A recent study by HSBC came out on the value of education, reflecting the cost of an expensive overseas education and how to prepare for it. Which made me think about the value of my education, and whether it was worth it.

I’ve had an expensive education. I read Economics in Cambridge and did my MBA at Wharton. And I was lucky, I received bonded scholarships to both schools. Both of which I broke and both of which I paid back.

In today’s age, you can take a Harvard or MIT course for free on edX. You can learn anything you want from the internet. So is it really worth an expensive overseas education?

Studying at Cambridge

Education at Cambridge

Studying Economics at Cambridge was beautiful. The imposing buildings, the blue and white Wedgewood style ceiling in my Newnham College library and the gorgeous gardens made you feel scholarly. But let me tell you a secret. I did not go for a single lecture for the most part of my final year at Cambridge (lectures were optional).

Instead, I shut myself from my social community and I studied. As a night owl, I would wake up at 2pm and study till 5am. I would go to the library and read. With my solid Singaporean training, I made a series of questions that appeared in exams over the last 10 years, and for each topic I would read and I would make notes by hand (we did not have laptops in 1998, the internet had barely become available), reinforcing all the concepts that I read.

I read every single undergraduate textbook in print on selected topics. English is not my strength, so I would search for the author that explained the subject in a simple way that was easy to understand (my favourites were Gregory Mankiw and Paul Krugman). When I was done with the undergraduate textbooks, I moved on to the postgraduate textbooks. I even tried reading the seminal research papers on some of the topics. I did not understand all of it, but I could quote it in my exam papers.

I also had a subscription to the Financial Times and the Economist, which I never read when I received them. Instead, I would clip and file articles with a pair of scissors (like an Evernote web clipper) that I thought were relevant to the topics I selected to studied about. Articles about unemployment, money, labour, government. And 3 months before my final exams, I took out my folder of clipped articles and I pulled out statistics, facts and current examples that I could use in my exams to substantiate the economic theories that I had studied.

What I was doing in 1998, in my opinion, was keeping what’s known as a swipe file. I came across the word Swipe File while reading Jimmy Daly’s blog. I had no idea what it meant. It was only when I watched Evan Carmichael’s video on Tim Ferriss where he talks about how he would save to Evernote moments that made him purchase a good or service and reflect on what about that moment triggered that purchase, that I understood the meaning of a swipe file.

And I graduated second in my class in Cambridge. Without going to most lectures. And that degree and that grade allowed me to get into the Administrative Service in the Singapore Government and into Bain.

At Bain, I not only learnt about business, I travelled the world. I did a 6-month, fully paid for transfer to London. 6 months became 7 which became 13 to 21, and ultimately a permanent transfer. And I got sponsored to do my MBA at Wharton.

Studying at Wharton

Education at Wharton

I did not want to go to Wharton. I wanted to go to Harvard. But I was lazy and over-confident. I applied late with lousy essays and I was waitlisted. Too proud to reapply, I chose to go to Wharton instead. While at Wharton, I interned at an amazing hedge fund where I learn the fundamentals of investing, doing my internship in Boston and San Francisco (paid for by Bain), and I am still dear friends with one of the founders.

At Wharton, I partied hard, and I made some of the best friends I have today.

The value of going to these top schools has been that it has allowed me access to the best companies, to travel the world and most of all it has let me make friends who are dedicated to doing the best that they can do.

I have friends that studied at Eton, Marlborough, Cheltenhem, Rodean, Exeter, Trinity, Horrace Mann, Parsons, RISD, St Martins.

I know lawyers, bankers, architects, accountants. I have friends in the best hedge funds, real estate, private equity and venture capital firms. I know the best actors in the Philippines, the best interior and fashion designers in Malaysia. I know the best milliner in London (she’s Japanese)!

I don’t have to pay for actuarial advice or exchange rate advice. I can tell you where to get the best nanny in New York or San Francisco or where to get your eyebrows done in Soho or Shepherd Bush. Where to eat the best tofu in Tokyo. I can tell you where to find the best nail salon in Shoreditch. Heck, I can even tell you where to get the best plumber in London.

All these friends have opened their doors to me. I’ve stayed in an amazing hotel in Puglia and a chateau in Normandy. All for free. And these are not rich kids squandering their inheritance. These are all people who are working hard at doing what they do best. And sharing it with me with generosity.

These friends are all just a phone call away. Some I speak to almost every day, some I don’t speak to for years. But I know they are there for me if I need them. And likewise, I am there for them if they need me.

Do I sound like I’m bragging? Yes I am. I am proud of my hard work, I am proud that I’ve invested in building these friendships and I’m proud of what my friends have achieved.

And that, to me, is the value of my expensive overseas education.


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