1/4 of the Way There: Lessons Learned

It’s hard to believe that I’m a quarter of the way through graduate school. It’s even harder to believe that I completed two semesters worth of courses over the past 16 1/2 weeks, thanks to the inimitable mini-semester. Now that I’ve had close to a month away from school to reflect, here are two things I think I’ve learned so far.

Grades don’t matter – As much as I hate to admit this, everyone else was right: getting an MBA is less about achieving academic success, and a lot more about setting yourself up to land your dream job. That’s not to say that you can blow off class completely, but putting in the extra time to get an A instead of an A- probably isn’t worth it in the long run, especially if that time could be better used researching career paths or networking. This became especially apparent as I scrambled to submit my internship applications on time, which first required scrambling to figure out where I wanted to apply. The lesson? Spend a little less time worrying about school, and a little more time trying to figure out what exactly my “dream job” is.

But people do – Again, I’m a little late to the game on this one, but the past five months have really helped me understand why so much emphasis is placed on building strong connections with the people you meet during grad school. Sure, it’s nice to think that someday, ten or twenty years from now, I might be able to help one of my classmates get a job, or vice versa, but I’ve never really liked looking at things that far in the future. In the short-term, however, grad school is just a lot more fun if it’s viewed as equal parts work and play. I think I’ve done a decent job of getting to know my classmates so far, but there’s definitely room for me to be a bit more social going forward.

Of Moustaches and Men

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This past month, I shaved my beard for the first time in well over a year and grew a moustache (or mustache, depending on your preference; I prefer the fancier-looking spelling). Ostensibly, this was in support of Movember, an event in which men grow a moustache throughout the month of November (Get it? Movember?) to raise awareness of and funds for men’s health issues, particularly prostate and testicular cancer.

However, my real motives for participating were more personal. First, it gave me a great opportunity to bond with some of my classmates (pictured above with ‘staches in full effect). But more importantly, I viewed participating in Movember as a personal comfort challenge. I was first introduced to the idea of comfort challenges a few years ago when I read The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss (highly recommended reading, by the way; don’t be fooled by the scammy-sounding title), and it’s a concept that seems to be gaining traction among motivational speakers and other lifestyle coaches. Essentially, a comfort challenge is anything that pushes you outside of your comfort zone, specifically for the purpose of overcoming your fears. This can range from something simple, like maintaining eye contact during conversations, to something a little more bold, like laying in the middle of a crowded sidewalk with a girl you just met (apparently, this passes for a date in Serbia). My personal favorite so far, suggested by Priya Parker of Thrive Labs, is to walk into a crowded elevator and, rather than turning to face the front like everyone else, continue to face towards the back (and into people’s faces) for the entire ride.

While it may seem silly, I think that comfort challenges are a really effective way to overcome the most common fears that we face on a daily basis: embarrassment, self-consciousness, rejection and failure. Participating in Movember was a personal comfort challenge for a few reasons. First, most of the people that I spend my time with currently (i.e. my classmates) have only ever known me with a beard. To say that shaving my beard changes my appearance would be a gross understatement. I was genuinely nervous to walk into class on November 1st without any facial hair to hide behind. The reactions of my classmates ranged from telling me that I looked like a twelve year old to telling me that I looked like a ten year old. Basically, I looked young..

After the shock of being clean-shaven wore off, I had to actually grow a moustache. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but moustaches went out of style quite a few years back (hipsters notwithstanding). I was unsure of what people would think. Would they be judging me and my questionable choice in facial hair? Would I have to constantly explain to people that I’m aware that moustaches generally aren’t fashionable, but it was for a good cause? Would this be an obvious lesson in the age-old wisdom to not worry about what others think of you? Fortunately, Movember became a bit of a phenomenon this year, and most people instantly assumed that I was growing my moustache in support of the movement. (I quickly and proudly wore out the joke of acting surprised and asking “What’s Movember?”, as if to imply that I was just a guy with a moustache. Funny to me, not really to anyone else.)

Now that the moustache is gone and I’m several days into my beard-regrowing efforts, I can say with certainty that I gained something from the whole experience. There really is something to be said for just doing something goofy and learning not to care what anyone else is thinking. As someone for whom that kind of confidence doesn’t come naturally, I need the excuse of a cause like Movember to push me in the right direction.

