Finding my way

I’ve been reading lately about the plight of the MBA class of 2009. Many are coming out of school with changed expectations and having to hustle to find work, any work, to pay off those loans and get their careers moving. The supposedly easy, lucrative jobs aren’t there anymore, so they are being forced to make choices. What do they really want to spend their time on? What offers the best chance of making a buck? How do they discover their true value in the marketplace?

I know this is no fun, because I found myself in a very similar position in 2006, after graduating from Harvard Business School with no job. What I’m about to say is not advice, because I’m in no position to give it. It’s just an account of my own experience which may or may not resonate.

My problems when I graduated were not linked to the job market, which was still booming. Most of my year had several job offers. My problems were with myself and my own rather self-indulgent approach to a career. I coveted the financial rewards supposedly due an MBA, but couldn’t face doing the work. I went through the mill of interviews with famous firms, but I was non-committal and it showed.

I remember playing soccer and rugby as a boy and coaches saying the only way not to get hurt was to fully commit. To hurl yourself at an attacking winger’s churning legs in a rugby tackle, to go hard for the soccer ball. If you flinched, you would get a knee in the eye or a boot in the face.

I got banged up in the business school marketplace by not committing.

And yet when I looked back to why I had gone in the first place, it wasn’t to get a big job. It was to have control over my time and my financial destiny. But somehow, in the process of getting my MBA, I had become distracted. I started to want what everyone else wanted and began to hold my own deeper desires in contempt.

I came to ignore what was most important to me: that I should be valued for what I produced, not for how many hours I spent in an office or how well I got along with a boss.

I wanted to be rewarded for my uniqueness, not for my ability to conform.

But it’s hard to hold onto that vision when you’re under pressure, when everyone around you says that with your background and qualifications, you should be doing a certain kind of work, when you have bills to pay and friends and family who unwittingly burden you with their own expectations.

I remember the summer after graduation talking to a friend who had graduated from Yale’s architecture school. I asked her, what do I do? She told me to go back to doing something I knew I was good at.

When she had come out of Yale, most of her peers had taken jobs with big, famous architectural firms. She knew she didn’t want to do that, and flailed for a while. To make some cash, she went back to her old job, working for an interior designer, managing multi-million dollar renovations. It had little to do with high-concept architecture. But it was hands-on, she was great at it and she was well paid. It felt good, she said, to be reminded of her value. And after a few months, she had the confidence to start her own small architectural practice, which now earns her a living.

So I took her advice, and went back to writing. I would take the subway every morning up to the Avery Art and Architecture Library at Columbia University, which offered free Wi-Fi and air conditioning, and contacted my old journalist friends. They were happy to throw me some work, a few hundred bucks here and there, enough to cover health insurance at least. And I began writing the proposal for a book about Harvard Business School, which became Ahead of the Curve.

I wrote quickly, because I needed to make some money. I hustled in a way I had never had to with a full time job on a newspaper, which I’d had before.

The advantage I had in writing my book proposal was that I had stirred the interest of a literary agent. During the summer between my two years at HBS, I had spent three months writing a novel. It was an odd thing for an MBA student to be doing. I should have been doing an internship somewhere. But as I said, I wasn’t committing. And I really wanted to write this novel. I had begun it while living in France and had a storage box full of notes and research. So finally, I took the time and did it. And when I’d finished it, I sent it out to a bunch of agents and publishers. And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

All said no, except one. Or rather the assistant of one, whose job it was to read these unsolicited submissions. She liked it and passed it to the agent, who finally emailed me months later, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, to say she was enjoying my book and that I should get in touch next time I was in New York. It was much more exciting for me than my second year MBA job search.

I met the agent for lunch and she told me that first novels were impossible to sell and that if I ever had a non-fiction idea, I should get in touch.

It was disappointing about the novel, but after graduation, I sent her my proposal for a book about getting my MBA. She liked it and set about selling it. Five months after leaving HBS, I had a publishing deal. Five months after that, I received the first installment of an advance.

In the meantime, I made a living writing, raising sponsorship money for a PBS documentary and consulting to an online news service.

It wasn’t easy for my family. Even those closest to me wondered what I was doing, why I had walked past the rewards a Harvard MBA was supposed to offer.

But each time I made a dollar in this ramshackle, chaotic way, that was unique to me, I was excited in a way I never was when I received a monthly pay check.

