Business People vs. Academics

Is the world of business intellectually stimulating? This is something I’ve struggled with and continue to contemplate.

How about a more concrete question: If you wanted to give your brain a work-out and also have a good time, would you rather hang out with professional academics or professional business people?

In an email exchange, Arnold Kling, who’s been both an internet entrepreneur and an academic, writes to me:

I think that business people live more interesting lives. They face more interesting decisions. They deal more directly with incentive systems. They have much more challenging interpersonal issues. They have to handle a wider range of people and issues. The have to adapt more quickly. They make more frequent and dramatic changes.

Academics also tend to hyper-specialize, and hyper-specialists tend to be less interesting.

If you had to put me in a cocktail party, I’d opt for a group of business people who have unusual range and intellectual curiosity over a group of academics who are unusually grounded in real world events.

21 comments on “Business People vs. Academics
  • I would like to challenge your last sentence: Is there any such thing as an event that is not “real-world”, and is there a value attached to that particular class of events? In other words, are “real-world” events more interesting than “non-real-world” events?

  • Jonathan: Yes I think there are ideas and pursuits that are not particularly grounded in the real world. And to me, those things more grounded in what’s happening around us are more interesting than sheer theory.

  • The way you are even thinking about this biases the answer. You ask: “If you wanted to give your brain a work-out and also have a good time, would you rather hang out with professional academics or professional business people?” The best way to give your brain a workout is not to hang out with other people, but to sit alone in a quiet room with a difficult problem or book. Some people even enjoy this!

    This is not to say that issues regarding people cannot be intellectual (“dealing with thought and reason”), but the intellectual element involves either applying ideas you have learned or extracting ideas/theories about how people operate – it is not in the immediate applied interaction.

    If you re-read Mr. Kling’s paragraph, you will see that he says little or nothing about the intellectual content – merely that it’s more “interesting.” And this, in turn, simply depends on what one finds interesting, which is a completely subjective question.

    I suggest that you separate “intellectual” and “interesting” in your thinking about this. They are largely independent variables.

  • It occurred to me after hitting Post that “experiential” is something of an opposite to “intellectual” in this context. Purely experiential situations can be mentally stimulating (e.g., rock climbing) but are not intellectual.

  • I wouldn’t disagree with your last paragraph as written, but…

    The smartest top business guy that I’ve heard of is probably Charlie Munger. And excellent though he is, I don’t know if I’d stack him against the world’s most brilliant academicians in a contest for the world’s most interesting conversational partners.

    At the extreme top end, I’m not sure that any amount of real-world nitty-gritty experience can substitute for a job where you’re allowed to do math all day if you feel like it.

  • As both an academic and a business owner, I think you have missed the point. Theory is the best foundation to develop good practices, especially in business. For example, micro-economics is the basis for most business decisions. Without academics we would have little or no usable theory–in economics, finance and management.

    Both groups are equally interesting, if you are looking for what is to be learned from them. Given that organized academic study has successfully existed since the time of the Greeks, maybe you should stop questioning its validity and just enjoy it.

  • Eliezer,

    I agree Munger is a top businessperson, but might you be biased because of his love for studying cognitive biases in business? 🙂

    Note that just because someone is a world class mathematician doesn’t mean he’ll make a “world class conversation partner.”


    I agree entirely with your distinctions.


    I just don’t agree that both groups of equally interesting. And I’m not sure where your last sentence is coming from — this had nothing to do with formalized academic study.

  • “Would you rather hang out with professional academics or professional business people?”

    For me it would depend on their particular fields and their respective personalities. Stick me in a cocktail party with corporate-type people, and I’d rather get drunk with an Ahmet Ertegun or twiddle knobs with Rick Rubin than hang out with a dweeb milquetoast like Bill Gates or even such a business dynamo as Warren Buffett.

    Among academics, I’d rather discuss mastodon bones with a paleontologist who gets out in the field like Robert T. Bakker (amazingly, he’s a practicing Pentecostal minister– I find it weirdly compelling) than make small talk with some tenured scholar of the Venerable Bede.

    In the end, it’s more fun to burn a joint with Dave Winer or drop acid with the CEO of a biotech company than to talk shop with shipmates who don’t partake of the sacraments.

  • Quite the contrary. I’ll find Academics more stimulating if they are true to form. They have no compulsion to justify and hence have less reasons to lie; they only convey their insights and observations (to people that they think make the grade) as could stoke our curiosity – true blue intellectual stimulus. But you can engage a Businessman easily into a conversation because he can’t ignore you; you could as well be his potential customer, franchisee or supplier – a stakeholder in some form. He can’t afford to pick and choose like the Academic.

    Another aspect is ego. The big ego entrepreneurs have coaxes them to strut their minor successes in public and dwarf their blithering blunders (except when they decide to shut shop and declare bankruptcy). They just can’t afford to expose their vulnerabilities as they live in constant fear of competition. So they prefer to use every occasion as a brand building event. While it’s ok to be discretionary in the crowd, that selective swagger rips off the “intellectual stimulus” element from the conversation. It will seem more like watching a product launch campaign unfold.

