Two weeks ago my three-year-old son was supposed to talk about our family at his preschool, so I prepped him: “What if the teacher asks what your daddy does for a living?” After a thoughtful pause, my son replied, “Nothing.” At which point I instructed him to tell the class that his father writes. “My dad writes,” he dutifully repeated, and then added, “and writing is nothing.” On the other hand, his two uncles have easily explainable, “real” jobs. One is a firefighter and the other is in construction. What my brothers-in-law do is tangible to my son, who plays with both a fire truck and an excavator. I guess I could give him Strunk & White.
The truth is, there are a lot of people who do things for a living that are hard to explain—and not just to children. Take presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who recently said, “I have spent most of my life outside of politics, solving real problems in the real economy.” What exactly is he talking about? Romney had been involved in private equity. In the 1980s and ’90s, he helmed Bain Capital and Bain and Company, where he was tasked with turning around struggling businesses. But as he honestly admits, “Sometimes I was successful and helped create jobs; other times I wasn’t.”
As it happens, I was one of those “other times.” In the spring of 1995, I was a senior at Georgetown University majoring in international relations. Unfortunately, there weren’t many job opportunities directly related to the field. You were better off studying international business and finance or accounting—there were at least a dozen major firms that came looking for such students, offering signing bonuses, wardrobe allowances, and business cards. They included Merrill Lynch, CS First Boston, Arthur Andersen, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers (some of which institutions are now famously defunct).
Many of these companies held on-campus job fairs. In desperation—graduation day was fast approaching—I decided to attend one. It was for Bain and Company. The ballroom was packed, mostly with business majors dressed in suits and carrying clipboards. Following a brief presentation, one of the Bain representatives walked through the crowd and, speaking in an authoritative voice, told the students they were about to build a business from scratch. You could see the hungry looks in the students’ eyes. Some were leaning forward in their seats, ready to pounce.
And pounce they did. Before the Bain rep even finished asking what sort of company they would create, dozens of hands shot up with a fervor not seen since the 1936 Nuremberg rally. “A restaurant!” someone shouted. “What kind of a restaurant?” Miss Bain shot back. “Barbecue!” volunteered another student. Others in the audience were scribbling wildly on their clipboards. “What about supplies?” came the response. “Silverware! No, plastic! And napkins, lots of napkins!” Miss Bain kept driving them on, demanding to know about costs and capital, location and hours. And the business students kept firing back, each one trying eagerly to outdo the others, as if they were being graded on class participation. (Meanwhile, I was still thinking about what sort of business to run.)
But something was missing, Miss Bain pointed out—something essential to this enterprise. I thought the crowd was finally stumped, but it only took a few seconds before a student yelled out, “Wet-Naps!” And on it went. The pace was frenetic, the atmosphere was cutthroat, and I was sick to my stomach, walking out midway, knowing only one thing: I would never be hired by Bain and Company to do . . . whatever it is they did.
Romney is obviously aware of voters’ concerns regarding his private sector experience. “My work led me to become deeply involved in helping other businesses, from innovative start-ups to large companies going through tough times,” he now readily explains. He could also say he is sort of like the Richard Gere character in Pretty Woman.
Of course, it’s not just Romney. For more than a decade my friend Buck has worked in “investor relations” in New York City, and I still haven’t a clue what his day is like. Those of us in the D.C. area are inundated with radio commercials for government contractors boasting “mission critical” support for “federal IT” through “cloud-computing solutions” while defending against “malware.” Try explaining that to a three-year-old.
My son assured me he was “just being silly” and promised to tell his class that I write for a living. But I still have no idea what he actually said. For all I know, he could have told his classmates his father was in private equity and tried turning around a barbecue restaurant that forgot to purchase Wet-Naps.