Story Time with Mr. Klebnikov: Balancing Risk Over Reward

Media provided by Sabine T-R. ‘26 

In order to learn more about the teachers in our community, we decided to create a new Grace Gazette series where teachers will have the opportunity to share life lessons with students outside of the classroom. The question we’ve decided to ask all our interviewees is: “When was a challenging time when you wished you could have told your younger self what to do?” 

On Thursday, Jan. 18, a Grace High School alumni panel came to speak with the Grace community and answer fascinating questions about their high school and college experiences. This event stirred up memories of Michael Klebnikov’s own experience with navigating college and choosing a career path, which he was gracious enough to share with all of us. He spoke on how, if he had the chance, he would tell his younger self to take more risks. 

Below is a transcription of the interview.

Cassie B. ‘26: When was a challenging time when you wished you could have told your younger self what to do?

Mr. Klebnikov: Well, I was very taken by the talk today by our alumni, and I think it was Kumare [Vulcain-Sowkey ‘21] who talked about taking risks, and I thought that would be a very appropriate story. When I graduated from college, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself and so I spent a year in Europe which was great fun. But, I didn’t have a clear direction. I had studied languages and European history and it was sort of … what do you do with that? You know, it’s very interesting. I was passionate about both subjects. I was a double major. Not knowing what to do, I decided to go to Europe. 

I traveled around and happened to have a lot of relatives and friends in many other countries. It was great fun. But, the questions still remained: what do you do next? Because, when I went to college I was told very clearly by my father that I was on my own. You know, you got into college? Fine. How do you pay for it? So it wasn’t as if I had an open account, and I could do whatever I wanted for years. So, I had to pay for college and I had to repay those loans too. 

So, when I came back, I remember not really giving it much thought but feeling, “what the heck — why not” right? Remember the top movie Top Gun? He says, “what the hell?” I said, “what the hell?” I applied to business school not because I saw myself as a business person, but because it felt like, you can’t go wrong, which is not exactly the best way to make a decision. I sort of felt that I wanted to go on a path where all the doors were still open. 

So, I figured with a business degree, I could do anything I wanted. I can become a surfer if I want, or own a surf shack — not that I surf. And so, I went to business school, and I made a lot of friends. That was nice. 

But as I’m finishing business school, we all start interviewing. And again, I don’t have a clue what to do. There was no calling. It was like, you gotta do this. So, I took the easy way out. And the easy way out, just like applying to business, was easy. I got in fine, I didn’t have to study or anything to get in.  

And so, the easy way was to take the advice of the older generation, who all said, you gotta get a job with a company or a bank or something, and stay there for 30 years, right? It’s a life commitment, which sounds really awful. 

And nowadays, your generation, the millennials and the Gen Zers, can hop from job to job every three– six months. It doesn’t matter, right? It’s a completely different kind of way of thinking. 

I did the easy thing, which was I applied to work in a bank. And it really was the most unimaginative job. I had to go through a training program. That was boring, but I had to do it, and then I was assigned to cover foreign banks. 

And the only good part of that was that they gave me accounts that were Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. So twice a year, I’d go spend several weeks traveling around, eating great food, seeing great sights, visiting more of my friends and family. 

But it was the easy way, and it was not something which I wanted to do. And so, I did it for a number of years. And … looking back, I would say to myself, if you need more time, take more time, but also don’t be afraid of taking risks. 

I took the easy way out in terms of business school and in terms of going to the bank. I worked at the bank and finally I think I got smart, because during one of the vacations, I’d contacted the World Bank which sounded really cool, and sure enough, I got a consulting job. So, on my vacation, I worked for the World Bank. 

And it didn’t take me too long after that to decide I’m done with banking, I never should have gone there. But, I did have a little bit of an ulterior motive. And the ulterior motive was, I figured in banking you’re always gonna be on the other side of a bank. Whether you are buying a car or you’re buying a home or you need to borrow money for something, right? So I figured, “It can’t hurt.” But it was not, it was definitely not something that was in my character. And so, I did a couple of other things for a while, and it was only later that I came to teaching. 

So I spent about 20 years in finance, but the initial part was because I did not want to take any risks of trying something completely different, you know, going to Australia and raising sheep or something really different. Or I don’t know, going to South Africa or whatever, doing some sort of a program there. 

And then the end of the story is that I was working still in business and getting, again, really fed up with the whole thing and saying, “this is not what I want to do.” And then the idea popped into my mind — or you don’t believe that because ideas don’t just pop into your mind — but clearly it was somewhere way down inside the brain and it bubbled up to the surface and it was: “Why don’t I try teaching?” And I picked up the phone, and I called Teachers College, the admissions office, and I said, you know, “are you accepting applications?” And they said, “yeah, the deadline’s today” and I said, “Okay, got it!” and the rest is history. 

I went to study, and I got my MA in teaching and then became a teacher after that. 

Fiona M. ‘26: And how long have you been teaching for?

Mr. Klebnikov: About 20 years

Fiona M. ‘26: Do you think looking back now, was this definitely — as the speaker was saying yesterday — do you think that teaching was what you were made for and do you have a calling for it or … would you do anything else?

Mr. Klebnikov: That’s a great question. I don’t think I was mature enough to be a teacher. Life experience is really good for teaching, and I think students recognize that. I’ve lived. 

A number of people go into teaching right after college. That’s great, too. They have a clear calling. My calling was more discreet initially, but had I taken more risks maybe I would have come to teaching sooner. Or maybe, I would have a completely different, non business —

Fiona M. ‘26: Surfing?

Mr. Klebnikov: Yeah, non-business — I can’t surf — non-business you know life path. So at the end of the day, it’s all about confidence [and] doing stuff that is out of your comfort zone. 

Cassie B. ‘26: And what led you to Grace?

Mr. Klebnikov: Well I knew that there was a new high school, and I thought it would be really interesting to become involved in helping develop a culture or to be in a culture that was developing. And my old school friend was George Davison — I’ve known him forever — and I admired him as not just a headmaster, but a forward thinking educator. And I wanted to participate in the project. 

Moral of the story is take risks. It’s always safer not to do what’s risky. I’m not saying risky behavior, I’m saying, you know, make an informed decision that will take you out of your comfort zone.

Cassie Ball ‘26 and Fiona Miller ‘26, the authors, are staff writers for The Grace Gazette. Fiona & Cassie were students in Mr. Klebnikov’s World History 9 class last year.