I had originally meant to get this up last week, right after I wrote, Part 1 – Getting an MBA in Finance: The Logistics, but I’ve found it’s taken me a lot longer to unwind the MBA experience than I originally thought. Brace yourself for my usual deluge of emotional over-sharing and rah-rah.
Somewhere in an old notebook shoved in a closet, there is a list of life goals I penned out from a Paris apartment in 2011 which includes “get an MBA”. I was 25, broke and broken, and only beginning to understand that the only way to make your life work out the way you want it to is to grab onto it with both hands and bend it to your will. I had not yet learned to dream big, so that even the decision to get a graduate degree in business seemed weighty and intimidating.
In retrospect, when it comes to the MBA and the whole of my twenties (I turn 30 in 5 months, I’m feeling introspective), I wish I had entertained more crazy dreams.
Those truly ridiculous lofty goals that make people scoff and tell you that you can’t/won’t/shouldn’t. It has been my experience so far that people will bring out that can’ts-won’ts-shouldn’ts for much more minor endeavors, so if you’re going to upset a bunch of assholes with your goals, you might as well make it count.
When it comes to truly ridiculous lofty goals, an MBA is child’s play. It doesn’t really make the list. It felt big to me because I lived within a crippling myopic perspective of my own abilities and purpose. I have since learned not to entertain excessive self-doubt, and never, under any circumstances, acknowledge, let alone consider, the chirping of nay-sayers.
Changing your life in any drastic way is always a gamble.
There was the risk I wouldn’t succeed — in getting into the program, in finishing the degree, in finding a job at graduation. An MBA will put you face-to-face with your own shortcomings often, starting with the application process. Every application asks “What are your professional goals and how will an MBA help you achieve them?”, and you write down these illusions of grandeur that you want to believe to be true and hope no one in the admissions office will call your bluff (they won’t, they just want to make sure you can string together a coherent sentence).
To enjoy any kind of achievement or success in life, you have to get comfortable with regularly shoving yourself against your personal and professional limits, if only to get a vague idea of where they are. The more you set to find, and the more frequently you succeed in breaking through them, the bigger they will subsequently become.
Thinking you are not smart enough or capable enough for a certain profession, income, or lifestyle is entirely your own imagination. The life you want is there for the taking, you merely have to rise to the occasion.
(Most people will not rise).
When you’re not pushing yourself, you will have the luxury of going about your life untested. Your intellect and abilities are not regularly called into question. How you spend your time is not judged as worthy or wasteful. Where you’ll go next, or what you’ll become, is not riddled with high expectations from yourself or others. You can coast under the radar of judgement, simply performing the minimum required to go unnoticed. Mediocrity is not particularly glamorous, but it is certainly quiet, and for that reason it is no mystery why most people choose it.
Getting an MBA is a loud, arrogant announcement that you are bored with mediocrity.
It’s a shot in the dark for something better than your current circumstances, and as a result, everyone in the program is hungry for more — regardless of whether or not they are there for the the “wrong” or “right” reasons. Yes, there are always the kids that are there because mom & dad are footing the bill and they really had no idea what to do with themselves outside of an academic setting, but for the most part, any MBA class is a cage of Type A personalities, eager to compete against each other without burning enough bridges to impede their professional network in the future.
The older I get and the further I push my career, the more people close to me exit the rat race at various points. It’s like we’re all in this elevator and people randomly push buttons saying, “this floor looks good! I don’t really need to look from the top, look at the view right here!” and they step into decent jobs with predictable salaries and modest expectations. Or they leave to have a family, or because they want to “stick it to the man” or whatever. They don’t understand why anyone would bother continuing upward. It takes time, the heights make you dizzy, and the other people on the elevator get progressively more vicious as it climbs to the top. We’re all operating under the belief, whether or not it is actually true, that there is one, and only just one, spot at the very, very top. The higher you climb, the higher the stakes and the stiffer the competition, but camaraderie develops, despite itself.
In the MBA, I was merely one of many high-achievers. I was a top-student in my undergraduate degree, but only middle-of-the-pack in my MBA program, which served to grate on my nerves despite myself. I was frustrated when I couldn’t breeze through classes or skip out on studying. I was downright angry when any dedicated effort didn’t yield me the A+’s I assumed I deserved. Eventually I resigned myself to being an A-minus student and decided instead to focus on the things that I could do better than my classmates. Choosing to play to my strengths led me down the path I’m currently on: one geared towards entrepreneurship, early-stage start-ups, and venture capital investing. The right opportunities came up only because I was playing the right game, and I took the time to strategically assess and reassess my skills, talents, and wants every step of the way.
Ultimately, your career success will have far less to do with your credentials and education than it will with your intellect and ambition. Degrees and certificates are merely accolades that signal you’re a willing jumper-of-hoops — they don’t necessarily guarantee true competence or intellect. The people destined to be successful will be, regardless of degree or job title. And for those destined for a life of mediocrity (or less), no certificate will save them. Ambitious people have a tendency to rack up degrees and awards, because they’re typically the ones willing to slug through the BS as a necessary evil of getting to their end destination. Nevertheless, learning you are not defined by your credentials is both a tough realization and profoundly reassuring.
An MBA was the right choice for me, because it was a relatively cheap business education that also served as both a confidence and resume booster. My 20’s was the best time to get it because I did not have any major obligations like a family or a mortgage that may have limited the resources I could put into the program. My graduate degree is powerful tool, but it’s only one of many I hold, and at this point I’m not wholly sure how I will use it but I hope to do amazing things.