A letter to an incoming student – MBA Learnings

Around this time last year, once the realization that I was going back to school sunk in, the immediate question that followed was – how do I get prepared? I was, after all, going to be spending in excess of $200,000 without accounting for the loss of income in the next 2 years. This had better be worth it.

My plan of action was to do 3 things – read books on the topic, check out the blogosphere, and speak to as many people as possible. So, I did just that. I found 3 resources useful – the “Case Studies and Cocktails” was pretty hands-on, the famous Stanford letter to incoming students was reassuring and the 108 tips on the MBA Excel blog was very useful from a logistical point of view. I did, however, feel a few things were sorely missing. And, on top of that list was a way to “frame” the MBA experience. Great frames help us cut through the noise and understand what matters. And, given we likely have a hundred thousand capable folk jumping into expensive MBA programs all over the world, I found myself wondering if we could do a bit better in preparing them for the journey.

Luckily, I stumbled upon a first version of the “frame” I craved in my first 3 weeks thanks to 2 wonderful people – an insightful professor who taught us business analytics and a dear friend. Their insights made all the difference to my experience in the past 8 months. And, I’d like to share them with you. As with my essay on internship recruiting, I’d like this to be comprehensive. So, I expect this to be long. I hope it’ll be worth it.

Before we begin, a note on bias. As writing is a direct reflection of thought, every piece of writing has inherent biases. While I’ve done my best to use frames over specific advice, this is hard to do. My priorities in life are around people that matter, learning from life’s experiences, and having a positive impact on the world. And, these priorities shape how I see the world and choose to experience it. As a result, my idea of fun revolves around these priorities (I guess writing a daily learning blog is a bit of a giveaway :-)). So, I trust you’ll put these notes in context and take them with healthy pinches of salt.

Framing the MBA journey. The MBA journey is the first step to the next phase of your life journey. The lessons from this post aren’t just about doing well in graduate school. I think the principles apply for life after school. Most people come to the MBA after a few intense years in their 20s where they’ve largely focused on themselves and their growth. Yes, there are those with kids, wives, and spouses – but, most of the folks in these programs have worked really hard to get in and are now looking for that next step. And, these programs exist to prepare them for that next step in a safe and relatively risk-free environment. To understand how they do that, you have to understand the 3 underlying principles that govern this experience. Let’s start with principle #1.

Principle #1 – The MBA is a 2 year course in decision making and trade-offs.
There are 6 priorities you will need to think about during your time in graduate school. I will go through each of these and will also make a case for the idea that juggling these 6 priorities is a warm-up act for life beyond school. The 6 priorities are –

1. Academics. You are paying for the experience. Education is one part of the experience. Unlike in your undergraduate experience, very few people really care about your grades. In fact, many programs don’t even provide employer’s access to your academic performance. So, do grades matter? Well, they matter as much as they matter to you. There will be many at school who won’t care. And, then again, there will be many who will. There is no right or wrong answer here. It depends on whether academics lies in your priority list. I will, however, offer a few thoughts for you to consider –

– Nearly every class I have taken so far has had lessons that have been either been immediately applicable in my own life or have helped greatly in my understanding of the world. This stuff is useful. I think neglecting it isn’t smart.
– That said, I don’t think it is worth spending every spare moment studying. I think what really matters is an overall grasp of the fundamentals. Ten years down the line, you aren’t going to remember ABC reading or DEF assignment, but, you will remember how to think about network externalities or structuring your company’s debt.
– If the MBA provides this broad based education, it is critical you spend time developing mental models that will help you remember the stuff that matters. As your understanding develops, you’ll find that almost everything is connected. The better your understanding, the more the connectivity.
– It helps greatly to show up to class and participate. Every once in a while, you’ll find your attention drifting or find you have no clue what is being said. Stop the Professor and ask questions. Don’t pride yourself of knowing stuff. Pride yourself on being able to get smarter.. quickly. Nobel prize winners do that.
– We don’t learn best when we take notes during class. We learn best when we take a bit of time after class to summarize the key points of the lecture. I’d definitely consider taking that time to reflect and to create those summaries.
– If you follow a thorough learning process, you’ll find that there is no need for last minute cramming. Good results typically follow good processes.

Academics in your life after school. At school, you will get to create a learning path that suits your interest (in most schools at least). You will likely find your interest in some subjects increase in your time at school. It won’t be possible for you to learn everything. One of the best outcomes of this journey would be a renewed commitment to making use of every moment of time available in your life after school to further your learning. This could be by reading great books on your commute, by taking a course every 3 months, or just connecting with a smart peer group interested in similar subjects. Knowledge -> understanding -> wisdom. It is hard to shortcut that process.

