26 Jul 2023

Know Your HBS Staff: Merrick Nelson


by Shona Simkin

As a unit administrator in the Division of Research and Faculty Development, Merrick Nelson helps Faculty Support Specialists (FSSs) and faculty adjust to working at Harvard Business School (HBS) and through various inflection points of their careers. Merrick is also a classically trained violist. We asked him about his work, his life as a musician, and what else he likes to do in his spare time (hint: it’s shockingly cold).

Where are you from?
I grew up a little north of Albany, New York, in a little town called Waterford. I lived there my whole life until I came to Boston for college. Now I live in Waltham.

Tell us about your path to HBS.
I have an undergraduate and master’s degree in music performance. I was a freelance musician for a few years and realized that it was not quite working out the way I had hoped. I started looking for something that would let me apply some of what I had learned, and ended up working at the Boston Conservatory in an executive assistant role.

That was the beginning of my higher education administration work. I really liked the role and being involved in higher education. My own time in college was great, so I liked being part of making that happen for others. I was there for almost five years. In 2015, I heard about the FSS position at HBS. I knew the Harvard name and really wanted to be part of that community, and was lucky enough to get that job. After a few years I transitioned to this role as a manager. It's very interesting ending up at a business school, which is probably about as far away from a classical music performance degree as you can get!

What does your work look like on a day-to-day basis?
All my tasks fit into either working with the FSSs or with faculty. Working with the FSSs can be everything from hiring to onboarding and training to helping plan time out of the office for vacations or trips, as well as helping them manage tough situations, like difficult conversations or decisions. I was on the team as a manager during the pandemic, so we had a fair share of helping folks navigate that time.

I help new faculty get settled at HBS and learn about the School and available resources and different departments. I also work with faculty at different inflection points during their career, helping them navigate different things such as the promotion process. My role is sort of being a go-between, a middle person helping the faculty figure out where to go, who to talk with, and how to get things answered.

What is something that you particularly love about your job?
Definitely the people—one-on-one interactions are my favorite. I really like my check-ins with the FSSs and my chats with faculty. I like helping people figure out how to get something done—solving an issue or problem. I really like finding the people to reach out to and connect with and getting something to happen that otherwise wouldn’t have. That's probably the most enjoyable part of the role.

How did you start playing the viola?
On my father's side of the family there are a lot of music lovers and I grew up hearing lots of jazz. I thought I was going to grow up to be a jazz saxophone player. Then, when I was in the fourth grade, 10 years old, the music teachers brought all the instruments to class to demonstrate and let us try them out. For some reason you could not play a woodwind or brass instrument until the fifth grade, so they played the violin, viola, cello, and the double bass. It was like a Goldilocks story—the violin was fine but a little high pitched, the bass was huge, and I think I didn’t like having to sit down for the cello. I ended up choosing the viola, and just kept playing it. In middle or early high school I realized that I really liked it.

After college I auditioned for just about every orchestra to land a permanent job. I did that for years, taking gigs while auditioning. It was not a financially stable lifestyle, and I reached the point where I realized it was not working. It was tough because I felt like I was giving up on something that I spent years of college education and money on—was it all a waste of time? But I started to realize that I could go back to why I did it in the first place. I found what I enjoyed about it, and played for myself again. Now I can choose gigs and concerts or teaching because I want to do it, as opposed to needing to do it. It's been empowering to come back to the mentality of doing it for myself.

I'm looking forward to the HBS Art Show because I haven't performed in quite some time. This setting is perfect for me—in classical music you typically perform in a big concert hall with the audience in the dark, and for me music is about connecting with people. It gives my music more meaning to be in a space with people walking around, listening to me play, and coming up to me to talk.

Does your classical music background play into your role at all?
Perseverance is needed in any sort of art endeavor, so I think I've developed a decent amount of that over the years. That helps with some of the tougher things that come up sometimes, like difficult conversations. Some folks shy away from those things and I find that my training has helped to navigate that in a more direct way.

What else do you like to do in your spare time?
I like to be very physically active—going for a run, trying out different sports and athletic endeavors, things that I've never done or know very little about. I like to get outside, especially in the warmer weather and to be in nature as much as I can. I was not an athletic kid and was never good at sports or strong or fast. Part of what has been so awesome is realizing that athletics is more about the work you do. I find that I'm now stronger than I've ever been because of weightlifting, and I can go for long runs—all because I just learned about training.

During the pandemic, I picked up a fun hobby—well, fun is in the eye of the beholder—but I started doing cold plunges. I got into it when I realized that I have lived in the Northeast my whole life, yet I've always hated winter and don't do any winter sports. It’s very cheap, since the starting place is taking cold showers. I’ve recruited some HBS folks to go with me to Walden Pond in the colder months to swim around for a minute or two. It’s really fun—there are all kinds of health benefits, and the community aspect of it has been really enjoyable. It's a lot easier to do it when there's a group of people, particularly if there’s anyone around looking at you strangely!

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