Each week that passed in which I managed to pay the bills was a triumph. Some weeks were better than others. But over time, I felt more confident about living a life like this, pursuing work I enjoyed, somehow making ends meet.

Insecurity and freedom are not that far from each other. Some days I felt the former so strongly I would start looking for salaried employment. Others, I felt the freedom and knew I wanted nothing else. There were days when I’d be in a library at 11 in the morning, writing or researching and feeling extraordinarily happy. Other days, I was worried sick about money and the future. Every day I didn’t have a regular job was both a commitment to a freer life and a rejection of what most people regard as security.

It still feels that way, though with a little success, the whipsaw between the two becomes milder.

There was a professor at Harvard Business School called Joseph Lassiter who gave us some great advice on entrepreneurship. He said that it wasn’t a choice of career, but a choice of life and you needed to think about setting your whole life up to give yourself even a shot at succeeding.

Your professional life would be volatile, so put yourself in a place where your personal life would be stable. Don’t move to San Francisco for the hell of it if you don’t know anyone there. Go somewhere where you are trusted. Where you have friends and family to vouch for you. Where you’ll have a sympathetic bank manager. Go home if you have to.

Explain what you are doing to the people who are most important to you. Tell them not just what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it. Why it’s important to you to do this kind of work. Why you are ready to take these risks. Don’t assume everyone will understand when you take a less conventional path.

You want the reward of fulfilling work, work which is expressive of who you are. Work which rewards your uniqueness not your ability to conform. Explain this to yourself and to others. Write it down.

Before I left my job as Paris correspondent for The Daily Telegraph to go to HBS, I wrote myself a letter explaining why I was making this decision. I did it because I knew there would be moments when I would question what I was doing. It was useful to have on paper the feelings and rationale which drove me to do what I did. I referred to it a lot.

The other thing, which sounds so obvious, is to do something you know about. An academic study of successful new ventures conducted in 2000 showed that 71% “replicated or modified an idea encountered through previous employment”, 20% were “discovered serendipitously” and just 4% arose from the “systematic search for business opportunities.” The same study found that 41% of these ventures had no business plan, 26% had a rudimentary plan and 28% had a formal plan.

The lesson from this is that it’s not the plan or the search for opportunity, the things most business schools teach, which leads to success.

It’s an ability to improve on what you can do already and then execute.

Everyone knows what they’re best at, but often they think it’s of no value. I felt like that when I graduated from HBS, and I was wrong. It took a while to straighten myself out.

Whenever you take a risk in life, whether anticipated or not, the audience around you seems to be shouting two things. One half is screaming “don’t”. The other is shouting “live the dream”, “do what you love”. Neither are being very helpful.

Paralyzing fear and blind optimism aren’t the only alternatives. There is a route through the middle which recognizes that with risk comes reward, that insecurity is uncomfortable, but then so is going to the office on someone else’s behalf. There’s no universal answer here, just a personal route to navigating between these two feelings, which can only be found by setting sail in the first place.

The trigger for taking this route is not always desirable. Not everyone who ends up an entrepreneur wanted to be one. Many found they had no choice. Perhaps they came out of an MBA program in 2009 without a job. Or they could not sleep at night working for someone else. Or they were desperate to succeed on a far greater scale than their peers. Motivations can be dark, but that’s OK.

What is important is that once the trigger has been pulled, what do you do?

It’s a fact that people often wake up to the most significant facts about life at moments of tragedy. When a close friend, a sibling or parent dies, you suddenly realize that you want your own life to really count. You want to spend your time on your own terms, with the people you love, doing the work you enjoy. The greatest fear becomes the prospect of getting to the end and thinking, well, that was a waste.

For me, the tragedy occurred on September 11th 2001. I reported from Lower Manhattan that day and saw the towers fall from far too close. I remember looking up and seeing the bodies pinwheel through the air from the upper floors as people leapt to escape the heat. In the days that followed, I could not help selfishly thinking, what if that was me? What if everything were to end for me like that, without the slightest warning, would I be happy with the life I had led?

It may sound ludicrous to link my own journey through business school and back to writing to such a monumental event. But when I think about it, that was my trigger. The moment at which my motivations and ambitions changed for good. Letting them guide me has not always been easy. But it has been better than trying to deny them.

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