Snapshots from Hell: The Making of an MBA, Peter Robinson

Warner, 1994, 286 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-51786-0

I must confess that I have often thought about writing a book about my first (and so far only) university degree. Mostly while undergoing said degree, usually whenever I was stuck in my room studying for yet another mind-crushing exam. By the end of the program, I even had a dramatic arc of sort with an happy ending; the story of a young man bouncing back from a humiliating first year, going from academic probation to a cum laude B.Sc. The idea shelved itself a few months after graduation, as I was struggling with the wonderful work of steady employment; I suspected that my story wasn’t at all very compelling. Tales of love triangles, demonic teachers, transient friendships, Jolt-fuelled all-nighters, razor-thin academic close calls, cryogenic winter mornings and the discovery of the Internet must be nearly universal amongst Computer Science students; what else could I bring to the common mind pool? By showing me what a truly gifted writer could do with such things, Peter Robinson’s Snapshots from Hell took me back -screaming and shouting- to my university days of not-so-long ago and made me think again about my own experience there.

Few other academic acronyms mean more than MBA. In theory, these three letters are associated with analytical skills, business acumen and financial success. Get an MBA, says common wisdom, and you can start your business, become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and conquer the world. But the actually process of getting an MBA isn’t quite as well known. Granted, we assume it must include some studying and some class time, but what else, exactly?

Peter Robinson was the right person at the right time to take us inside an MBA program. Having quit his job as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, Robinson moved across the country to Stanford and began his business training. Unlike many of his classmates, Robinson was more familiar with words than numbers; as a “poet”, he’d have to mold his mind to the mathematical exactitude required of him after years of Washington double-answers.

But that also put him in an ideal position to report on what he saw. Given his gift for clear writing, this is invaluable to us readers; Robinson can be wickedly funny, observant or analytical, and we can not only follow, but also understand his experience.

Snapshots from Hell mostly covers Robinson’s first year at Stanford. Given my personal experience, I can agree with this choice; first year is tough on anyone and anyone not destroyed by the experience can only come out of it stronger. Robinson suffered -and his narrative describes his pain-, but he eventually won out. By the second year, he was used to it. Still, it’s a small stroke of genius to name the three sections of the book “Inferno,” “Pugatorio” and “Paradiso (sort of)”

The writing style is simply wonderful, compulsively readable like a novel and yet filled with details that clearly bring out the lessons to learn from Robinson’s odyssey. Tales of friends dealing with the program are as illuminating as Robinson’s own efforts, allowing a glimpse of the program’s effect on various type of students.

It’s hard to tell when Robinson’s skill ended and my own personal empathy kicked in, but in any case, I loved Snapshots from Hell. It accomplishes what it sets out to do -tell the world about the perils on an MBA degree- in such a wonderful way that it’s hard not to be enthusiastic about it. It definitely ranks as a must-read for anyone -like me, yes- who’s toying with the idea of getting an MBA some time in the future. Better warned than surprised, right?

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