2. Recruiting. What you will really learn in business school is how to lead yourself through a job search. I can’t think of a more useful skill. Here’s why – the days of long tenures at a single company are long gone. This means that the chances that you’ll be looking for a job in the next 48 months and then again in 48 months after that are incredibly high. Learn to do it.

I’ve written about lessons I learnt from internship recruiting. So, I’ll aim to leave you with a few high level thoughts –
– Over the summer, really think about what you want to do in the long term. Consider paths that will help lead you to that goal. Either way, it’ll become really tempting to shun those paths and go after prestigious positions and firms. If that happens, let it be for the right reasons.. or, at the very least, reasons that make sense to you.
– Recruiting hits you much quicker than you’d expect. All schools care a lot about recruiting because these stats feed into their rankings. So, expect to be bombarded with messages about information sessions about every company you can think of. You can’t do them all.
– You’ll find very quickly that the difference between those who recruit successfully and those who don’t can’t be accounted for by a different in their IQ. It comes down to a combination of EQ, preparation and focus.
– Recruiting isn’t easy. Don’t expect it to be. Instead, get ahead of the preparation by taking time to really think about how you’d like to approach it over the summer. Be prepared. That’ll help you be focused.
– Make sure you enlist plenty of support through the process. Find a group of friends looking for the same kind of opportunities and prepare with them, engage 2nd years and seek their advice and support, use the career center and professional club resources. You’re going to need it.
– Keep in mind that there is a lot of luck and chance involved. Focus on your process and approach. The results typically work out in the long run..
– Finally, use the recruiting period to build real relationships with people in the industry of your interest. Don’t just find a job. Get to know people.. it’ll pay off in the long run.

(Of course, all this doesn’t apply if you’ve decided to start-up during or after school yourself)

Recruiting in your life after school. You never really stop being a job/project-seeker. My only hope is that you’ll be a great employer, too, since you know what it feels like to be on the other side.

3. Social. I tend to think of friends as education’s greatest gifts to us. And, it is highly likely you want to make a friends through this experience. Relationships are very personal and everyone tends to have different approaches to social life at school. So, while the rest of the post is pretty colored by my biases, this one is very colored.

– Social life can be pretty stressful. There’s often a funny high school meets 20 somethings dynamic at school. This is just something you should know and expect.
– There are a couple of approaches to making friends – making many friends or making a close small group of friends. I am a fan of marrying both approaches. Success, to me, is having a small group of friends at the end of 2 years who I’d trust with my life and a collection of other friends across various social groups.
– I’d consider creating a diversity check on your calendar every 6 months – just ask yourself if your close circle of friends all look exactly like you (e.g. same country/language/profession). If so, it is worth asking yourself if you are learning anything from the diversity around you.
– Attempting universal popularity is a fool’s errand in my point of view. If that’s what you are after, good luck!
– Instead of attempting to get people to like you, I’d consider working hard to earn their respect through your work ethic and track record. I tend to find that going for respect often ends up resulting in you being liked by people who share similar values.
– Attempting to “network” through school is also a fool’s errand. Your network at every stage will be directly proportional to your net worth – both in terms of wealth and character. But, again, if that’s your plan, I hope you find a way to make it work.
– If you are an introvert, don’t worry. There are enough of us out there. The hard part will be saying no to the many low quality social interactions where 40 people will show up at a noisy bar and barely manage to hear each other speak. Hopefully, all this reading will help you make conscious choices. There’s limited time available to hang out and build relationships.. use it well.
–  I am a big believer in the idea that you attract people by virtue of who you are. And, a big part of showcasing who you are is by what you do. That brings us to priority 4.

Social in your life after school. I don’t have to make a case here, do I? :-)

4. Extra curriculars. There are extra-curricular activities of every kind in school via professional clubs, hobby clubs, fun clubs, etc. My view is that extra curriculars are the single best way to get to know your classmates and build real relationships. Here’s how I think about them –

– Leadership roles in most extra curriculars in school can be big time commitments. I find it hard to think of other opportunities during the experience where you get to spend so much time with your classmates working on interesting stuff (hopefully!).
– Do consider using extra-curriculars as an opportunity to hone your own skills – both hard and soft skills. Through them, you can learn how to work with smart peers, how to attract and hire people you want, how to select the right people for the job and team you’re looking to build, how to inspire them to be as committed as you to your cause, etc. Take your pick.
– My final thought would be to consider using these opportunities to learn how to build great teams. History is made my great teams. And, learning how to build great teams could be the most valuable skill you learn. It is an incredible opportunity to do so..
– Make sure you create your own path. This is a no-risk safe environment. If you aren’t trying things, failing and learning, I’d consider that a real shame.

