Alumni Feature: A Hedge-Fund Lawyer Explains Why You Should Major in History

David Charnin, Class of 1996

“I’m interested in business and finance, so why should I major in history?” or, more bluntly, “Business is about buying and selling things, not writing term papers, so why should I study history?”  I asked myself these same questions before I became a history major, and, today I am an in-house lawyer for a private equity and hedge fund firm.

Answering these questions requires looking at their two parts: first, understanding what it means to be a business person, and second, understanding what it means to study history at Hope–and then seeing the strong relationship between them.  At its core, business is about human interaction: the art of buying and selling goods and services. Of course, numeracy is quite important.  The art of business, however, is not merely about numbers on an Excel spreadsheet (no disrespect to Excel).  Rather, it is about marshaling a team of people to achieve profit in buying from or selling to other people.  Human relationships and communication about ideas, solutions (products and services) and the value proposition of those solutions are key.  There are also whole ecosystems that support the sales organs of business: research and development, marketing, accounting, law, treasury, information technology, and human resources, just to name a few.  History is a gateway to success in business because it focuses one’s thinking and communication and, most importantly, will teach you how to teach yourself new things so that new situations present opportunities and not obstacles.  Let’s take a closer look at business and see the connections between it and the study of history.

First, a successful business career requires the ability to communicate clearly.  Email is the common carrier of written business ideas, and communicating concepts like product value, pricing, quantity, delivery date, and charges, etc. demands clarity of communication.  More than one million dollar deal has been fouled up because the salespeople were talking past each other and the email traffic was unclear as to what the parties really agreed to.  Studying history at Hope College will demand discipline in thought and precision in communication.  With your professors as your guides and classmates as co-venturers, you will learn to refine your ideas in presentations and writing and will learn to engage your colleagues’ ideas with care and candor.  This is exactly the skill set you will need to employ to engage and persuade your colleagues and customers in business, each of whom will have their own ideas about strategy (in the case of colleagues) and value (in the case of customers).

Successful businesses also require leaders who are critical thinkers and can develop a sound strategy and express their ideas in the spoken word.  Developing sound strategy requires clarity of thought while absorbing information from many sources–from colleagues, the media, the Intranet, trade publications and macroeconomic forces–to draw your own conclusions that may make or break your business.  The study of history will give you a framework to sift the wheat from the chaff in the marketplace of ideas.  You will learn which ideas have staying power and which do not.  You will learn to persuade with your speaking in the classroom setting, and you will engage with the ideas of the past that have persuaded others (and perhaps you).  Employing these skills with customers will give you an edge in today’s sales environment where selling a product requires persuading your customer of the value of your product, not just its price.   You may be selling a product, a service, or your idea about how to solve a problem.  Or, you may be evaluating someone else’s pitch to a solution.  By studying history, you will also learn to see the mistakes and failures of others by reading about actions and words and their consequences–without having to make them yourself.  Understanding your customers and your product’s value will permit you to see possible solutions and chart the right strategic course amid the challenges that will face you daily in business.

Lastly, a history degree will reward you with the confidence to make sound decisions for yourself, and the skepticism not to fall in love with your own ideas.  The critical thinking skills of analysis will also permit you to teach yourself how to engage and learn new ideas, a crucial skill in today’s fast-paced, changing workforce.

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