The limitations of K-means: Why You Can’t Cluster Booth Students

Pardon the stats pun, I just submitted my Big Data midterm, and I’m pretty obsessed with the class. As a little background, K-means is a way to group people, things, etc. into “clusters” by finding the attributes they share with other members of the sample. Personally, I don’t think even Professor Taddy could build a clustering algorithm that could capture the myriad amazing attributes of Booth students. But I swear this post isn’t about stats. It’s about people.

When you first arrive at Booth, you’ll hear and ask and answer the ubiquitous questions: “What did you do before Booth?” “What are you recruiting for?” “Where did you live before Booth?” “Where do you want to live after?” The answers sound something like: Consulting, Finance, Investment Management, Tech, Education for past and aspirational careers, hometowns of NYC, DC, Chicago, Toronto, Delhi, etc.

But hold the phone. Beyond these categorical similarities, Booth students are some of the most diverse individuals you could imagine.

Booth provides many opportunities to get to know one another on different levels: LEAD, LOR, treks, classes, study groups, student groups, the mentor program, mix-it-up dinners, leadership challenges, case competitions, TNDCs – the list doesn’t end.

One of my favorites, however, is “Booth Stories.” Booth Stories is a lunchtime event run for students by students. The events give students the opportunity to share stories in a “Ted Talk” format on a given topic. The events are held 3-4 times a quarter in a jam-packed, standing room only, 70-seat classroom with dimmed lighting and a YouTube video of a crackling fire playing on the projectors behind the storytellers.

This past Wednesday, I attended the Booth Stories session entitled “Spectacular Failures.” The point was to have students share times they actually failed – not their “interview failure story” about how “at first they didn’t get the promotion but then they did and everything was great!” – but real, deeply felt failures. What’s the purpose of this? First, to get to know each other better. We’ve all been pretty successful, but that doesn’t mean perfect. Second, to help each other learn how to cope with and rebound from failures and to know we’re not alone when we’re facing a challenge, whether its personal, professional, or interpersonal.

So what have Booth students failed at and what do they have to say about failure? Eight of my colleagues shared stories. They ranged from professional setbacks like being laid off from a trading firm and presenting an egregiously incorrect economic forecast at a top asset management conference to personal debacles such as being punched in the face by a University of Illinois football player or having no one show up to a birthday party. One student shared his experiences growing up in Zimbabwe in the 1990s when inflation was beyond rampant and food was scarce. Another student shared a story about how, growing up in India in a mixed-religion household, he tried to fit in and impress other kids to the point that he was nearly killed trying to prove himself.

For the full hour and a half I found myself alternately weeping from the depth of the emotions shared and then laughing from the humbling humor of my ridiculously successful and smart Booth friends who value this forum as a safe space to publicly laugh at and learn from their past selves. Each story ended with Q&A, takeaways, and advice. I’ll leave you with some of my favorites:

“Always check your ego”

“Humans adapt quickly, don’t forget where you came from”

“Figure out what happened, and work on fixing that in the future”

“Be yourself”

and — if all else fails – “Make a Spotify playlist”.

Seriously, you all should meet Booth students. Even when they fail, they’re awesome.

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