Extra curriculars in your life after school. I am a big fan of side projects – whether it is your own soccer team or your not-for-profit. This stuff helps improve your productivity and also teaches many a valuable lesson. Successful entrepreneurs and executives always find time for these side projects. We should too.

5. Your friends and family from your “past life.” Graduate school sucks you into a bubble of sorts and it can lead to feelings of guilt when past friends and family are mentioned. That’s just because it is really easy to neglect them as you work through your weekends on assignments due on Monday and a whole host of other deadlines across these priorities. A few thoughts –

– Consider carving out 3 hours every week for your past life. I had Saturday mornings always kept free for catch up calls. It helped a lot.
– Call your mom at least once every week. This one is for the men. Women do this much better.
– Make the effort to stay in touch with your friends. Your roots matter.
– Every once in a while, as you experience wonderful moments, send thank you notes to all those who made this experience possible. There is no way you’d be in school if it wasn’t for all those wonderful people who supported you through the application process – your recommenders, bosses, colleagues, family, friends, teachers, etc. Thank them all from time to time.

Your “past life” after school. It is very possible that your graduate school experience will change you as a person. It is also very likely that it’ll change your career trajectory. There’s a lovely story about a boy who was frustrated with his kite’s string as he felt it was holding his kite back. His father suggested he cut the string. When he did, he noticed that the kite went up for a little while and then went on to crash. His father explained that our roots and values work the same way. It is tempting to cut people off as we soar higher. But, it is really those roots and values that provide the support system for our growth.
I guess there’s a lesson in there for all of us.

6. You. If you’re going in with your spouse/partner and/or your kids, this includes them. For this priority, I will err on the side of giving specific advice as I think this is the most important priority of them all. If you can’t keep your personal life together, you will have a miserable experience. So, really, I’d encourage you to make this your number 1 priority. What does that mean?

It means taking great care of yourself and the people who live with you. Prioritize sleep. Prioritize good food. Prioritize exercise. There have been enough studies over the past few years that have shown that this stuff greatly affects your decision making. And, here we go back to principle #1 – this is a course in decision making and trade-offs. The good news? Better decisions = better life. And, that’s what we really want, isn’t it?

Easier said than done, of course. So, how do you do this? Here’s what I suggest –

1. Decide what is important to you. The latin root of the word “decision” translates to “to cut off/to kill.” A big part of decision making is deciding what doesn’t matter (and, in the process, deciding what does). Decide which of the 6 priorities matter most to you and in which order. The order might (and likely will) change every week. That’s okay. Go in with a plan. A general once said – in war, plans fail but the planning is essential. That’s a great idea.

2. Spend 30 minutes at the start of every day reflecting on the day before and getting organized. There is no use moving from one day to the next without really learning anything substantial. 30 minutes every morning will help a LOT. If you want to make this actionable, consider writing in a journal or writing your own blog (I warned you about my biases!).

Also, a little bit of time getting yourself organized will pay off in a big way. The busier you are, the more organization will help you. For example, an hour spent at the beginning of the quarter putting all important deadlines and reminders for them in your calendar will save you a ton of heartache.

3. Color code your calendar based on these 6 priorities. You will use your calendar a lot. There’s no way around it. Start color-coding your appointments around these priorities. If you had a 3 hour block of free time and spent 2 hours studying, put in a 2 hour “academics” block. This will come of use in your weekly reflection hour.

4. Set aside 1 hour every weekend to reflect on where you spent your time. Make no mistake – your priorities are not what you decided. It is what your schedule shows. If you spent all your time on social activities this week, then that was your top priority. The way to do this is to add up the number of hours spent on each priority every week. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Even broad strokes math will help. The important thing is to understand where you spend your time relative to where you want to spend your time.
(I don’t add up the hours on family time + time spent on me. For good or for bad, I felt tracking them would be too troublesome. Instead, I just check in with myself to see if I feel “in sync.” It also helps I have a slightly more comprehensive measurement system in place – see here if this stuff gets piques your interest or just email me – happy to help with more detail.)

Use this weekly reflection hour to think about the week and figure out your priorities for the next week. On some weeks, you’ll prioritize one thing over the other. That’s part of the process – prioritizing is a not a fixed/one-time thing. It’ll happen every week. The point is to own the process.

If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

5. Try to spend quality time with those who live with you. I say “try” because this’ll be incredibly hard. My experience has taught me that the person who suffers the most from my prioritization missteps is my wife. I’m working hard to do better here. Many relationships suffer during the graduate school experience because it simply isn’t easy on partners and spouses. Some schools integrate partners better than others. But, none of that stuff helps if you do a lousy job of this. And, don’t just talk about prioritizing it. Show me your schedule and I’ll show you your priorities.

