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A Year in the Wilderness

By Bob Bruner-

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only theimage of Henry David Thoreau essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
Henry David Thoreau

Back in the 1960s, undergraduates who misbehaved or failed their courses could be “rusticated.” Brits used that term to mean suspension from school, to be sent out of the city or university community and into the countryside, the wilderness. There, by dint of hard labor and solitude, the prodigal person would come to one’s senses, straighten up, and fly right. Some students went to a real wilderness: climbing in the Himalayas or hiking the Inca trail. Or they found a wilderness of manual labor, working on construction jobs, in a factory, or as a deckhand on a ship. Others got drafted. And yet others took back-office jobs in a big city. And for the most part, they came back changed for the better. Being rusticated was about finding a new direction.

This past academic year, I was rusticated.

No, I didn’t flunk out of Darden. The custom at UVA is that when you leave the Dean’s Office, you take a year’s leave of absence. This helps the successor Dean get traction and helps the (now former) Dean get a different kind of traction. It’s a good policy. But it meant that I had to get out of Dodge.

The wilderness I chose was Boston, where I was a visiting professor at Harvard Business School. (I’m very grateful for Dean Nitin Nohria’s hospitality.) I did not teach, consult, or give speeches. I retired from a board. Instead of all the other stuff that a former Dean could do, I chose to become a student for a year. I attended a couple of courses and occasionally dropped in on classes of other great teachers. I read deeply, spending a third to a half of each day that way. I wrote (and edited) a lot, which is my way of sorting out my thoughts. And I reached out to economists, business professors, historians, political scientists, English professors, lawyers, and biomedics — they were all cordial and toughminded about my ideas.

Larry Summers and Bob Bruner
Larry Summers and Bob Bruner

For instance, Larry Summers, reputed to have strong opinions and fearless expression, was friendly; he invited me to some gatherings and generously gave me helpful advice on my work. My wife and I attended concerts, lectures, museums, and saw the Celtics, Patriots, and Red Sox-we discovered that Boston may be great for students but is even better when you have some spending money. The year was just packed with new ideas and experiences.

But without question, it was a year in the wilderness, a time to chart a new path. Friends ribbed me about the “vacation” I was taking, but it was some of the hardest work I’ve done. There is no guidebook; distractions abound; advice varies; and time flies. Pathfinding is lonely; dead-ends and naysayers sap enthusiasm. And just when you think you’ve nailed some new insight, you discover that someone else has already published it. Finally, I saw age-ism, typically subtle and sometimes blunt, but always doubting that anyone over a certain age has something left to add. For character-building, the intellectual wilderness of Boston easily rivals anything in Wild, The Jungle Book, or Thoreau’s woods.

Whether I really succeeded will be determined years from now. But objectively, my year in the wilderness was a very productive time. I wrote six papers and four case studies. I designed four new courses that I’ll teach at Darden next year. Most importantly, I’ve gone deep into three fields that will energize me for a long time to come: financial crises (their origins and consequences), financial innovation (how can we use it to make the world better?), and leadership attributes of the U.S. Presidents (what are they and why?) I look forward to bringing my discoveries back to UVA.

My year in the wilderness taught me that:

  • One chooses one’s wilderness — sure, you can get suspended from school or rusticated as a former Dean, but you can choose where to go next. You can even choose to rusticate yourself. Why wait for someone to tell you to hit the road or give you permission to go for a year?

  • Wildernesses are all around you. You don’t need to go very far — it could entail a change of place, of task, of routine, of social network, or of intellectual sphere. You can go totally (as I did) or partially (think about short retreats, online courses, and executive education programs). The range of choice is enormous.

  • You must plan to get to a genuine wilderness. It doesn’t just happen; your former life exerts an almost gravitational pull and distracts, if you let it. Professional transitions are excellent moments to go to the wilderness because of the break in current life that occurs.

  • Once in the wilderness, sample widely. Get out of your bubble. I’ve spoken with a number of CEOs who were rusticated: one studied for the Ph.D. in Art History in London before returning to lead one of the largest corporations in the world; a media CEO drove his camper van across the U.S. for a year eating at every BBQ joint he could find and listening to hundreds of radio stations–and returned to rejuvenate a radio broadcasting company; a brilliant neurosurgeon spends a month each year teaching at a clinic in Ethiopia and comes back renewed.

  • Ask: if you need structure (like courses and reading lists) then get it. But don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do. Figure it out for yourself. Running up and down a few blind alleys is an essential part of the experience.

  • “Live deliberately,” as Thoreau said; “front some essential facts.” Link your choice of wilderness and how to spend your time to some purpose. As I have said elsewhere, you must go where you believe you can do your best work. This entails having some sense of purpose or vision for what that best work will be.

For me, the best work I could have done this past year was to set a new course for myself. Now, it feels like I’m on the way.