This is a major reflection post, and will likely bore you to tears if you’re not interested in personal reflections on studying for an MBA. That’s ok, just skip this post.
But if you’ve ever considered doing an MBA, or just want to know a bit more about what it’s like, then read on!
What did I learn? Too much to fit in a single post, but here are some highlights of what I think was important:
- Clarity of thought and expression.
- Time management and prioritisation.
- Smart people make dumb mistakes sometimes.
Clarity of Thought and Expression
Back in the day, people were taught rhetoric as a core part of their education. It’s not really done any more, which is a real shame. An isolated example of why I think it’s important is this article on a Staten Island, New York school’s attempt to teach kids how to write.
It’s easy to think you understand something if you never have to prove it. Explaining yourself to others forces you to really get to grips with what you think you know, and then put it into a form that other people can understand. If you want to find out how poorly you really understand something, try teaching it to someone else who wants to learn it from you.
And most people think they’re a lot better at this than they really are. My best classes were those were we were really pushed to explain ourselves without using buzzwords, and if we used jargon, that we actually understood what the jargon meant and were using it appropriately. Sloppy speaking indicated slopping thinking.
For one class, my syndicate got a really poor mark on an assignment. Some of my colleagues commented “but we worked really hard on that!” The thing is, effort doesn’t really count for this sort of thing; results do. A colleague in the syndicate with the best mark was kind enough to show me their assignment. There was no question that it was vastly superior to ours, and I said as much.
Writing and speaking well are skills you can learn. There are rules for how to construct a logical argument. There are rules for what good writing is. Being really good at it means practising – consciously practising – so that your skill improves over time. And knowing what good looks like means you can objectively look at what you’ve done and compare, and then know where you need to spend the most effort to improve.
I’m nowhere near as good as I’d like to be, but I’m much better at it than I was two years ago, and it’s because of consciously practising and striving to be better.
Time Management and Prioritisation
The Cult of Busy is pervasive and in modern workplaces, and I think it’s incredibly harmful. I’ve seen managers at my clients who were run ragged working 10 hour days for months on end, lurching from one crisis to the next, and yet things never seemed to improve. They were tired, stressed, hardly ever got to see their families, and generally seemed pretty unhappy.
The MBA forced me to focus my energies and make trade-offs. There just aren’t enough hours in a day to do everything and make it perfect. You have to finish things by deadlines or you don’t get any marks. You have a bunch of other people in your syndicates depending on you, and you have to coordinate what you’re doing with them. So you choose what you will do, and, most importantly, what you won’t do.
I basically stopped watching TV and reading for pleasure. I’d spend time with my family on Wednesday night, most weeks, and watch some pre-recorded TV of our favourite shows (mostly on ABC). I’d still socialise with friends and family, but not as much. I’d read for pleasure in-between terms, but I have enough unread books now that it’ll probably take me another 2 years to get through them all. It’s a nice problem to have.
I had a lot to get done, but I wasn’t ‘busy’ in the same way as those client managers. I did what needed to get done, to an acceptable level of quality, and then I’d stop and do the next thing. I made sure there was time for rest and relaxation, because otherwise I’d burn out and then not be able to do anything at all, which would be worse. Sometimes there was a crunch because of unexpected circumstances, but I had enough built in slack that I could cope, and then return to normal. There were no death-marches.
Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes Sometimes
The best example of this was a class we had that involved a business simulation. These business simulators are essentially complicated versions of Lemonade Stand that you play for an entire term with your syndicate/team.
In one of the simulations, there was a team that did really badly in the game, and in the debrief at the end, they explained what happened. They made all the classic mistakes: no clear strategy or plan, not coordinated with a single, common goal, working at cross-purposes, poor communication, the works.
What’s most interesting is that this was a group of smart people who were most of the way through their MBA. They should have known better, and yet they didn’t notice what was going wrong. They commented that part of the problem was that in the game, their decisions weren’t really bad in the short-term. They didn’t perform well, but it wasn’t so bad that they were immediately forced to look at what was going on. Immediate, unambiguous feedback works best for noticing problems like this.
The thing is, the signs were all there if they’d been looking for them. The process they used for making decisions was mostly flailing about in a panic, and constantly running out of time. They didn’t have a clear objective they could all point to. Some simple questions would have identified there was a major problem, had they been willing to ask them, and were open to the answers.
And that’s the big lesson there: always be checking for signs of things being broken. The time for fixing this stuff is when things are going well, because if they’re going badly it’s already too late. It’s not a matter of people being incapable, or ignorant – though that will make things much, much worse – it’s that people make mistakes. Test your hypotheses. Ask the tough questions of yourselves. Be willing to admit that you’re wrong.
I Know Stuff
One of the big things for me is to have some validation that, yes, I do actually know this stuff. I used to think that I knew a thing or two, but now I can prove it.
Being smart doesn’t guarantee you’re right, and I was definitely not the smartest guy in the room most of the time. I’ve just spent a bit over two years checking my thinking, refining my arguments, and learning entirely new ways to think about things.
This isn’t to say I was universally brilliant beforehand. Far from it. In the past couple of years, I’ve had to admit that I was terribly wrong about some things, and partially wrong about others. But mostly I was on the right track. Even then, though, I might not have been able to articulate why I thought certain things, or how to demonstrate them to others so that they could understand them. I’m much better at that now. Not perfect, but better.
And really, the MBA has been a beginning, not an end. It’s re-kindled my love for learning in ways I’d forgotten existed. There is so very much I don’t know, because the MBA is very much a generalist degree. We really only scratched the surface of what, in many cases, are vast and complex disciplines.
I hope I can pass on some of that enthusiasm for learning about business to others.