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The Browser | Open Book

Worry, a Powerful Driver

March-April 2004

In an Uncertain World: Tough Choices from Wall Street to Washington, by Robert E. Rubin '60, LL.D. '01, and Jacob Weisberg (Random House, $35) takes readers inside Wall Street and the White House, but does not overlook the former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury's recollections of his college days, as in this excerpt. Currently chair of the executive committee of Citigroup, Rubin also regularly returns to the scene of early uncertainties as a member of the Harvard Corporation.

 

When I arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1956, I felt overwhelmed. Half my class came from academically intense prep schools that were feeding grounds for the Ivy League. And much of the other half came from topnotch public high schools. I, on the other hand, had taken four years of French in high school, and when I got to Harvard I couldn't pass the exam to get out of the entry-level course. In math, I couldn't even get into the entry-level course because I hadn't had calculus, and I had to take remedial math....

One of the first people I met was a kid from Staten Island whom I saw looking through the course catalogue. But he wasn't looking at courses. He was looking at the prizes listed at the end of the book, to see which ones he might win. I thought, What a curious way to go through life. I was looking through the same catalogue for courses I might be able to pass.

Hitchhiking in England. From the book.
Photo by John O. Fox

The dominant emotion of my freshman year at Harvard was anxiety. For solace, I read a little inspirational book that my dad sent me, A Way of Life by William Osler. The book was an address that Osler, a professor of medicine, had delivered to students at Yale in 1913. Osler's message was that the best way to deal with the fear of failure was to live your life in "day-tight compartments." At some point, you should climb to the "mountaintop" and engage in self-reflection. But on a daily basis, you should close the door to your larger worries and focus on the task at hand. I tried to take this advice and block out questions about whether I was capable of doing the work at Harvard.

To everyone's surprise, especially mine, my grades that year were good — so good that my academic adviser called me in for a meeting. He asked if I was okay.

"Why shouldn't I be okay?" I asked him.

"Well," he responded, "you've done very well and nobody thought you would. Are you sure you're not overstraining yourself?"....

Not until senior year did I really develop some sense of belonging at Harvard. In reality, my anxiety proved to be unrealistic early on in my college career. But holding on to it, while detrimental in some ways, may have been useful in others. Worry, if it doesn't undermine you, can be a powerful driver. After thinking I wasn't going to cross the finish line, I graduated from Harvard in 1960 with the unexpected distinction of Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude, as well as a summa minus on my senior thesis.

After graduation, I sent a tongue-in-cheek letter to the dean of admissions at Princeton, to which I had not been accepted four years earlier. "I imagine you track the people you graduate," I wrote. "I thought you might be interested to know what happened to one of the people you rejected. I just wanted to tell you that I graduated from Harvard summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa." The dean wrote me back, "Thank you for your note. Every year, we at Princeton feel it is our duty to reject a certain number of highly qualified people so that Harvard can have some good students too."