Reflections of a Disillusioned Harvard MBA
I met my three close friends from business school, in town for our tenth reunion, for lunch. We met at a restaurant in Cambridge rather than join the thronging crowds beneath the tents on campus. After raucous catching up, all of it about our families (and none of it about work), we drove to campus. I had that strange sense I’ve had many times before when near or on the Harvard Business School campus, that feeling of complete disconnectedness. It’s hard for me to believe I ever went to school there. I felt like an imposter on campus, like the badge with my name, whose color identified me as a 10th year reunion attendee, was a fake. My difficulty remembering how to navigate the buildings spoke to my lack of ease on the campus. Now, as then, I averted my eyes in many cases when I saw classmates, feeling uncomfortable, awkward, like I simply didn’t belong.
This feeling of other-ness dogged me at the Friday night section dinner as well. It was the only formal reunion event I chose to attend, and even this I did grudgingly. I grasped for names, did a lot of smiling, listening, and nodding, and repeated the same story about “what I’m up to” over and over again. Someone made a joke about how we should be wearing nametags so that the spouses knew who everyone was, and I thought to myself, “I could use that too!”
All night, my husband and I drifted through the crowds of people, talking about the same stuff on repeat: our children, my new job, the fact that we still live in Cambridge. Everyone I talked to had changed jobs at least once, and a great majority seemed to have 3 or 4 children. There was lots of whipping out of iPhones to compare photographs. Randy’s daughter is a redhead, and I am jealous! Dan’s kids have gotten so big! Wow Jeremy’s four kids all look so much like him! There was a slideshow of pictures running on repeat on someone’s laptop. The photographs of now all featured families, children smiling on ski slopes and beaches. The photographs of then all seemed grainy, old-fashioned. I was struck by how ten years can seem like the blink of an eye but is actually a really long time. Those photos also proved that everybody’s repeated proclamations that “you look just the same!” were not in fact true.
After a couple of hours Matt and I snuck out, as is my habit, leaving without saying goodbye. I’ve always hated drawing attention to myself in that way, and have erred many times on the side of being rude to avoid doing so. I was quiet on the drive home, pensive. My regret about having gone to business school, normally just a layer of silt, dormant over me, was stirred up into dusty clouds that made it hard to see, that made me choke. I was reminded in a visceral way of an uncomfortable truth that’s mostly just a quiet part of my personal narrative. Reminded of all that I lack from my time at HBS: memories, close friendships, concrete skills, lessons learned.
Why do I regret going to business school? There are two layers to my disenchantment with the MBA as a degree and as a concept. One is simpler to explain. I never identified with my classmates or with the idea of an MBA. I was young when I started at HBS, and very aware of what felt like a distinct lack of relevant experience (I went in the days when they were explicitly trying to increase the age of entry). For personal reasons I did not engage socially the way I might have (because my fiancée was in New York, I was gone most weekends). These more logistical explanations are convenient masks for the more awkward truth that I never felt I had much in common with my classmates. I felt I was speaking a different language then, and I still do now. My interest in the “softer” side of business – leadership, morality, teamwork, motivation – got lip service on campus but never seemed as important as the more quantitative subjects (the naming of Nitin Nohria as HBS’s newest dean is an explicit elevation of a student of these “softer” sciences, and I look forward to seeing how he changes things). I frankly have not used the (few) things I learned in the classroom since graduating, either. This disappoints me and is surely as much my fault as HBS’s. But this reality turns into disenchantment in a hurry.
The other reason I feel disillusioned about my time at HBS is both more personal and more universal. I took a different kind of route after school, opting to re-join the strategy consulting firm I’d worked at before school but in a recruiting role rather than on the partner track. I did this for personal reasons: I wanted to have flexibility for my nascent dual-career marriage and for the children I hoped we would have. I achieved this in spades: I’ve had the good fortune to work in flexible, part-time arrangements for years.
The flip side, though, is that I never fully committed to a career in business. This is my doing, for sure, but I can’t help feeling that the MBA establishment, of which I think HBS is the leader, should find ways to help all of its graduates, even those going in unconventional directions. I imagine there are ways to equip people going into a broader array of fields with skills and references. Making the degree applicable and useful beyond just the highest echelons of the business and corporate worlds, would have the added benefits of addressing the MBA’s currently tarnished brand and increasing applications (and perhaps diversifying them).
So why did I go? I ask myself this all the time, and often I berate myself for making a “mistake.” I went, simply, because everyone around me did (though the rest of my class all went to Stanford, notably) and because everybody told me I should. I am trying to have more compassion for the 23 year old I was then, more than a little lost and overly receptive to external input. And ultimately, regardless of how I feel about my MBA, the inalienable fact remains that those two years contributed to the contours my life has now. I have many thoughts on how the MBA experience might be broadened and improved, but I try not to dwell on the flip side of those ideas, my sense of the shortcomings and missing pieces in my own HBS education. Instead I remind myself that that education is a part – ineffable as it may seem sometimes – of my own unique perspective, and for that I am grateful.
Lindsey Mead Russell graduated from Harvard Business School in the year 2000 and is currently an executive search consultant for the private equity and hedge fund industries. She blogs at A Design So Vast.