  • You often seem to generalize and stereotype ‘academics.’ I disagree with your characterization.

    I know many professors who have left academia and started companies. I also know professors who have done the opposite. Most of these people are dynamic individuals, with strong passions and hobbies outside of their specialization.

    Remember, by labeling people, you can fall into the cognitive trap of treating them as homogenous and one-dimensional.

  • I would like to add that I think the type of ‘academic’ matters.

    Humanities professors are not the same as science/engineering professors.

  • I recently attended a party where I had a fascinating conversation with a physicist. He and his architect nephew (who has his own practice) were the most interesting people there. One was an academic. The other was in business.

  • Note that just because someone is a world class mathematician doesn’t mean he’ll make a “world class conversation partner.”

    Of course. But… sometimes the conversation just wants to go there. A topflight academic should have some luck following the conversation when it turns into business, because they’re people who are good at working from abstractions. But if the conversation turns to technical subjects, you can’t wing it – and from my perspective, sometimes that just happens.

    Roughly, my argument is that, conversationally speaking, it’s a lot easier to fake human stuff than math.

  • Ben,

    I think you’d be surprised at the number of professors who go on to start their own companies. In many respects, most professors who run research labs already run a company, albeit with certain built-in security & safety measures. For them to make the next step to a private company isn’t a huge leap, and quite a few make that jump.

    It would be interesting to see what percentage of academics end up becoming entrepreneurs relative to another segment of the population; I’d suspect it’s higher than for the population at large.

    More on topic:
    If you’re going to discuss whether business people or academics or more interesting, it’s important to clarify what segment of business you’re talking about. I would suspect that Kling is referring more to the entrepreneurial side of the world; I think that’s quite different from the corporate side of things.

  • Leaving academics led to what was for me an eye-opening (but in reality probably rather bland) realization that intellectual stimulation in the business world is roughly the same as that in academia. Like one of the posts above suggests, academia is full of experts on 15th century Khmer inscriptions, the use of microtones in Mongolian music, and niche variations on how 19th century colonialists were racist. Anything outside their specialty and the disciplinary theory surrounding it, and they’re a generalist like everybody else. Many academics are as interested to hear about these specialties as they are to learn about the intricacies of focus group discussions on toasters or the logistics of getting houseplants to market. If all academics were Simon Schamas and Stanly Fishes, academia would be intellectual nirvana. But they’re not, and I used to sometimes wonder about some academics if they were even very interested in their own specialty, much less anything else intellectual.

    On egos, well, yes there are egos in business, but they don’t come close to what I’ve seen in academia. Most business people are more into making money than defending their ideas. The result is that good ideas tend to win out much more easily than in academia where your ideas are pretty much your only vocational capital. The viciousness of academic “discourse” and the bitterness of faculty disagreements makes many businesses seem like kumbayah-singing campfires in comparison.

    OK, so I’m overstating the point. The PhD dissertation does have a weeding effect that results in a group of people that at the very least can sustain an interest in something long enough to explore it in some depth. But my own experience in meeting intellectually engaged—and engaging—people is that they are found in similar proportions in and out of academia.

    Maybe too, this whole discussion springs from the ambiguity of the term “intellectually stimulating.” If we changed it to “academically stimulating,” as it seems to be intended in many of these posts, then we really don’t have much to discuss. “Academics find other academics to be more academically stimulating.” Or as at least one post hints: “math professors find discussions with other math professors to be more stimulating.”

  • Ben:

    In a system that rewards a permanency, that the business world long forgot about or discarded, called ‘tenure’, it takes a certain kind of academic to succeed. That academic, pre-tenure at least (I have seen so many who are fossilised versions of what they were like when they got tenure!), shares many a charactertistic with an entrepreneur:

    – initiative;
    – recognising problems and addressing/ explaining if not solving them (depending on the discipline);
    – building strong working partnerships;
    raising money (esp true in soft money environments and also in research environments) which requires networking, schmoozing with research bodies as well as performance;
    – being outcome/ results oriented.

    Some tenured academics do however dislike those who have spent too much time in the ‘real world’. Towards the end of my very ‘real world’ oriented PhD, I was told by a Professor in my department that they wanted researchers not business people. (I was in a business faculty!) I turned the conversation to ask if impact was more important than writing papers that nobody reads. He said that is not our topic of discussion. Enough said!

    That said, enough business people stuck in the rut are dead boring too. They are stuck precisely because they bring nothing new to the party at their work. They do not read or do anything else to expand their minds. They have fixed ideas and fixed approaches to problem-solving. And pretty much always, they tend to value organisational experience – particularly from a setting they understand – far more than anything else such as enterprise or innovativeness.

    It is fair to give both a shot. You never know what you find! But if pressed for time, it is also vital to have some way of judging if you consider someone a time-waster rather than “interesting” (which you often use synonymously as “intellectual” and it always puzzles me). That way to judge will vary from person to person.

  • t occurred to me after hitting Post that “experiential” is something of an opposite to “intellectual” in this context. Purely experiential situations can be mentally stimulating (e.g., rock climbing) but are not intellectual.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *