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Thinking differently and what courses to take in school

When I was in grad school studying architecture and real estate, the Zell/Lurie Real Estate Center used to run a regular lunch series with real estate executives. The way it worked is that executives would come in to the school and 15 or so students — all of whom were studying real estate — could sign up to have lunch with them in a boardroom. I can’t remember if the school provided us lunch or we had to bring our own, but either way, you had an hour to hear them talk about the industry and ask them whatever you wanted to know.

One time somebody asked a question about what courses they should take outside of their business and real estate classes. And I’ll never forget what the executive said. His recommendation was to take courses that were as far away from business, finance, and real estate as possible. He said take fine art history classes, learn about ancient civilizations, or whatever. Just take classes that force you to think a little differently than everybody else.

The reason, I think, this resonated with me so much was because I had a certain amount of academic insecurity at that moment in time. I was coming from an architecture and design background and my classmates were former investment bankers and management consultants, all of whom had a far better grasp of “the numbers” than I did. It meant that real estate recruiters didn’t want to talk to me because I was the square peg for their round hole.

But being a square peg really motivated me.

I remember walking into the program director’s office at that time and requesting that I be put into what was considered to be the more difficult real estate finance class offered at Wharton. He said that he didn’t recommend it. Non-MBAs (which I was at the time) can’t typically handle it. And if he put me into it, I would likely come back to him crying about how hard it was. I asked him to put me in it and said that I would come back to show him my “A.” He put me in it and, yes, I got an “A.”

But at the end of the day, the point that this executive was making at the lunch was that the math and mechanics behind things like cap rates, IRRs, and DCFs is not rocket science. Real estate is not rocket science. You of course need to know how this stuff all works, but it is not the be-all and end-all. The other critical parts of this are more art than science. What are the assumptions that I am making as part of my analysis? What do I believe about the future of the world? To answer these questions, you need think critically and laterally. And having a different perspective can help you do exactly that.

This was true back in 2008 and it’s still true today.

1 Comment so far

  1. Max Vo

    Well said Brandon. I truly do believe that there is more art than there is science in commercial real estate. We are an industry where there is so much imperfect information. Lots of risk and reward – I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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