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Sebastian Arango: Reflection on History Major

Posted by on Wednesday, September 21, 2022 in Student Reflections.

Sebastian Arango ’00

Picking up a newspaper these days, it’s practically impossible not to come across articles describing the challenges that the humanities face across the college landscape. History majors are unloved on the salary and employment front. Employers view the liberal arts as a quaint relic. For a student of history, however, it’s a frustrating development and a gross overreaction to changing trends in the workforce. With the caveat that there are always difficulties in moving from the personal to the general, my decision two decades ago to major in history has undoubtedly helped me in all phases of my life: academically, professionally and personally. I am currently at a large, multi-billion dollar distressed credit hedge fund in New York City, and I have worked in finance in New York my entire career. While I pursued both a law degree and an MBA following Vanderbilt, I would not be the person I am today were it not for the rigorous coursework I pursed at Benson Hall in both Medieval European as well as 20th century U.S. Diplomatic History.

Strong communication skills, especially strong writing skills, are a hallmark of an education in history. Regardless of which career track I pursued, the importance of communication skills could not be diminished. The ability to think clearly, write crisply, and speak authoritatively is absolutely paramount. This will remain the case despite the continued rise of technology in our lives and the pace of the automation throughout the corporate landscape. I still painfully recall my first essays in my freshman seminar, The Muslim Response to the Christian Crusades. My writing was lacking; it was neither concise nor well organized— and my professor let me know. Writing takes effort, and good writing demands a great deal of practice. That is what an undergraduate degree in history provides. Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to work with strikingly intelligent and driven colleagues. But their writing is often cringe-worthy. And remember, the bar for business writing is low! The ability to write and communicate well is a critical skill; it’s one that has been incredibly relevant at every stage of my career, especially now that I spend more time with clients.

Secondly, pursuing a degree in history was helpful as it allowed me to further develop my judgment. My history coursework forced me to assess a variety of texts, and critically, it forced me to then distill and synthesize relevant arguments and conclusions. Repeated efforts along with these lines across various geographies and eras undoubtedly improved my ability to exercise my own judgment. What made sense? What was the writer’s agenda? What reflected significant bias? I use these same skills today. In my current role, I am bombarded with innumerable stimuli. Each day brings torrents of new developments across various geographies, industries and companies. I must be able to consistently separate the signal from the noise. Amidst an onslaught of data, I must determine which data point is crucial for a given investment, and which is ultimately irrelevant to the portfolio and to our clients.

Further, extensive coursework in history was especially useful as it forced me to assess the limitations of the historical record. What happened when a primary source was lacking, limited in scope, or unavailable? As a student, I recognized that there is never perfect information. I learned to make the best or most appropriate conclusion based on incomplete information. This is no different than what I must do on a regular basis in my career. As an investor who is an efficient markets skeptic, I know I will never have perfect information. Nonetheless, I pursue my research and assess the weight of the evidence before making an investment recommendation.

Besides developing obvious skills, pursuing a degree in history was worthwhile because it allowed me to develop a deep sense of humility. Despite the breathless headlines that indicate we’re closer than ever to achieving a techno-utopia, any student of history recognizes the perils of pride. Technology has certainly provided us countless benefits; however, blind allegiance to the latest, most powerful algorithm or financial derivative is a recipe for failure. On the other hand, attempting to understand a society’s motivations for pursuing a given action through a historical lens can be particularly illuminating. Despite our technological prowess, we don’t yet have all of the answers. The study of history allows us to take advantage of others’ experience.

And finally, what was the best reason for me to pursue a degree in history? It was simple— it made me a more interesting person. While it’s a challenge for a young undergraduate to have a sense of perspective, it’s so important to remember that we’re all more than our first job, and we’re more than our resumes. Our society attaches outsized importance to short-term actions and goals. Short-termism is our credo and it’s understandably tough to adopt a longer outlook. However, that’s exactly what I’m advocating. My undergraduate years were a precious commodity. I was afforded an incredible opportunity to study countless topics, including, among others, the Cathar heresy along with Gen. Lucius Clay’s position as he executed the Berlin Airlift. Why did I study those topics? I studied them because I could and because they were fascinating. Interestingly enough, you also never know when those topics could come up. I’ve discussed both in interviews as well as in interminable airport delays with business colleagues. And what about corporate finance and accounting, the skills I use on a regular basis? You have an entire career and graduate program to learn those. College is too short to be spent on debits and credits.