Why Getting an MBA Sucks… But Then it’s actually Pretty Great

It’s back to school season and for those lucky souls about to start their MBA journey it’s an exciting time. On the other hand, for those of us recently graduated, it’s a good time to take a step back from our daily grind and reflect on what knowledge remains of the academic overload of months ago. Here’s a picture looking back:

When I graduated, I was excited. Ready to take on the world. Motivated, but…confused.

Why was I confused? Because you see, getting an MBA completely shuffles your mental models. All the expertise in your pre-MBA years is blown to pieces and by the end of your MBA program, you are left with less mental structure than before.

Let me illustrate my point.

Imagine your mind is a filing cabinet. Before graduate school, as you begin your career you start by building drawers and organizing your interpretation of the business world. What is a firm? How do global markets work? What makes a great leader? Every new topic you learn is placed in a labelled drawer and every piece of related knowledge is stored as a file in folders within that drawer. Because you’re just getting started and your filing cabinet is empty, you easily absorb new information. With time, your drawers begin to fill up and you begin to grow confident in your understanding of the business world. By this point you might consider yourself an expert and believe business school will just be a matter of refining your skill and adding a few more files to your folders. Right?

WRONG. Here’s what happens when you go through an MBA. In the beginning, every new piece of information you learn passes through your predetermined frame of mind and biases. In this phase you force EVERY new file into the existing drawers and folders of your cabinet. At some point in the process though, you have a breakdown. You realize the topic you are learning does not really fit into any of your existing categories and so you have to build an entirely new drawer. You realize your categories are not grouped correctly. You realize information you had learned before was misinterpreted and has to be recategorized or even forgotten. You realize how big the gaps are within your drawers of information you did not even know existed.

UH-OH.

So really, more than adding files to your folders, getting an MBA is more like someone took your filing cabinet, removed labels from the drawers, dumped years’ worth of its files on the floor, took some files out, inserted more files into it and told your brain “Clean this up”.

So all that precious structure you had before is gone and you’re left to organize the mess of disjointed concepts and conflicting perspectives on your own. What was once an organized mind with clearly connected ideas is replaced by a foggy cloud of uncertainty. Overwhelming right? Well that’s why getting an MBA sucks.

But here’s why after 1 year of reorganizing it turns out getting an MBA is actually pretty great:

First, getting an MBA makes you understand how much you DON’T know. After years of sitting next to very bright people and listening to lectures by incredible professors, you begin to appreciate how many other industries, types of organizations, schools of thought and management theories exist. This is refreshingly humbling. Much like looking up at the stars and understanding that your existence is a minuscule part of a giant world, the MBA experience makes you realize that your understanding of the business world pales in comparison to the wealth of knowledge out there. Although disheartening at first, the process leaves your mind hungry for more and in a ready state of accepting new ideas and welcoming opposing points of view. You actively seek new files and folders to put into the gaps you now know exist within your cabinet.

Second, your knowledge bank gains breadth and depth. This benefit is one that people expect when enrolling in business school but greatly miscalculate. The amount of new information thrown at you is so substantial that the challenge is how to remember it once you graduate. At the time, you will think you’ll never forget it but, trust me, there needs to be some type of system to internalize what you learn and to access this info. when you need it later. If done well, you will have a bigger and better filing cabinet.

Third, you become a better learner. Having gone through a complete mental reshuffle, you are now better at the process of organizing your files. This means your synthesis and interpretation skills are now sharper. This means throughout your career, every time you are be required to learn a new job or industry you’ll understand what is important to know and be prepared to incorporate it into your existing mental structure.

So then at the end of it all, your mind, your new filing cabinet now looks like this:

So why does this matter? For those of you who have just finished your business degree, be patient, it will all make sense in some time. However, take the time to reorganize your new filing cabinet or else you will end up rebuilding the smaller one you had before starting graduate school. For those of you who will begin your MBA in the next few weeks, know that this will happen and open up your mind. The sooner you start tearing down and rebuilding, the better.