By Jeremy Shinewald
Megalomaniac; madman; murderer … not necessarily the type of character you want to brag about emulating—even if what you’re talking about is his singular work ethic and fervor for competition.
So when I say that Daniel Plainview—the role portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis in the 2007 Paul Thomas Anderson film, There Will be Blood—is the fictional character who best represents my work ethic in launching my own MBA consulting firm to help students secure spots in top MBA schools and programs, I am not referring to these massive character flaws.
In fact, I strive to embody traits that run counter to Plainview’s; I try to be deferential, ethical, calm, fair, and generous in my business dealings. And unlike Plainview, I do not view business as a zero-sum game. Like him, however, I try to be the most aggressive competitor I can be— tirelessly working to make my firm better, my colleagues stronger, and my clients more successful.
Plainview, despite his awful attributes, is the embodiment of competition and work ethic. His competitive instinct is blind and uncompassionate, but it is also unequivocally pure. In a scene where he discusses his character with a man he believes to be his brother, he says, “I have a competition in me.”
He says this introspectively and spitefully, fully aware that his competitive instincts can drive him too far. Still, there is a virtue behind his actions; he is a self-made man, determined to control his destiny. He has bootstrapped his oil empire and recognizes his path not as a road to vanity, but to indefinite independence.
How my competitive instinct made me a success
When I started my business, I competed for clients every day as if it was a matter of life or death. And since I had no savings and was determined to never work for someone else ever again, it actually was. So I simply had to connect with each prospective client and impress upon those individuals that I would dedicate the entirety of my personal will to helping them achieve their educational goals. I had to show them that, in some ways, their goals were more important to me than to them. During the free half-hour consultation I would give them (which we still offer today at mbaMission), I was a wellspring of creative ideas, anticipating clients’ needs before they could articulate them.
In my first year of business, I was a true one-man show. I poured my heart into every single applicant and application and determinedly overserved my clients so that they felt compelled to refer mbaMission to their friends—not as payback to me, but as a favor to those who were important to them. I promised two-day turnaround on essay edits but went well beyond this, often completing two or even three reviews a day. I was available by phone from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., after which I was available only by appointment. If an international client wanted me to do a mock interview at three in the morning, I did so—delightedly. I worked weekends, evenings, and mornings; holidays and vacations.
I knew that my competitive advantages were twofold. As a former speechwriter for Israel’s ambassador to the United States, I was a better writer and editor than anyone in my field. I was also a far more intense competitor than anyone I knew, and I had always been that way—it was just something innate. To quote Plainview, “I have a competition in me.”
While overserving my clients, I was also focusing on other aspects of business and management. I developed marketing relationships and wrote an incredible number of blog posts. I started writing a book and training manual for others as my business grew, and I mentored every new hire personally. I was doing everything from managing GoogleAdWords campaigns to answering questions in MBA chat rooms. I saved every penny and traveled nationally and internationally to speak to any group that would have me—from the Young Consultants of DC to the Fulbright Foundation in Tel Aviv—to get in front of people and show them what I knew about the MBA admissions world. I was indefatigable, and I am confident that Plainview would grudgingly tip his hat to me. I worked every bit as hard as he did, but I did it all without the character lapses and regret.
In the film, Plainview says, “I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money to get away from everyone.” In contrast, my job has involved working closely with people and ensuring that they come across as intensely likeable. I wanted to earn enough money to keep going—to help more and more people, continually improve at my job, and create a better and better firm. That mania has been my driving force. Now, after more than a decade, we have helped thousands of clients and still have thousands more to launch into the next phase of their careers so they too can compete as aggressively as they can and define the good life on their terms.
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