Hargreaves: ExComm — Career help at Yale

During the 2004-’05 school year, 138 Yale students were brought before the University’s Executive Committee, the highest disciplinary authority at Yale. I was one of that lucky group. Five years later, as an entrepreneur and writer in New York, I’ve realized that getting sent to ExComm was the best career decision I made in college.

It took a few years to fully understand ExComm’s impact. I had to meet a lot of people. As I got to know the community of Yale alumni, I started noticing strange patterns. It would often begin as a brief comment, perhaps about a run-in with Yale’s administration or a less-than-stellar record in college. Among alums, many of the most successful entrepreneurs, investors and venture capitalists share an odd, unspoken secret: A significant percentage of us were brought in front of ExComm as undergraduates. Ask entrepreneurs or executives — one-on-one and in confidence — about their Yale experiences, and disciplinary probation is likely to come up alongside stories of friends, intramurals and classes. Among the alumni I know, the most powerful secret society does not have its home on High Street — it is a collection of painful, intensely private experiences accumulated on the fourth floor of Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall.

On average, about a hundred Yale students are ExCommed every year. Yet it feels as if I’ve met a significant percentage of them — as leading innovators, entrepreneurs and investors. One is a respected New York-based venture capitalist. Another has raised millions in funding and created dozens of jobs while still in his twenties. A third leveraged his startup experience to get into Stanford Business School at age 24. I could go on.

Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but something interesting is happening here. While catching up with one of my fellow ExComm alumni the other day, he mentioned that he was “grateful” for his ExComm experience. The time he spent stewing over a looming ExComm hearing was enlightening, an enabler that allowed him to pursue the things he really wanted in college and his career. By shocking him from his pre-ordained path through life — or even raising the possibility of such a thing — ExComm fostered a kind of introspection that most people don’t find until much later in life.

Facing the chance of expulsion from the University community — and the corresponding destruction of all plans and aspirations — forces hard thought about one’s direction in life. How will I explain this in consulting interviews? Will I ever get a decent job? Will I ever get into medical school? But most Yalies who face these questions don’t actually want to pursue medical school or consulting or whatever else happens to worry them. Many people spend college plodding forward toward careers in fields they don’t actually enjoy. Doing a ton of work is easy, and work makes us feel that things are being accomplished. Making meaningful decisions about our lives is hard. Writing papers, doing problem sets and spending time in lab makes us feel productive, and — without outside intervention— this feeling can displace a need to decide what we actually want to do with our lives.

The real possibility of being permanently removed from Yale strips all that away. Merely by suggestion, ExComm forces a mental divergence from the plan we’ve been following our whole lives — which, sadly, often isn’t what we wanted to spend our lives doing anyway. “ExComm was a catalyst,” said a fellow entrepreneur. “It gave me clarity through the possibility of losing everything.” For many of the veterans of SSS 410 — ExComm’s imposing meeting room — the disciplinary process catalyzed a love of entrepreneurship, an embrace of self-actualization.

In our worst thoughts, we are cast out of the friendly walls of Yale, forced to make do with whatever we can without a diploma or a sense of belonging. Forced to do something new. Forced to be creative. And once we start crafting those thoughts — working outside of the boundaries of consulting and banking and medical school, and to the heart of what we are really capable of doing with our lives — we don’t stop. We’re in love.

Thank you, ExComm.

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