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.

Digging into my first year process – MBA Learnings

A few months ago, I wrote a letter to an incoming MBA student a few months ago in an attempt to help incoming students prepare for their 2 years at school. It was my attempt at providing a framework with which to approach this 2 year journey. I tried staying away from specific advice in that post as the assumption was that the framework ought to work for everyone.

Today, however, I’m going to dig into my first year process and provide specifics on how I spent my first year. Given the MBA is a $200,000 investment (not counting opportunity costs in lost income), I was very curious about any specific “process” advice at this time last year. And, I was generally left disappointed as most of the advice I found online was the in the “feels-good-but-useless” category – e.g. find your passion, build great relationships, travel, dream, take risks, etc. This post has a lot of inherent personal bias as it is what worked for ME – so please take these notes with healthy doses of salt. And, yes, this’ll be long and dense.

As I’ve outlined in the previous post, there are 6 priorities at business school – Academics, Career, Extra-curriculars, Social, Framily (close friends and family), You. I’ll go through what I’ve learned as I’ve approached these at school.

1. Academics.
a) Finding classes. 

Making a plan. Spent 4 hours during Winter break going through every course that I’d be interested in. After making the list, I tallied all feedback I’d received about Professors whose classes I should take. I went about creating a rough 2 year plan. I haven’t stuck to it. But, as always, the act of making a roadmap helped a lot.
Understand historical bidding statistics. We have a bidding system – so, I spent time understanding the points spent on the course-in-question in the past and also looked at the average rating of the Professor. With this data, I could easily spot the over-valued and under-valued courses. My takeaway – use data where possible and invest in understanding the system.
Ask for recommendations. I asked most 2nd years I met in the early days for top course recommendations. This helped a lot.

b) Attending classes.
Show up. I think I missed just two classes through the year. That helped a lot.
– Be 100% present. My natural ADD makes it difficult to keep focus throughout a class. So, I worked out a simple forcing mechanism – sit in front. This helped ensure I didn’t spend my time mucking around on my phone or laptop and also ensured I fed off the Professor’s energy. This worked most of the time and that’s what I was shooting for.
Come prepared and participate. This is part of the “be 100% present” idea. Participation is an extension of that. Now, I think I was FAR better prepared in my Fall quarter than later quarters. After the first couple of weeks, I began getting a sense of the level of depth required and that helped calibrate.

c) Group meetings.
Align on expectations if possible. Always helpful to have a conversation upfront if you feel there might be misalignment on goals and priorities. I can think of a couple of experiences when having this conversation would have helped.
Don’t count group meetings as study time. Same concept as work meetings – use this for discussion, agreement and decisions. Don’t count as solo study time. Bring value to a group meeting (very hard to do sometimes)
No need to be the lead in every group. Continuing of the previous thread, if you find others taking the lead in some groups, let them. Just make sure you do the same in some other. What goes around comes around..

d) Preparing for exams
Don’t waste money on textbooks. I didn’t use them. But, I know of people who did. So, this might just be me. I found the course pack and readings to be more than sufficient.
Attend review sessions only if absolutely necessary. I went for very few. When I did, I often chose a video as you can skip through most parts.
– 30 hours. I found that roughly 30 hours of study per course was sufficient to grasp the concepts and do well. This is roughly 3 hours per week. But, for most people, you see spikes towards the end of the quarter.
Summarize lectures – single best learning. My strategy professor suggested we spend time after every class summarizing what we learnt. I’d read about this technique earlier and never tried it. While I didn’t strictly do it every class/week, I made sure I did it every time I studied. This typically happened when an assignment came due – the assignment naturally required knowledge of what had been taught in the prior couple of weeks. So, instead of diving into the answers of the assignment, I’d go back and make sure I summarized lectures first. This was an amazing move as it made for my notes for revision before the exam. And, in exams where we were only allowed a cheat sheet, this made the process really simple.

2. Career. I’ve covered my process in detail in lessons learnt from internship recruiting. I just have 2 adds –
Don’t view classmates as competition. Be of help to each other. We grow up conditioned to compete. Think of your classmates as temporary “path sharers.” Good things happen once you do the work. Be nice to each other – the world will roll on without you.
Start a prep group. We had a 4 person tech group that met nearly every week for 10 weeks. It was one of the best things we did.

