HARVARD : My tenuous feeling about being at Harvard would never fully dissipate. But to my surprise, and that of my advisers, were grades were quite good at the end of the year.

The upside of entering Harvard with less academic preparation than many of my classmates was that it forced me to rethink much of what I thought I knew. So, too, did Raphael Demos.

Professor Demos, an authority on Greek Philosophy, was Harvard's Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy and Civil Policy.

Professor Demos would use Plato and other great philosophers to demonstrate that proving any proposition to be true in the final and ultimate sense was impossible. His approach to critical thinking planted a seed in me that grew during my years at Harvard and grew throughout my year.

The approach appealed to what was probably my natural but latent tendency towards questioning and skepticism.

I concluded that you can't prove anything in absolute terms, from which I extrapolated that all  significant decisions are about probabilities.

Internalizing the core tenet of Professor Demo's teaching - weighing risk and analyzing odds and trade-offs was central to everything I did professionally in the decades ahead in finance and government. 

During my time in the Clinton White House, my colleagues and I tackled similarly complex situations.

One extraordinary complicated issue was the the  1995  budget  battle, which transformed into a debit-limit  crisis and two government showdowns.

Compounding the severity of this policy debate for me was the experience of being personally vilified. Despite the complexity of the issue and the emotions involved, we managed to keep our balance and stand our ground.

The  Republican-controlled Congress eventually raised the debt limit, we had advocated.

In both these situations - one on Wall Street, and other in Washington - I drew from Professor Demos's Philosophy class and the existentialist lessons from the coffeehouses-

Which shaped my thinking on how to make decisions and helped me build a durable sense of remove and perspective.

Despite have such a profound impact on my way of thinking, I never actually met Professor Demos. I was just one of a hundred or so young faces sitting in a lecture hall, taking in his every word.

If I had the chance, I would thank him for challenging me all those many years ago.

He crystallized for me the power of critical thinking : asking questions, recognizing that there are no  provable certainties and analyzing the probabilities.

And that coupled with my coffee house lessons. was the best preparation one could have - not just for career but also for life.

The World Students Society wishes Secretary Robert E. Rubin its very best.


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