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March 27, 2008

Looking for Answers at a Reunion

Peter Gray '97
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Class reunions have a way of getting you thinking. Last year, my 10th CBS reunion sure did.

I went confident that the reunion would be a great chance to uncover shining nuggets of career wisdom to share in this space. What I found was somewhat less enlightening and more complex.

Reunions famously inspire that insecure, competitive vibe: Who’s thriving? Who’s struggling? Where do I fit in?

Sitting on the plane to New York, I decided to opt out of that mindset, recalling the line from Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata: “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

Approaching New York’s LaGuardia Airport, we flew over the World Trade Center site. That hit me hard: A lot has changed since 1997.

Class Was Divided
My business school class was divided into subgroups of about 50 students. I’d stayed in loose contact with my group over the years, and some of us met and caught up at the reunion.

As you’d expect, there were moves, marriages, kids, divorces, remarriages. Several of us had lost a parent. One of us had died.

Looking for pearls of professional advice, I checked our career paths over 10 years. Less than 10% of us were at the same company we’d joined at graduation. A few of us were in our second job, and most of us had held three jobs or more in a decade. At least 15% of us had spent some time self-employed or started our own companies.

I was particularly curious about the five-member “decade club,” those who’d spent their 10 years since graduation at the same company.

Were they happier, more fulfilled? Did they have some secret of success? It was hard to know.

Two of them, an investment banker and a software marketing manager, loved their work and couldn’t see doing anything else.

One, an IT sales manager, was burned out and looking for a career change. Another, an investment banker living in London, did not attend.

The fifth decade club member, who seemed to have a charmed life — brilliant and likeable, she’d made partner at a top consulting firm in record time, while having three children — registered for the reunion but was a no-show.

Careers Reflected Turbulence
In most cases, our career paths reflected the turbulence that has come to define the world of work.

We’d joined household-name companies and new businesses when they were full of momentum and promise, and left when they were foundering. We’d weathered — and some of us engineered — mergers, acquisitions, consolidations, spinoffs, bankruptcies, turnarounds, IPOs and private buyouts.

One classmate tried to enlist me in his venture capital scheme, which as far as I could tell involved getting investors to pay large sums of money to him and to mercenary management teams (which I would assemble) in search of rudderless companies to fix and wring profits from.

I went in search of career wisdom, but pat answers eluded me. Leaving, I remembered words from one of my favorite career advice authors, Mark Albion: “Live a life, not a resume.”

This piece originally ran in the Wisconsin State Journal. Republished with permission.