it would be difficult to stay.
“If you retire here without a sound financial base,” he said, “you face some tough times.” You certainly don’t see many people over sixty in Silicon Valley. I guess they all want to be happily retired by then.
When I asked graduates attending their twenty-year anniversary what it was like, they answered that many had already retired. I suspect my section mates have also reached the point at which they are thinking about life after retirement. I, for one, have no intention of being happily retired in my forties. I am living my dream job right now, genuinely enjoy working, and am proud to be contributing to society.
I met my section mates once more at the gala that evening. They all looked cheerful and seemed ready to enjoy this reunion to the fullest.
The next morning, my family and I took off from Boston Logan Airport. I had left the fifth and tenth-year anniversary alumni meetings feeling inspired and encouraged to push myself harder. This time, after fifteen years, I felt a deeper desire to enjoy other aspects of my life. I found myself wondering what my section mates will look like when we meet again at the twentieth anniversary in 2011.