Reflections Of A Nontraditional Student And Marketer
Next month, I’ll be returning to my alma mater, Columbia University, to give a speech to this year’s Phi Beta Kappa inductees. Reflecting on what I ultimately took away from my time at school, I realized that those life lessons underpin my philosophy of marketing today.
A brief background: never much into school as a kid, I originally dropped out of college to grow an early online software start-up. It wasn’t until 10 years later that I decided to return as a part-time student at Columbia’s School of General Studies, a program tailored for “nontraditional” students. Being at a school like Columbia in my 30′s actually ignited a passion for education more than anything had before — I was a late bloomer, educationally speaking.
So I finally earned my degree. But what did I really learn?
You Never Know What You Can Do Until You Try
Before Columbia, I had been a C student, and math was my worst subject of all. By 30, I had assumed I was simply bad at it, and it would forever be out of my reach. Yes, a software developer who was bad at math. But truthfully, I had never really tried. Until a required course in discrete mathematics — one of the few hurdles to what I thought would be an easy degree in computer science — captured my imagination.
It took significant effort, starting from square one, but I steadily improved at math. I practiced, and read, and practiced more. I even grew to appreciate its beauty. So much so that by the end of that course, I revised my program to pursue theoretical computer science — essentially nothing but math. I spent most of the next four years thoroughly in over my head, yet loved every minute of it.
Now, six years out, I may not remember how to wrangle a generating function to find a closed formula for a recurrence relation. But I’m fearless about learning things that initially seem out of reach. Which is helpful, because marketing is in its most disruptive period in history. It continually demands that we master new skills and adopt new perspectives. We can resist, clinging to our comfort zone, or we can rise to meet the challenge.
In my experience, fortune favors the bold.
In A Nontraditional World, Being Nontraditional Is A Plus
At many traditional universities, the expectation is that you finish high school, immediately attend college for the next four years, and then graduate. Anyone who doesn’t fit that mold — so-called nontraditional students — are usually not welcome. To my knowledge, Columbia is the only Ivy League school that offers a program for students returning to college from other life endeavors.
But you know what?
I thrived in my nontraditional education at Columbia far more than most of the “traditional” kids in my classes. I was there because I was genuinely fascinated by what I studied, not out of obligation to societal or parental expectations. I leveraged my experience in the classroom and applied what I was learning immediately in my career. Rather than be embarrassed by my unconventional path, I embraced it — and ended up as valedictorian.
And a funny thing happened along the way: nontraditional became cool.
Digital marketers succeeded with nontraditional channels. Entrepreneurs succeeded with nontraditional business models. Google rose as the epitome of a nontraditional company. Writers such as Hugh MacLeoud and Seth Godin encouraged people in all professions to throw off the pall of the traditional and pursue their passions and purple cows.
Modern marketing is largely uncharted territory. The people whom I admire most in this industry are those who adventurously explore unconventional ideas and approaches. There’s good reason that David Meerman Scott had a bestseller with The New Rules of Marketing & PR. We may incorporate certain traditions and traditional media in our work, but we must relentlessly experiment and innovate.
After all, the Holy Grail of “differentiation” begins with being different.
Who You Do Things With Matters As Much As What You Do
Maybe it matters more.
That discrete mathematics course that was so pivotal to my Columbia experience — turning math from a handicap into an inspiration — was extraordinary because of three people.
Professor Jonathan L. Gross, who taught the course, had a well-earned reputation for giving ridiculously hard exams with mind-boggling puzzles. But he led the class with passion, wisdom and humor. He simultaneously conveyed the wonder of pure math while showering students with a wealth of practical insights. And those ridiculously hard exams actually raised our expectations of what we could do. I took every course he offered.
But I wouldn’t have survived his classes without the collaboration and camaraderie of two graduate students taking them with me, Frank Enos and Leo Kim. Gross encouraged his students to do homework together, so Frank, Leo and I spent many an hour at a whiteboard working through problems. One of us would take the lead, madly writing arcane symbols on the board until hitting a conceptual wall. Then we’d step back, until someone else would say, “Ah ha!”, seize the marker and scribble the next step. We went back-and-forth, questioning and explaining as we went, until the solution emerged to great cheers.
I’ll remember the joy of those classes long after I’ve forgotten every scrap of discrete mathematics. And it set the gold standard for the kind of team and working environment that I strive to foster in my company today. Chemistry, drive and a creative spirit are the top three things I look for in new hires. Raw capability is important, but not without those prerequisites. We need to be able to have fun at a whiteboard solving the hardest problems our business can throw at us.
Marketing is a massively multi-player game. Who you choose to work with will tremendously impact your ideas, your approach and your enthusiasm — and ultimately what you are able to achieve. Who you choose to mingle with can open new doors for you, not just in the traditional networking sense, but more so by introducing you to new ways of looking at the world.
Maybe this all boils down to three C’s: curiosity, courage, and collaboration.
At least that’s my philosophy.
Photo from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Almamater.jpg. Used under Creative Commons license.
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