I Need a Hobby

One of the strange things about spending four hours a day sitting in a classroom, essentially learning the theory behind basic business practices, is the desire it’s given me to engage in more hands-on, practical learning. I don’t necessarily mean hands-on business learning; frankly, business school provides plenty of opportunities to test the theories of the classroom in real-world simulations via case competitions and other group projects. Instead, what I’ve felt is a strange desire to learn more technical, manual skills. During the six years I spent working as an engineer, I never really yearned for a greater technical understanding of the manufacturing processes I dealt with on a daily basis; in fact, I was pretty much counting on business school as a ticket out of the manufacturing world and away from dirty, oily factory floors. However, the more time I spend in business school, the more I realize that business is really just managing the output of very talented, very technical individuals. Without designers coming up with new products, engineers figuring out how to build them, machinists actually turning raw material into finished product, developers coding the next great software application, and so on, business leaders would find themselves without businesses to lead. That may sound really naive or obvious, but it’s something that I didn’t truly appreciate until recently. All of a sudden, I’ve found myself envious of people who can actually create something meaningful with their hands (or pencils, or keyboards). I want to be able to point to something and say, “I created that.”

I’ve realized that if I want to get the absolute most out of the next two years, a time that I’ve already dedicated to my education, I need to begin developing learning opportunities outside of the classroom. Whether that’s in the form of new hobbies, additional classes outside of the business school, self-guided learning, or volunteer work, I haven’t really figured out yet, but I’m eager to start putting what little spare time I have to better use!

Water Through A Fire Hose

Prior to entering business school, one of the most common themes I heard time and again was that it would be a lot of work. During the orientation period prior to the start of classes, professors and career counselors took every opportunity to stress the importance of time management in successfully navigating through the two-year curriculum. More than one person likened the deluge of information that we would be subjected to in our first semester to “trying to drink water from a fire hose.”

A big part of the reason for such a heavy workload, at least here at Tepper, is the somewhat awkward curriculum structure. Instead of standard semesters or quarters, each school year is broken into six and a half week-long “mini-semesters,” essentially the length of half of a typical semester. That means that your classes change every seven weeks or so. This accelerated structure does have some benefits. For one, if you get stuck in a class you don’t enjoy (hello, Financial Accounting), you can take solace in knowing that it will be over soon. It also allows students to complete the seventeen  “core” (required) courses rather quickly, freeing up more time for more specialized elective courses. (This is the reasoning touted by Carnegie Mellon University itself.)

However, I fear that these blink-and-they’re-over mini-semesters also help perpetuate a commonly held belief among students that the coursework is secondary to recruiting. Obviously, career advancement is the primary reason for attending graduate school of any kind; I personally wouldn’t have chosen to go back to school if I didn’t think it would lead to a better job, and I’m sure most of my classmates would say the same thing. However, I have been surprised by how quickly the recruiting process starts, and just how intense it can be. Many of my classmates were attending career fairs and interviewing for internships within a month of classes starting. Hyper-competitive industries such as consulting and investment banking require students to essentially double their workload just to keep up with the hectic recruiting process. One of the most common pieces of advice I’ve received from second year students and alumni is that, when push comes to shove, recruiting efforts should take precedence over classwork.

I’m not necessarily saying this is a bad thing. However, I can’t help but feel that the environment created by the condensed classes and the heavy emphasis on recruiting sends the wrong message: that landing a job of any kind is more important than taking the time to find your own path. This may not be an issue for those who came to school with a very clear idea of what they wanted to do and where they wanted to end up; but as someone who has struggled to define exactly how I’d like my career to progress, the hectic schedule of the mini-semester certainly doesn’t make things easier.

Lessons From A Really Long Walk

Earlier this year, my dear friend and roommate Brian decided to quit his job, move out of our apartment, and spend the next six months or so hiking the Appalachian Trail with his lovely girlfriend Kelly. Like, the entire Appalachian Trail, all 2,184 miles of it, start to finish, from Georgia to Maine. This seemed pretty ridiculous to me at the time. I couldn’t imagine that spending nearly every day for six months walking through the woods would be enjoyable, even for someone who loved walking as much as Brian. To be honest, I just failed to see what he could possibly get out of the whole thing. What’s the point?

Brian and Kelly were motivated to embark on such a (literally) mountainous journey by feelings that I think are pretty common amongst people in their mid- to late-twenties: feelings of dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and general apathy towards their jobs, their daily routines, the humdrum of day-to-day life. (Brian and Kelly, I apologize if I’m oversimplifying this.) Since these are feelings that I have been all-too-familiar with, I was really curious to see how this trip affected them, and what (if any) lessons could be learned by walking around staring at trees all day.

I’m happy to say that Brian and Kelly finished their journey on September 18, some 5 1/2 months after leaving Chicago. While I haven’t yet had a chance to talk with them in too much detail about their trip, I thought Brian’s most recent post on their blog chronicling their journey was very inspiring. In short, Brian’s biggest takeaway from almost 6 months and over 2,000 miles of hiking wasn’t some great epiphany, some “a-ha” moment where he realized exactly what he was meant to do in life and how to realize all of his wildest dreams, it was more or less to shut up and enjoy the journey. (Again, I’m oversimplifying. Sorry, Brian.) As Brian says,

It is not the final destination or some imagined moment in the future that is the path to joy, relief, and fulfillment. It is the journey. Specifically, it is the step of the journey that you are taking at this exact moment that provides the path to all that is truly good. There is no moment more critical to your joy and well-being then right now. In fact, if you really think about, right now is all you really have. The past no longer exists, and the future is not guaranteed. Yet we all have a tendency to think way too much about the past and future with undue nostalgia, regret, fear, or hope.

