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History

Maxwell F. Anderson ’01

Author, The MBA Oath; Manager, Bridgewater Associates

I like to joke that I chose to study history as a career move. After all, history is a growing field. The truth is I studied history because I love stories. When we incorporate the experiences of our lives into stories, we give them meaning. The stories I learned in college were the most meaningful parts of my education.

I chose my major after encountering Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. I had enrolled in a rigorous series of five interdisciplinary courses in humanistic studies to read the great works of Western philosophy, history, and literature from antiquity to the modern period. Known among students as “philosophical boot camp,” this application-only program required a thousand pages of reading each week. Despite the volume, certain stories refused to be skimmed, and Thucydides’s history was a page-turner. Filled with complexity and ambiguity, it continually forced me to reevaluate my own predictions about how the Athenians would react to the looming conflict with Sparta. The dog-eared, scribbled-on pages of my paperback remind me of how the enjoyment of wrestling with the story convinced me to study history.

In my junior and senior years, I wrote three major independent research papers, all of which shared a single broad theme: the political consequences of communications technology revolutions. These projects taught me how to research, evaluate conflicting evidence, and write analytically. They taught me how to write stories myself. My thesis was a 112-page study of Richard Nixon’s successes and failures as an improbable pioneer of televised politics. His story taught me that effective persuasion depends not only on having the right message, but choosing the right venues to communicate the message. It also taught me that, even with a winning message delivered by the right medium, a leader’s integrity is what ultimately determines his destiny.

An unpredictable path

I moved to New York after graduation to work with McKinsey & Company. After a couple years with the firm I left to study theology and work at a Presbyterian church in Manhattan. I considered becoming a church minister, but decided I was not quite ready for it. So instead, I went to Harvard University and earned a double master’s in business and public policy. I chose business school partly because of my experience at Princeton. See, of all the stories I learned in college, my favorites were not told in the history department, but in an engineering course. “High-Tech Entrepreneurship,” taught by a former Harvard Business School professor, Ed Zschau, introduced me to the case method of learning through stories. I was challenged to form opinions with limited data and debate the best path forward in the uncertain situations confronting the cases’ entrepreneurial protagonists. I loved it. It was like reading Thucydides again.

Upon graduation from Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government, I launched the MBA Oath, an initiative to create a Hippocratic oath for business school graduates. We are still building the initiative, but we are now on 300 campuses around the world, and I was given the opportunity to write a book on the subject. Again, my history major paid off—because of my thesis, I knew I could gather the self-discipline to conduct a major writing project.

I have not led an organized career. It is a longer story, but I have also worked at Google, as a television producer, as a nanotechnology venture capitalist, and as a manager at a large hedge fund. In this way, too, being a history major has helped me put my life in perspective. History does not roll on in endless waves of inevitability. It twists and turns in unpredictable ways. The key is to recognize the opportunities when they come—hidden, disguised, and unexpected.