3. Extra-curriculars.
Understand why you’re doing extra-curriculars. Different people do these for different reasons. Some career switches like adding a note to their resume about a relevant professional club. Some want to test leadership. Some others want to meet people. There’s many reasons to do it. My reasons were straightforward – I am driven by people, learning and impact. Extra-curriculars have helped work on ideas that combine all 3. They’re a fantastic opportunity to learn more about yourself, how you lead, how you work in teams, etc. I spend a significant amount of time on extra-curriculars and it has been a highlight of my school experience.
Don’t be a flake. Once you commit to a leadership role, keep up that commitment. It is not just because everyone remembers flakes and all those you work with might have a strong say in a future career opportunity. It is simply because it is the right thing to do.
If you’re unable to do work, communicate and apologize. Worst case scenario – it happens.
Run good team meetings. Most team members hate team meetings. That’s because they’re generally run badly. I’ve tried hard to run good team meetings – this means preparing hard, using the time meaningfully and following up. I’ve tried to set the norm of 100% participation early and have tried to earn my team members’ time. Really useful skill to learn and hone.
Learn how to build great teams with peers. The best part about school is you work on projects with peers. If you can learn how to build high functioning teams with peers who’re only doing this out of personal motivation, I believe you can build great teams everywhere. Working on teams to lead the incoming student orientation week, our technology club and two other initiatives has been an education in itself.

4. Social. This is heavily biased as it comes from the point of view of an introvert.
– Look to build long term relationships, not network. Building long term relationships take time. So, take the time and be patient.
Invest in really getting to know as many people as you can. One of my wiser friends once said business school is where you’ll meet the highest proportion of people who are both interesting and interested in you. It is very true. In my case, I’ve tried setting up 3-4 coffee conversations every week. They aren’t ever over coffee. Every time I meet someone who I’d like to get to know better, I just put some time on their calendar (typically between classes), walk with them and swap stories. Many of these just turn out to be one-time meetings but some become really nice relationships. As with these things, it takes two hands to clap.
– Maximize high quality social events. Hanging out with 100 people in a bar is what I term a “low quality” social events. Any time you meet people and talk about the weather is low quality as well. 1:1 or small group conversations that involve talking about things that matter to you are high quality. Maximize.
For low quality social events, “HELL YEAH!” or no. If it isn’t a “HELL YEAH!”, I don’t show up.  (I did warn you this is very introvert biased)
– Find ways to meet random people. It is easy to shut off and find your own clique. I created an open event for my entire class last quarter on a Friday evening . 12 people showed up – a few of whom I’d never spoken to. That was a win. Good reminder to do more of those.

5. Framily. My past life was outside the US. So, most of these notes are directed to staying in touch with family and friends who live far away.
– Hang out with family when working/doing chores. I do a lot of conversations with family over breakfast, dish washing, and other such chores. Thanks to FaceTime, it is really easy to prop Mom up on the desk while I’m doing my thing. We’ve spoken a lot more during school days (as I often have flexible schedules) as a result.
Set aside time on Saturday morning to catch up with friends. While I wasn’t the most proactive friend in the fall quarter, I always made sure I had time set aside on Saturday mornings for catch up calls. That helped a lot.
Work on projects with people who matter and/or set up recurring calls. My friends and I work on a charity together. That means we catch up every 2 weeks and that helps a lot. Every few months, we set up a big google hangout as an extension to our bi-weekly call. In a couple of special cases, I set up recurring calls.

6. You.
This is the single most important priority. Nothing matters more. If you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re likely doing it wrong.
I count my wife in this priority. It helps me prioritize time with her. I don’t do nearly as good a job as I’d like to. But, I work hard on it as it is the single hardest challenge I’ve faced in school.
A 515am-915pm routine on weekdays really helps. As my wife leaves for work in the morning, I generally sync with her. So, this means up by 515am, morning routine and freshen up till 7am. I count 7am-530pm as my work day and plan study, activities and meetings between these slots. I’m generally back by 6, we either head to the gym or go for a run around 615 and then have dinner together. I try not to touch work or email after 7pm. I don’t do nearly as well I’d like to. But, we do sleep by 930 or so. This means social nights are rare. But, you’ve got to make trade-offs and I’ve generally prioritized time with my wife.
Own your calendar. I generally schedule all my group meeting and catch up invites. This helps me allow for blocks of time to do work and also ensures I don’t take any meetings after 6pm. I’ve only had to make exceptions about 4 times in the year – that’s not bad at all.
Chill on Saturday afternoons and evenings and plan social stuff on Fridays. I try hard to switch off on Saturdays as Sunday is typically a full work day since assignments tend to be due on Monday. It doesn’t always happen but I try very hard to keep Saturdays free to just hang out at home with my wife. So, that means I try and plan social stuff on Fridays so we both can participate.
Sleep 8 hours, meditate, eat healthy and exercise. Being disciplined about the rest of my life has meant I haven’t really had to compromise on this. There have been times when I’ve slept lesser than I’d have liked. But, all in all, I’ve tried and kept a normal routine including, of course, blogging every morning. :-)
Optimize for energy. There were, of course, many crap days when I felt really low on energy. On these days, I generally aimed to sleep as early as possible and do less. My productivity is generally 2x on good energy days. And, I generally optimized for this.

