'I Always Felt Business Was for the Noogie-Givers': Dave Barry on the Value of an MBA

Dave Barry on March 6 in Washington Photograph by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

With a new parenting book, You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty, humorist Dave Barry has plenty of advice on how to help young people. Senior Editor Diane Brady asked him what he’d say to those who happen to be in business school. Some excerpts from their conversation:

The idea that I would know anything useful for an MBA is pretty funny. But the idea of an MBA is pretty funny, too. I don’t know what they’re learning in business school. It can’t be that much. You’re not qualified to run a company when you get out. Everyone knows you learn on the job. It’s the same as journalism school. I can see sending a kid to school to learn how to frack. That seems like something you’d want to study before you do it.

Business was always a mystery to me. I wasn’t into Junior Achievement or anything like that. I used to dread having to sell chocolate bars for my Little League team. Other kids would go out and just say, “Mrs. Peterson, do you want to buy any candy?” I would linger outside the door for about an hour and then eventually ring the bell, hoping no one was home. If [someone] was, I’d say, “You don’t want to buy any candy, do you, Mrs. Peterson? OK. Bye.” The only way I could have sold candy is if women ran from their home, tackled me in their driveway, and made me take money.

I always felt business was for those large, hairy guys: the noogie-givers. I’m glad they exist because without them, I wouldn’t be able to sit around in my underwear and make crap up. I still look out the window in the morning, see some guy in a suit, and go “Thank you!” They’re why we have buildings and insurance and things like that. If we left it up to English majors like myself, we probably wouldn’t even have structures. We’d all be lying in the rain, staring at the sky.

I like businesspeople. My first job out of college was as a newspaper reporter, but then I supported my family by teaching effective writing seminars to businesses. To that point, I was a total lefty newspaper guy who viewed business as this ruthless monolith. All of a sudden, I’d be spending a week with a bunch of employees from Union Carbide or some accounting firm. I learned a couple of things. First was that they were terrible writers and would remain terrible writers because they didn’t want to be the only person writing clear memos.

The second thing I learned was that there was no such thing as a corporate mentality. Every one of them thought their boss was an idiot, or the competition was better. All the memos were about some little screw-up, like the paint color was wrong.

I think about that when I get asked to do corporate speaking. It’s very lucrative. Sometimes they’ll ask me to talk about what they do: “Can you have a certain amount of this be about the lubrication industry?” It’s easy enough in that case, of course. They can be the hardest audiences to entertain, because there’s some mysterious pecking order in who laughs first.

I look for the women, because they’re more willing to laugh.

The best audiences have had a few beverages—preferably after dinner, not breakfast—and they’re independent businesspeople. Entrepreneurs. They’re not afraid to decide for themselves when to laugh. They don’t need the approval of some other guy, or look to the boss. They like to have a good time.

I have two kids. One of them majored in English and math. I said, “You’ll never get a job as long as you live.” He became a database guy, and it turns out this is a valuable skill. My daughter is 14. I tell her, “Don’t major in art history.” And I told both of them they’re not allowed to move back in with us when they finish their college degree. That’s the worst trend in the history of trends. I know people who’ve done it, and they all come up with the same bullshit explanations: “Well, it’s just for a year.” Put them out in the woods, and let them eat berries.

The greatest moment in your life is when your child gets his own job with his own medical plan. It’s not when they graduate. That’s when you get the phone call, asking to move back in. I don’t know how it works with Obamacare.

The other thing I’d tell MBAs is that bullying is wrong and it’s bad.

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