I found this particularly inspiring, especially as the workload from school continues to increase, and we’re put under more and more pressure to somehow find the time not only to study and do homework, but to socialize and network and find an internship and eventually find a full-time job. I’ve found myself at times questioning how I’m supposed to know what my dream job or dream company is, or worried that I’m not spending enough time fine-tuning my resume, or researching companies, or connecting with people on LinkedIn. But Brian’s post provided a timely reminder that the more time spent worrying about the future, the harder it is to enjoy the present.

So thank you, Brian, for sharing your lessons and wisdom from your journey with me. I really didn’t feel like walking 2,184 miles.

The Value of a Degree

Salary.com recently released its list of the eight college degrees with the best return on investment (ROI), calculated by comparing the average cost of the four-year degree to the median earnings that someone with that degree can expect to earn over the course of a 30-year career. In perhaps a bit of a surprise, the degree that ended up at number one on Salary.com’s list is English. Stephen Markley, my good friend and the proud owner of an English degree, took the opportunity to celebrate the benefits of a liberal arts education. Steve’s main point, and I’m paraphrasing liberally, is that studying literature, or history, or philosophy, provides you with tools that allow you to think more creatively or “outside the box,” especially when compared to subjects that provide a more rigid framework for problem solving.

I agree wholeheartedly that there is immense value in having a well-rounded knowledge of a variety of topics, especially outside of your main area of concentration. I would, however, argue that much of that value can be obtained through personal efforts such as reading books, participating in book club discussions, watching documentaries, and just generally staying abreast of happenings in the world. However, I think the bigger point to take away from the Salary.com study isn’t the increase in value of an English degree, but the erosion or complete absence of value in many other degrees. For example, many of the highest-paying careers today require advanced degrees, such as MBAs and JDs, whose costs are skyrocketing much faster than growth in salaries. It’s almost certain that a banker with an MBA will make more money over the course of 30 years than the average English major, but the additional earnings are almost negated by the immense debt burden that many MBAs graduate with. Furthermore, those high-paying finance jobs are getting harder and harder to come by (whether or not that’s a good thing is another discussion).

Even more disturbing is Salary.com’s list of the eight college degrees with the worst ROI. Number six on that list? Education. American children continue to lose ground to their foreign counterparts, and we are just beginning to understand the effects that can have on our stagnant economy. There are plenty of things that need to be fixed within our education system, but rewarding our teachers with better pay certainly seems like a good place to start.

(Just as an aside, in a bit of unintentional comic relief, Nutrition shows up at number three on the list of degrees with the worst ROI. Not surprising for one of the fattest countries in the world.)

The larger point, and I think one that Steve was hinting at, is that there needs to be a realignment between how we approach (and price) education, and how we value certain types of jobs in the marketplace. I think that’s something that even an engineer and an English major can agree on.

Why I’m Here

Why am I in business school? The timing may certainly seem less than ideal. The Great Recession that began in 2007, punctuated by a stream of revelations of corruption and ineptitude in our financial institutions, caused many to question how we as a society conduct business. Perhaps understandably, many fingers pointed to today’s business leaders and the educational distinction that so many of them shared: the MBA. Critics of the popular degree range from Philip Delves Broughton, whose 2008 account of his experience at Harvard Business School, Ahead of the Curve, should be required reading for all prospective MBA students; to Conan O’Brien, who declared in his hilarious 2011 Dartmouth commencement speech that “all MBA students [should] be immediately transferred to a white-collar prison.” Simultaneously, a debate on the state of education in America has begun to rage, with some questioning the value of higher education, others marking the somber arrival of $1 trillion of student debt, and an entire industry reeling from an inability to find workers with the right skill-set.

Despite all of that, the reason I’m in business school is relatively simple: I’m curious. Curious to gain the fundamental business knowledge that my engineering education didn’t afford me; curious to meet ambitious, brilliant people from all over the world; and curious to explore new career paths. But most importantly, I’m curious to experience firsthand an educational process that is squarely in the cross hairs of today’s harshest critics, to see for myself if MBA programs really are designed to produce, as Mr. Broughton eloquently put it, “jargon-spewing, value-destroying financiers and consultants [who] have done more than any other group of people to create the economic misery we find ourselves in.” My best guess: it’s not that clear-cut. Above all else, I hope to gain valuable insights into the near-crises facing our economic and educational systems, and hopefully become part of the conversation on where to go from here.