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The Upside of Getting Screwed Over

I’m an advisor to a company that makes beef jerky. The founders are Bolivian and their product has done well down there…but the market is small. They relocated the business to Texas and I’ve been helping them get the business in motion. One of the founders shared a story that I can’t stop thinking about…

When he was in university, he studied for a year abroad in Paris. When he returned to Bolivia, his university would not transfer the credits. The idea of a Bolivian university turning their noses up at a French school, he told me, was ridiculous. Paris has an almost millennium-long academic tradition of educational institutions giving birth to major parts of philosophy, science, arts and letters. (The University of Paris, aka The Sorbonne, was founded in 1150. The institution invented the PhD.)

A school in Bolivia acting like French education might not meet Bolivian standards was pure delusion. Frustrated but powerless to do anything, he accepted the Bolivian uni’s decision and retook the necessary classes. It was a waste of time and money, but so be it. These things happen.

Months later, he saw a picture of his face in his Bolivian school’s marketing materials. The text alongside his image referenced his time in Paris; the school was bragging about how their students had access to wonderful study abroad opportunities. Without his knowledge, the school was using him as a poster child to drive more enrollments.

This is not him. Or his school. But they used his image in marketing materials similar to this.

There is so much I love about this story.

Maybe it’s that students should perceive themselves as customers and complain more (Perhaps he should have pushed the school a bit harder to accept his credits. Maybe he did. I never asked). Maybe it’s that institutions aren’t monoliths. The accreditation office probably rarely communicates with the marketing department, so of course something like this could happen. We can better navigate the world if we understand that organizations are loose collections of people and to assume they are aligned is foolish.

But the way I like to process this story is that his school screwing him over gave him a valuable lesson. In growing his company, this founder has told me stories of dealings with shady suppliers, corrupt government employees, and haggling distributors. He rattles these stories off to me with zero frustration. As if they are trifles. Mere annoyances. He gives them about as much attention as he’d give a fly buzzing around a picnic.

His school giving him the shaft at an early age was a gift. He received the gift of resilience, which makes his odds of success today that much higher. 

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