I’m in, now what – MBA Learnings

How can a relocation and a significant life move not be stressful and, instead, be a growth opportunity? This was the question I asked myself when I got my offer of admission for graduate school. I hate relocation. It was going to be a pain. But, I needed to figure out a way to make it better. Framing it this way appealed to me because there were likely a few more relocations coming up. This was how I broke it down.

First, deal with the 5 “big rock” questions. The “big rocks” are items that just have to be completed no matter what. My 5 big rocks for any move are –

  1. People: Have I got the important people in my life (family/partner) on board? Big step. Not much to discuss here. But, this should be the first step.

2. Work and living wrap up: What do I need to do to wrap up life here? At work, this meant communicating to my managers and colleagues and then figuring out my plan until my last day at work. I structured it such that I had a month and a half off before school and I was grateful for that time.

At home, this meant putting together a list of things that needed to be “closed” – home rental, all other contracts – phone, cable, utility, and bank account consolidation. As soon as I felt I had a complete list, I put together a plan to get all this done as I knew I’d have limited time to get all this sorted.

3. Flights and Visa: Do I have all my travel to dos in place? This is definitely a process – especially when you have a significant other who also needs to figure all this out. The main lessons for me were – relocate as early as is practically possible. In our case, we got in one week before major activities started and this was useful. If I was moving for work, I would try and do 2 weeks before at least. The early time helps set the foundation for a good start.

With visa, we had a few things to consider and decisions to be made. Our situation was particularly complicated because I was traveling for work until my last day. So, we did need things to be fairly well planned. In general, I’d recommend working through all of this as early as possible and have a plan in place.

4. Accommodation and basics: What will I need to start life there? In our case, this came down to 3 things – medical requirements, accommodation and a plan to get basics in place within our first week.

Medical requirements involved us getting the required blood tests and immunizations. After that, sorting out accommodation was a priority. This was a big part of why I traveled to the school’s admit weekend – to get a sense of what was out there. And, once we had that, we just put together a fairly detailed plan (of course) of what we needed to get set up in the first week in order of priority – mobile plan, bank account, home set up, and submit required documentation were top of the list.

5. FinanceWhat are my “chainsaw art” financial scenarios? Numbers matter. It is hard to get financial forecasts right, however. The approach I’d recommend is “chainsaw art” – sculpting with a chainsaw instead of a fine knife. This just means that you don’t sweat the small details and, instead, focus on getting the big buckets right. As far as expenses went, the buckets that I had were – Tuition, Accomodation, Necessities, Living, Travel, and Relocation. I made some fairly standard assumptions based on my research and had a rough budget worked out.

Once I’d put this part in place, the next big question was – how do I make sure I fund this? The way we approached that was to detail out 2 scenarios – a worst case and best case. The best case involved having a few moving parts in place and the worst case was what would happen if none of our assumptions worked out. We could have had a couple more granular scenarios but, instead, focused on “chainsaw art.”

As I worked through this process, I also put together a set of key principles – I thought I’d share those below along with the rough expense forecast. None of it was rocket science – it involved reminding myself that it was an investment, to live frugally and to work hard for the only scholarship I was eligible for as an International student. I hadn’t actually remembered doing this till I pulled up my Google doc now but I’ve always found laying out guiding principles to be an important part of the process.

relocation, finances, planning, preparation

As is the case with these things, the chainsaw art approach worked great. Sure, there are deviations in the numbers but, broadly, they were right. My approach to finances was to not define granular budgets but, instead, set clear guidelines (as you will see, this is a theme). This meant some differences in life style – I am likely in the bottom 25th percentile of people who travel while in graduate school, for example. But, that’s a trade-off I chose right at the start and it had a lot to do my fairly global work experience prior to school. We don’t monitor our budget strictly every month. Instead, we focus on the guidelines we laid out at the start – that has worked well for us.

Next, how can I be best prepared for school? This portion took a bit of work as I needed a way to frame this experience to help me deal with the seemingly overwhelming amount of detail. While I had some of the frame in place, it definitely became crystallized over time. The 6 priority frame is what I wrote about in detail in my letter to an incoming student. I’ll go through what I did for each of these 6 priorities (in some cases, I venture into what I would have done had I known better).

1. Career – quite a bit of action here. I took a very research based approach to figuring out my career question. I had been warned that graduate school recruiting starts very early and that it helps having a focus. There are 3 steps to finding a job –
i) Decide what you want
ii) Get an interview
iii) Prepare to do well at the interview

In this case, I spent my pre-business school time thinking about what I really wanted to do 5 years out. And, given what I wanted to do 5 years out, how did that translate to my post MBA role? I had written about this in my essays and I focused on validating my ideas and also making sure they were realistic given the visa requirements for an international student in the US. For instance, I believed I wanted to switch into technology. So, I used the admit weekend to spend 2 days in the Bay Area, meet people I knew / people they introduced me to at various companies and asked everyone I met for advice. This turned out to be a very useful exercise in deciding what I wanted. This plan underwent a few changes but, it worked well overall.

As far as ii) and iii) went, I figured I’d use my time at school for that. However, I will say that this 2 day trip helped greatly with all both as well. And, I spent a bit of time testing a few sources of technology news over the summer before settling in on a couple of sources that worked for me (Venture Beat, Benedict Evans’ newsletter). I have a post on lessons learned from internship recruiting if you’d like more detail.

