Monday, September 11, 2006

Advice for learning finance (and pretty much anything else)

A student emailed me the following today. I figured I would share my answer.

"I wondered if you might have any advice for those of us in the MBA program who have undergraduate degrees not related to business?"

Of course I have advice, how effective it is may be up for debate ;)

I would start by saying to think about what you already know and use it to help process what you are learning. Research on how people learn is full of evidence that we learn best when we can form relationships between the new information and things we already know. (The way I was taught it is that we form semantic networks that help us to store and retrieve the new knowledge. In fact this is a big reason I try to use sports examples as many people have at least some experience with sports.)

How to use this? Students in any class (even non finance classes) should try to tie new information would be to tie things to what you know. For instance, think of business through the eyes of a customer. The next time you go shopping stop and visualize everything that must go into the shopping experience. That, in a nutshell is what we are trying to do in any business class. We aim to teach people how to meet customer needs in an efficient manner.

Now turn it around and think of starting a company to meet these needs. Imagine everything you need to satisfy a customer: a product or service (architectural plans, food, or whatever), employees, a means of delivering the product or service. Now consider where the money for these things must come from.

That is finance. We figure out ways to help firms raise money to meet customer needs. Of course this is not as simple as it may seem at first glance. We must know the various alternatives for raising money, where to do so, the tax implications of the alternatives, and how to value the claims we are selling to raise money. And that is just from the corporate side! We also look at things from the investors’ point of view: what do they demand for the use of their money, how do they view risk (can they change the risk with derivatives?), what alternatives exist for their money, how do taxes effect them, and much more.

This seems like a great deal to know, and it is, but when you keep the bigger framework (that is what you know) always in mind, you can go back and see where each topic fits into the bigger picture. And that makes learning (and remembering) new things much easier and usually much more fun as well!

Hope this helps!


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