Alumni – Reno Varghese

Reno Varghese is from Jacksonville, Florida, and is currently a second-year student at Columbia Law School. Before law school, he graduated magna cum laude and with honors in International Political Economy from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in May 2016. After graduation, he worked for a summer as a teaching fellow for Alpha Partners Education in China before beginning full-time work as an Analyst, Senior Analyst, and Research Associate at Cornerstone Research, an economic and litigation consulting firm in Washington, D.C. At Columbia Law, Reno has earned James Kent honors, the highest award for academic achievement Columbia bestows, and the Robert Noxon Toppan Prize for the best-written examination in Constitutional Law. He has done legal work with Sullivan & Cromwell, the Office of the General Counsel for the Governor of Florida, and the Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of Virginia. After graduation, he will spend a year clerking for Judge Jerry E. Smith of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.  Reno is fluent in Spanish, and in his spare time, he enjoys traveling, skiing, playing soccer, kickboxing, and board games.

Potolicchio: What PGLF school did you do and what was your most memorable moment or takeaway? 

Varghese: I participated in the PGLF school in Jordan back in 2015. It is inordinately difficult to choose just one moment or takeaway so I will provide two. The first was viewing Petra with the group. Anyone who has watched Indiana Jones is aware it is the “city carved from rock,” but what Hollywood does not quite capture is that it is a city. Petra is massive, and seeing it in person is awe-inspiring; to think that a civilization was capable of producing something that breathtaking with what we consider primitive technology. The moment though that I always remember is Professor Potolicchio insisting there was no way we could get to the Monastery and back in our short time, and a part of the PGLF program choosing to prove him wrong. It was arduous, we almost broke climbing up the interminable steps, and I ran out of water in the desert. Still, the result, cresting the ridge and seeing the Monastery, was a beautiful moment I will never forget. 

I ultimately took away from the program the importance of diplomacy and having people meet face to face, away from the world. People within in-groups generally do not rock the boat; there is enough research on groupthink and group dynamics indicating that. But what PGLF showed me was that if you take people with wildly different experiences and cultures and put them in a room together to learn and solve issues, and debate, you see long-seated enmity breakdown, you see progress toward a more equitable future. That does not mean there was consensus, there most certainly was not on most issues, but instead, you can see cracks from in the most well-fortified walls of fixed belief. I know that I think differently about matters post-PGLF, and I believe that the other participants do. 

Potolicchio: What is a biography (book) we need to read to prepare for the future?

Varghese: The Worst Journey in the World is not a biography per se – It is Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of his experiences on the disastrous 1910-12 Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica. But it is a fascinating, gripping, and horrifying account of the destruction that the charismatic and obsessive can cause to everyone around them. 

Potolicchio: When international travel opens up again, what's the spot you'd most recommend we try out?

Varghese: I have never seen a more beautiful or out-of-this-world place than Iceland. I fundamentally do not understand how the island exists. It is higher on the globe than Moscow, next to the Arctic Circle, and if you travel less than 10 minutes by car anywhere on the island, it has scenery that shifts from looking like the surface of Mars or Venus to the most scenic views in the Alps or the Lake District. It is an extraordinary and majestic place. I went with some friends back in 2017 and road-tripped around the entire island. We saw waterfalls that put Niagara to shame, walked on a glacier, swam in hot springs, drove six hours through a freak blizzard, got attacked by the largest flock of swans in the world, and ate more gas station hot dogs than you could image (it’s an Iceland thing). There are also the Northern Lights as a bonus. 

But the real reason I have to recommend it is that tourists have entirely overrun the island, especially the most popular areas near Reykjavik. Iceland has a minuscule population, and tourists far outnumber the Icelandic people. I hope that COVID has allowed the populace to clean up areas tourists have destroyed and institute more limits. If not, there is a tragedy of the commons issue, and I have to recommend that you go while most areas remain blissful and serene and unpolluted, because I fear that will not last for much longer. 

Potolicchio: What is a trait that will become increasingly important for young professionals?

Varghese: COVID has caused a shift to remote work and remote learning that cannot be undone. The genie is out of the bottle, and every single office and school board that understands they can save millions in maintenance and depreciation by recommending and forcing people to work and learn remotely will do so. 

For a young professional to succeed then, being memorable is the main challenge. I know that I struggle to remember who my students are when I teach remotely, because Zoom/Skype/Teams washes out people’s faces and bodies. We are designed to want to see people in person, talk face to face, and we cannot adjust instantly to being able to replace 3D in-person viewing with a 2D view of someone’s face in a square. In-person charisma is going to lose importance to traits people cannot immediately see and feel.

Thus, the ability to be memorable and present cogent and interesting thoughts (without being cloying), either by voice or word alone, will be more and more critical. In a crowd of faceless squares, people who want to be successful will have to stand out, and creativity, going against the grain, and presenting well are the traits that you need to actualize this. 

Potolicchio: What's a signature productivity hack that has worked well for you during your career?

Varghese: I cannot imagine I have anything particularly profound, so I will provide a couple that I have relied on, and hopefully, someone will enjoy. 

  1. There is nothing grammatically incorrect about ending a sentence with a preposition. That “rule” was made up by John Dryden, who wanted to bring the English language in alignment with Latin, where it is impossible to end a sentence with a preposition. Save yourself time and energy and proofread for real errors.
  2. When I get stuck writing, I walk away and take a warm shower. Clearing my head has always given me good results. Showering was slightly harder to do when I was at work, so I took regular walks and exercised. 
  3. Anything you frequently use that your body rests on must be of the highest quality. I barely spend any money on clothing, but I always splurge (or search incessantly for the best deals) on shoes, an office chair, and a bed. If your body is aligned correctly and not continually aching, you will perform to your highest capability. 

Potolicchio: What advice would you go back and give yourself at 18?

Varghese: Buy Tesla and Bitcoin. Other than that, tell my younger self to talk less, listen more, and ask more questions. I cannot imagine how many opportunities and skills I have missed out on by not actively listening in more situations. 

Potolicchio: What question should I have asked you and what's the answer?

Varghese: Q: How do you maintain a positive work/life balance in what you do? 

A: You have to be structured, and occasionally set limits on what you will and will not do and when – and then communicate that. I have worked in a demanding consulting job, where we often had to work late at night and monitor email and see if we had to go in on the weekend. I am currently studying to be a lawyer, and corporate law work is not known for calm, 40-hour workweeks.

I have found setting out a schedule is vital. Putting aside time for reading, recreation, sleep – these things have to be done. Impromptu work that has to be done immediately, regardless of commitments, will always occur. Still, by building a schedule, I have found I have made time to get 99% of work done prior, which dramatically lowers stress. Anything that I absolutely must do and cannot work through, I always communicate to my supervisor ahead of time, and I have never had issues. If you are reliable and not surly because you are missing out on sleep and have no recreation time, work-life balance becomes possible.