So, what does this all mean in terms of time spent? I thought I’d show what all of these notes looked like in action. I’ve written about this a few times – but, aside from just recording meetings, I generally record productive time on my calendar. If I’ve spent 90 mins studying but felt like I did 60 mins of  productive work, I generally store that on my calendar. At the end of the week, I add up the time spent on each priority and look at how I spent my week. It is always very illuminating. Over time, I added more nuance – e.g. tracking group time vs. solo study time, etc. As I could go on about this topic for hours, I thought I’ll share 2 graphs and what they mean.

First year process These 2 graphs show how I spent time in the year. I don’t track time spent with framily or with wife/myself. This is strictly for the “work” part of my life. It is an approach that’s added incredible value considering the time investment (roughly 30 mins per week). I’ve continued to do this in my internship and it is among the better things I do. A few notes –
– Both graphs have the same data – the top graph is a 100% graph while the bottom is in absolute hours.
– F1 = 1st week in the Fall quarter. W = Winter, S = Spring
– As you can see, my internship search ended week 6 of the Winter quarter and nearly all of that time got replaced by extra-curriculars (and a little bit more social – but not much more)
– I generally get about 35 “productive” hours in a week. This number assumes meetings are productive. I try to make sure they are. But, of course, this is chainsaw art and not fine – it is granular enough to work for my purposes.
– My academic numbers don’t include 12 hours spent in classes. I take that as a base-case. So, that’s roughly 47 of the roughly 65 hours I spend working (11 hours)
– As you can see, my academic hours spike around weeks 9 and 10. I spent a lot more time studying in the Fall. I took 3 courses (1 less than the usual 4 course load) in the Winter – even so, I didn’t study all that much in the Winter.
– I have some more nuanced stats but won’t spend any more time on this. I geek out on this stuff and I recognize that it isn’t for everyone.
– I have written a lot about prioritization in school. And, hopefully, this brings those ideas to life.

Finally, since this post is all about my personal advice, I’d like to finish with 3 ideas I’ve found useful –

1. Spend energy and time on things you value or consider important. The first step here is to determine which of these priorities matter to you. Academics, for example, clearly matters to me. It doesn’t for many. But, understanding what matters to you is the first step to allocating your energy and time – your most valuable resources. Everyone who goes to a decent program will tell you that it often gets overwhelming. I think of it as preparation for life as a business leader. If you just walk out of school learning to prioritize things that matter, that’s a great lesson to learn.

2. You can’t win them all. Business school can often feel like high school. You can easily spend hours worrying about your popularity, social standing and/or what you are missing out on (a.k.a FOMO or fear of missing out). The first step here is to acknowledge that school is the same as life – you aren’t going to get on with everyone and not everyone’s going to like you. That’s okay. Just be yourself. Everyone else is taken.

3. No one owes you anything. It is tempting to walk in thinking that the school owes you a great experience for the fees you paid, that your group mates owe you for your selfless dedication and so on. I think a better way to approach this is to just remind yourself that nobody owes you anything. You’re in a great environment that you can mould to suit your needs and style. That, in itself, is a great opportunity. Like all good things, your experience is what you make of it. Make it meaningful, make it count.

I’m sure this post a few typos and errors. I’ll get to fixing them as I read it again (have to run now!) /hear from you over the next few days. I might add a few notes as well over the next few days.

I know it is long. As always, I hope it is worth it.

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.

It’s fine to get an MBA but don’t be an MBA

As I’m two days away from getting started on my graduate school education, I thought I’d share a blog post that happens to be one of my all time favorites written by Hunter Walk (thank you for the great post, Hunter!), a venture capitalist and former Google/YouTube product manager. While the post’s title is directed at MBA’s, I think it is just as applicable for anything you consider an accomplishment – getting promoted to Vice President, raising funding for your start-up from an A-list venture capital firm, IPO-ing your firm, working at a blue chip company, etc.

I hope you enjoy the post as much as I did..

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.”