Prioritization is incredibly hard. But, it is the single most important life lesson that graduate school can help you learn. The quality of your life will be directly proportional to your ability to prioritize. There will be many mis-steps. But, if you take the time to reflect and learn, you might just really give yourself a shot at that elusive idea that most people seek – the good life.

Principle #2 – The experience is entirely what you make of it. Congratulations on your admission to a great program. If I haven’t made it clear as yet, I’ll say it explicitly – this isn’t a magic bullet. It isn’t guaranteed that you’ll have a great experience. In fact, you’ll find likely find yourself in an environment that is more competitive than any you’d been in before. Suddenly, you’ll be in a pool of talented peers from across various programs vying for the same jobs. You’ll even have to compete for opportunities to volunteer your time for extra curriculars (!).

But, the competition isn’t what this is about. This is about you investing 2 years in your own learning. You can really own this experience and make it exactly as you’d like it to be. In graduate school as in life, the people who do well aren’t those who’re much smarter than you and me. It is people who maintain a laser-like focus on what matters to them.

In the final analysis, just like there is no universal popularity (there are as many Angelina Jolie haters as there are fans), there is no such thing as universal success. The most important thing about the good life is that you get to define what good is.

I hope that, in school as well as in life, you’ll take the time to do that. School just happens to be a wonderful training ground for the real thing.

Principle #3 – Foolishness is believing your value 10x-ed just because you spent 2 years running around a university campus. Depending on the press’ mood, you’ll either find articles telling you that graduate business programs are awesome/are a complete waste of time and money. Regardless of the press’ mood, you’ve typically gone in expecting higher salaries and a better life.

My suggestion here would be to worry about that stuff less. Money matters and you’ll be compensated fine. Sure, your neighbor may get a better sign on bonus but I hope you won’t sweat this stuff. What I would really worry about is whether you’re making the most of the opportunity to get better. Just running to classes for two years in a university campus doesn’t automatically increase your value. Learning something does. And, even if it improves your understanding of the world, we’ve said nothing about your ability to get stuff done and really have an impact. Rather than labor the point, I’ll point, as I have done many a time before, to Hunter Walk’s fantastic post – “It’s fine to get an MBA, don’t be an MBA.”

The “MBA: good or shitty for entrepreneurs” debate flares up regularly here in Silicon Valley. Having attended business school at Stanford, I certainly have a horse in the race, but I’m also not one to insist it’s (a) the best choice for everyone or (b) required for success. At the same time, let’s dismiss the notion that any legitimate entrepreneur would never go to business school – ie that the act of even thinking an MBA is worthwhile proves you’re not a real hacker or hustler.

Key to all this talk is a more fundamental issue which most people gloss over — the notion of letting an experience define you versus it becoming part of who you are. And thus my take is that it’s fine to get an MBA, but not cool under any circumstances to be an MBA.

Getting an MBA means you’re curious to learn broadly about theories and explore how these techniques can be applied to various businesses. Being an MBA means you think you’re getting taught the one right answer to problems – to a hammer everything is a nail – and that only MBAs know these dark arts.

Getting an MBA means offering your perspectives and experiences to your classmates. Being an MBA means looking at your peers as networking targets.

Getting an MBA means thinking about your degree as just another attribute of who you are – I have brown hair, a wife, work at Google, enjoy citrus fruits and possess a Stanford degree. Being an MBA means you are “Hunter Walk, Stanford MBA,” elevating the matriculation to a level of undeserving primacy.

Getting an MBA means you shoot out of school wanting to prove yourself and see what you can contribute to others. Being an MBA means thinking the world owes you something and that your value 10x’ed just from spending two years on a campus.

At the end of the day, just be who you are, which is a collection of skills, abilities, successes, failures, fears, dreams and hopes. The most important degree you possess is Human University.

By the way, the “get, don’t be” applies not just to business school but any accomplishment that causes one to define their identity vis a vis an entity or action. This just as easily could have been titled “fine to go to MIT, don’t be an MIT” or “fine to work at Facebook, don’t be a Facebook.”

Wrapping up. I’m sorry if this post burst the fantasy of a 2 year vacation. I am a big believer in setting expectations right. This experience isn’t designed to be a 2 year joy ride. That’s not to say it can’t be. The easy thing to do is to waltz in and try to find the path of least effort and resistance. Or, you can do the right thing for yourself and for the world by seeking out the difficult stuff and really making the most of the experience.

The choice is yours.  Either way, I wish you well and hope this helps. :-)

And, of course, if I can be of any help at all in helping you get prepared, send me an email on rohan [at] rohanrajiv [dot] com.

PS: I’m sure there are quite a few typos. I am actually on a rare break at home. So, please just let me know of the typos and I’ll fix them as soon as I can. It is also likely I’ll add a few updates as I think about it more.