I really didn’t know what to expect when I came to business school in the fall of 2007. I had lived my whole post-college life in the nonprofit sector, and most of that time was spent hanging around musicians. I was brought up by two ex-hippies who, shall we say, did not exactly fit in with corporate culture. (My mom did have a job at a bank once, which she used primarily as an opportunity to read up on astrology textbooks.) So I had a number of questions in my mind as I got ready to start my MBA program. Would I get along with my classmates? Would I get involved in the life of the school? Would I have time to compose and pursue individual projects? Would I actually learn anything?
If nothing else, I knew I would come out of the experience with two things: (a) a piece of paper in my hand that said I was a smart person and (b) a whole lotta debt. Both of these things turned out to be true. But that was about the extent to which my premonitions and preconceptions held water. Time and again, something about the experience would surprise me, and I remain now in awe of not only how much my feelings about b-school evolved, but how much I evolved. In no particular order, then, I offer the most valuable concepts, ideas, skills, and learnings I take away from my four semesters in New Haven, CT:
- As math subjects go, an understanding of statistics must rank close behind basic algebra in highest usefulness-in-daily-life-to-mental-effort-required ratio. It’s amazing to read websites like fivethirtyeight.com now and actually understand how those graphs were produced. And if that’s not practical enough for you, decision analysis can shed light onto even the most intransigent dilemmas by identifying dominated (i.e., foolish) strategies and helping to organize one’s thinking. A tool that I will use for the rest of my life.
- Program evaluation is not rocket science. All it requires you to do is to apply logic relentlessly, a skill that does take some practice. A class on ethics and human behavior taught us that the only reliable way to counteract persistent biases, such as overconfidence, is to ask oneself at critical junctures: “how could I be wrong?” This is what program evaluators, good ones anyway, do at every step of the process. It’s so simple, but it can save you a world of remorse down the line.
- The teaching of introductory economics needs serious reform. I have written about this at length, but having taken additional coursework in the subject and witnessed a global financial meltdown since my original rants, I now feel quite confident in saying that externalities and behavioral analysis should occupy a much more prominent role in the discussion, and that normative judgments about policy should be taken out. Free markets with perfect information, perfect competition, and rational actors are the exception, not the rule.
- Most of us are far too risk-averse. As a simple example: have you ever been really attracted to someone but decided not to ask them out because you were afraid of getting rejected? It’s silly, right? What, exactly, are the consequences of getting rejected? How is it worse than not asking in the first place? Take this thought and apply it to your job, a fundraising ask, an application to school — you name it. Make sure the risks you’re avoiding are actually risks, and not just fears in disguise.
- When it comes to negotiation, it’s amazing what difference a little planning makes. Knowing exactly what your preferences are and thinking about what concessions you’re prepared to make–and not–beforehand will equip you with the tools you need to guide the conversation toward an optimal conclusion. This little lesson can be applied to almost any kind of negotiation, not just the usual suspects like big business deals or bargaining at the flea market.
- Presentation matters. It really does. Oh sure, it doesn’t matter as much as content, at least in the long run. The thing is, presentation is a part of your content. That’s why it matters.
As much as I’ve learned from business school, perhaps the most profound lesson I take away is how much I still don’t know. In 2006, I knew a hell of a lot about choral music, the history of experimental rock ensembles, who’s who in the American classical composer social hierarchy, and where to find hassle-free street parking in New York City. At the time, that seemed like a pretty decent chunk of stuff to know a hell of a lot about. I now know that it’s about 0.00000000001% of the full extent of human knowledge and achievement. After two years in business school, I can now claim a passing conversance with, oh, maybe 0.00000000003%. Which, you know, is triple what I knew before — and still BARELY ANYTHING.
On the other hand, I now have tools to help me make decisions and manage in situations even when I don’t have all the information. I know how to figure out what questions I must ask in order to get to the answers I need. I know how to surround myself with people who know more than I do about particular subjects so that I don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel. And most importantly, I can feel secure in the knowledge that, for as long as I live, I will never stop learning new things. And that is a great gift.