Getting an MBA While the World Falls Apart
There are times when things feel so crazy, out of control, and even hopeless that our own individual pursuits start to feel trivial, selfish, and even misguided.
I can remember vivid moments over the past 10 years where I had a distinct feeling of living the wrong life, given what was going on around me. When the financial collapse took hold in 2009, I thought to myself "why did I leave corporate law - where I could be part of the solution - to instead help people apply to business school right in the teeth of a recession?" Just this past winter I watched "Making a Murderer" on Netflix and kicked myself for not remaining a lawyer ... but this time not a corporate lawyer, but instead a constitutional attorney like the individuals portrayed early in that documentary series. And now, as police/citizen animus and race problems in America reach a peak, as the EU teeters, as [seriously, enter any of a dozen paralyzing issues] I sometimes am not even sure what I should be doing. But I do know it doesn't feel like enough; it feels to insular and self-absorbed and small. But then it occurred to me: I bet a lot of people feel that way, including my past and present clients pursuing an MBA. So let's talk about that.
How do you lock in your focus and devote everything you have to a task like "getting an MBA" when the macro problems in the world feel so seismic and crushing? I think it's worth analyzing this from both the perspective of applying to and then attending business school, because they are different aspects of the same end goal.
ATTENDING BUSINESS SCHOOL AMIDST CHAOS
I'm starting here because attending business school is likely to be the phase of the process where these macro issues are going to flood your world. Class discussions are going to center around issues like Brexit and Trump, hallways chatter will grapple with Black Lives Matter and the militarization of local police departments, and affinity groups will no doubt wrestle with social media nearly as much (if not as much) as real life. Your MBA life will be surrounded and engulfed with real life, because the days of going off to a leafy campus to disconnect from Planet Earth for two years ... well, those days are over.
WHAT DO YOU DO WITH THIS REALITY?
My advice, honestly, is to take a step back from it. It's great to be around other young, smart, driven, passionate people and to be on a college campus, where issues have a way of becoming causes. However, you also invested two years and probably 150K to get a professional degree that was part of a long-term plan of attack. What was that plan when you started? What does it look like now? Be sure to constantly step back from the crowds and the emotions of your experiences to analyze your entire life, your interests, and your goals. Make your moves - not just what job to take, but what classes to take, what clubs to join, how you spend your time, etc. - based on that big-picture plan and not what is spiking the blood pressure of people around you. In a Twitter world, in a world where Donald Freaking Trump is the Republican nominee, in a world of protests, it is easy to pursue paths that "feel" right (whether because of your moral compass or the "street cred" points you pick up in the process), but aren't actually right for you.
Others may disagree with me on this, but having gone to an elite graduate school and been swept up in such things myself (only to land in a hedge fund law group of which I never planned to participate in), I learned the hard way that grad school is not College, The Sequel - you are investing in your career. Just don't lose sight of that.
APPLYING TO BUSINESS SCHOOL AMIDST CHAOS
Okay, so if my advice for attending an MBA program is to stay focused and to keep a cool remove from the waves on campus, surely I have the same recommendation for the application process, right? Nope.
WHEN APPLYING, IT'S ESSENTIAL TO "READ THE ROOM."
We know what that phrase means in the context of an actual room or a meeting, but what I mean here is you have to know the mood of the application process into which you are applying. There are years where cold, hard plans to make a lot of money and be a super innovative genius are going to be passable. This is not one of those years. We live in a time where social injustice is streaming onto our phones everyday, where news media is transforming overnight, where "global business" means twenty different things, where the world is literally melting down environmentally, and where tech and business platforms offer some of the very best solutions to those problems. This means two things when you talk about your goals, passions, interests, and why you want an MBA:
1. YOU WILL PROBABLY COME ACROSS AS COLD, HEARTLESS, AND OUT OF TOUCH IF YOU WRITE ABOUT GOALS THAT ARE FOCUSED ON YOU.
This is pretty much true always, no matter what is happening in the world around you, but at a time like this, you will seem especially myopic if you aren't engaging with society on at least some level when you share your story. Is that fair? Probably not, but I'm just telling you the truth. The person reading your file follows the same people on Twitter you do and they are going to bed every night thinking "geez man, things are falling apart." They are also reading lots of files of people wanting to use their talents to solve problems. If you want to use your talents to make money or satisfy your own internal desires, you just won't measure up very well.
2. YOU ARE MISSING THE DOZENS (HUNDREDS?) OF WAYS THAT BUSINESS CAN BE USED TO SOLVE SOCIAL ISSUES.
Profit-based business could be the solution to anything from the polar ice caps melting to kickstarting a new way of nominating presidential candidates to supplying water to third-world countries to advancing information technology in medicine. I would wager that every person applying to b-school (at least every person that deserves to go) could dig deep and find A) an issue they care about, and B) a skill or experience they have that could potentially help address that issue in a business context. Maybe that's not the case and if so, don't lie. But my challenge to you, reader, is try to find that. Make that your first challenge to yourself and then retreat back if you have to. But start there.
No matter what you do as it pertains to an MBA, don't just give up. Action is what leads to changes, so keep charging ahead.