After getting an MBA, we head out into the real world — our careers — while never actually having left
It’s my first year as an MBA student and I’m sitting in a tiny office with a TA, going over Microeconomics problem sets. On this day, I’m trying to figure out how to set up a demand curve and identify the market equilibrium in the global steel industry. The TA takes my pencil and draws horizontal lines showing the production capacity of each plant in the industry. Then he draws a sloping line that represents demand. The concept starts to make sense. I continue to practice daily ahead of the final, which accounts for nearly 100% of the grade. When the final comes, I pounce on the first problem, which luckily is the same one the TA showed me, one that I reviewed over and over. The final ends up coming down to a set of true/false questions on Cournot reaction functions. I have to guess on a few of those but still end up with a solid score on the test.
As I complete my MBA this week, I look back on plenty of indelible academic, and social experiences. As classmates, we spent hundreds of hours together, making the time pass through the drudgery of group meetings, conference calls and occasionally dry subject matter. Our lives became compartmentalized into Home, School and Work. And whatever happened at Work was left behind when arriving at School. There was a wonderful comfort in the pre-class conversation and idle observations about classes and the world and I may miss that the most.
Then there are the classes, the heavy core classes like Microeconomics and Finance and the fun ones in Marketing and Management. We studied well-known business cases and obscure ones that were sometimes the most memorable (just this past quarter, Steinway pianos and the Thai scotch industry). After a while, the concepts from the courses began to come together like a puzzle and we had at least a passing answer for everything. We learned to posit theories with incomplete information, and make reasonable attempts to back them up with evidence. And as someone in the nonprofit space, I had experiences I never would have thought possible, including contributing to the launch of a new service in the vehicle battery market for a Fortune 100 firm.
It’s important to acknowledge that even being able to apply to an MBA program, though, comes from a place of extreme privilege. Most everything we did took place in a bubble, a comfortable space with its own norms and a fair share of incongruities. It was a sort of dream world where one can be earnest and a little smug, caring and outright capitalist, generous and completely self-interested. It’s unreasonable to think that the world will always present itself as cleanly as it did in school, with the neatly defined case studies and hypercollaborative colleagues. Where it’s OK to say that the answer is “it depends” and where quantitative, verifiable information is always preferred over gut instinct or intuition. It’s unlikely most of us will ever be able to open a steel mill in Brazil or tell the CEO of Airbus what to do in its unending battle with Boeing, and we may not be able to decide whether Miele enters the Hong Kong market positioned as an ultra-luxury brand. In reality, most of our decisions will probably always be more mundane.
After finishing our MBAs, we head out into the real world — our careers — while never actually having left. What has changed, though, is that we’ve strengthened our ability to persist, have stretched the boundaries of our time and resources, can better frame the decisions we make at work and maybe even developed a new curiosity about the world. And that’s the most important lesson, one that ran through my head over and over, even in Microeconomics: to above all else always value growing and learning. And that’s what I’ll take away most: never stop learning. Ever.