2. Academics – quite a bit of action here. There’s a bit of personal history here – as I spent most of my undergraduate years working on a start-up, I didn’t feel I actually did justice to my undergraduate degree (Electrical Engineering). So, I didn’t attend my graduation ceremony. But, I told myself (and my mom – who was understandably keen to attend at least one graduation ceremony) that, if I were to attend graduate school, I would do it justice. It also helped that I was really looking forward to studying business fundamentals. So, academics was always going to be a high priority.

My main question was – how can I be best prepared? I ended up purchasing a couple of books on Finance and one in Accounting. I didn’t touch the Finance books. But, I did work through the Accounting book and it was a god-send. However, I understand most schools have moved to having pre-courses in accounting. So, if you have a pre-course, I wouldn’t bother. If not, understanding what debits and credits go a long way in making Fall quarter easier.

Aside from the Accounting book, I enjoyed reading a collection of Michael Lewis books before school. This was recommended by a Finance professor and I enjoyed diving into the various financial mishaps of the past two decades. Very enjoyable and recommended. As you can tell, I was over indexing on being financially literate. I was reasonably well positioned in other areas thanks to working as a consultant and didn’t do much. If you aren’t, a course in how to use Excel and PowerPoint would be very applicable.

The final piece of my preparation was reading a book by Cal Newport – “How to be a Straight A Student?” I know this sounds incredibly geeky. But, my rationale was straightforward – I hadn’t done much studying in undergrad. Now that I was committing to learning, I was curious about Cal’s insights (gleaned from various interviews) on how to do well. The book said 3 things in my opinion – study regularly, be very intentional about how you spend your time and maintain an excellent set of notes. This was very useful advice.

3. Extra-curriculars – very little action. Attending the admit weekend was very useful. I learnt that the frequent issue was that people who like to be involved over committed to extra curriculars in their first quarter. So, I just put together a list of clubs I was most interested in and left it at that. It was a helpful starting point. I began my first quarter fairly cautiously and took up leadership position in 2 clubs. Over time, I ended up doing a lot more than that as I got a better grasp of my commitments and capacity. But, I did it because I enjoyed it and got tremendous value out of extra-curriculars.

(In retrospect, extra-curriculars have turned out to be a wonderful investment of my time. I’ve learned some wonderful lessons on leading and managing teams (you don’t get to manage large groups of talented peers all that often) and have also found them to be the source of my richest friendships since I don’t enjoy the extraverted evening scene.)

4. Social – almost no action here. I am a believer in the idea that you attract people based on who you are. So, I didn’t worry about this till I got to school. Instead, I set aside some time after my first two weeks to re-evaluate how I was doing. In that time, I found a 2nd year friend whose approach I respected and followed that. Figuring out how to approach social was a process that evolved through school. I’ve written about this in my post on designing for introversion.

5. Framily outside school – lots of action here. I had been warned that the next 2 years would be very intense. So, I spent most of my pre-MBA free time here. I did 1:1 lunches/dinners with nearly every good friend. Most of these were very memorable and I remember the conversations to this day. I spent 4 weeks at home and that was wonderful, too. My framily always had a good sense of what’s going on and also had heads up that I might disappear for a few months as I worked to figure life at school out. I also set expectations for simple systems – regular calls with family, a whatsapp group that brought together close friends, a commitment to a half yearly Google hangout, etc. These little things were continuation of ideas I’d adopted while traveling for work. So, it was just a matter of continuing to make the effort.

6. Me (+partner – if applicable) – lots of action here. This was probably my number 1 priority. I spent a fair bit of time thinking about what I needed to be ready. The governing principle here was – what got you here won’t get you there. So, as I met people – especially for career related conversations – and gathered perspective, I tried to understand what life in an MBA program would look like. Thanks to this blog, I was already pretty intentional about how I approached life. However, this promised to be a great opportunity to re-think my systems and test out an approach that would last.

The biggest breakthrough here was a process I called “The Purpose process.” While this has iterated over time, thinking about this was the single best investment I made. It has resulted in a high quality of life throughout the past 15 months or so (8 hours of sleep nearly every day!) while keeping me focused on what matters. It also resulted in an initiative called “The Good Life Sessions” that has become a highlight of my time at school. The intensity of graduate school has been a fantastic pressure test for all these ideas.

Finally, a big shout out to partners/significant others. My wife and I spent a fair bit of time setting expectations. We knew this could potentially be a very rough period. It was also our first experience living together for an extended period of time. All those conversations helped a great deal. Consistent with the overall approach, we set guidelines and regularly revisited them. Graduate school is definitely a team game and none of this would be possible without my wife’s support.

Overall. The time I spent before school went a long way in defining my approach in school. Once I’d done the work, I just put together a simple 4-5 line strategy for each of these priorities and kept revisiting them from time to time. A final part of this process was setting “process goals” along with some “ideal result” goals. I wrote about most of this and included a detailed breakdown of how I spent my time in my post about “Digging into my first year process.”

In the final analysis, relocation did turn out to be a profound growth experience, after all. It underscores a principle that I’ve seen hold true for all things in life – it is what you make of it. The nice thing about having done this once is that I’m using the exact same approach and thought process as I think about my next relocation – into full time work after school. Yes, the 6 priorities change a bit and the relative importance of certain priorities change a lot. But, the frame largely works.

As always, I’ve tried to combine high level “structure” ideas with clear examples of how I approached it. This combination always results in absurdly long posts. So, as always, I hope it was worth the read.

Thanks to a close friend who recently got admitted into a great school and asked me the question that became the topic of the post.