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.

  • KK

    My argument might come off as a bit extreme at first but if we think about even the most basic interdependency map for a second, top b-schools like Harvard Business School quite literally have no other choice but to uphold one of the oldest and arguably most dysfunctional institutions in the world – the concept of elitism and the old boys’ club. The school is, very simply, dependent on these boys (and quite literally they are) for ongoing patronage (Applying and enrolling) and for future donations to be able to afford the grandness of the whole harvard system. As a result they have to try to make the boys happy by giving them what their ill-developed and fragile little boy egos want – to feel special by getting in somewhere hard to get in, to be surrounded by other little boys who are equally superficial, status obsessed, and deeply insecure (so they can continue to protect their comfortably narrow world view), and to have the ability to keep fooling themselves into thinking they truly are embracing diversity and a progressive business world order (just look at all the “non-traditionals” in my section). I’m sorry but the “ads”about Harvard Business School producing leaders that are changing the world is probably one of the most hilariously delusional examples of “false advertising” and an absolute joke. What they are really producing are leaders who – as this contributer insightfully put it- are causing global economic recessions that are not just destroying economies but causing devastation for millions of low-to middle income hard working people around the world. Oh but of course the little boys can’t be held responsible for any of this because after all they are just little boys who need to play with their toys (hmhm derivatives and other way cool megatron-esque financial instruments) and should they run into trouble daddy (hmhm Federal Reserve) will be right there to save them..

  • Mr. E

    I can identify with a lot of this. So much of my MBA program, I was wanting to fit in but felt like I had nothing in common with the other students. It’s not that they were bad people, they just didn’t seem to be passionate about things that mattered. I was disappointed at how little the program taught me about dealing with people, and how much of it was irrelevant theories. It’s not that I can’t be blamed for approaching it with the wrong motivations – it’s that the universities don’t do a good job of pre-admissions counseling because it conflicts with their profit motives (yea, that’s the MBA cynic in me coming out).

  • Rob

    While the HBS MBA is applicable to the highest echelons of the corporate world due to prestige and the fact that getting in is the acid test, MBA programs outside of the top 20 or 30 are basically worthless, their value is a function of individual real-world experience. I won’t reveal where I got my MBA, but suffice it to say that the coursework was largely dependent on students’ jobs outside the classroom. I imagine this to be a policy decision – keep local businesses in the loop and build relationships and networks that ultimately benefit the reputation of the school. End of the day, the MBA did not help me get a job at all, nor did it grant me skills of any kind outside of a more refined understanding of MS Excel.

  • b school applicant

    I feel these opinions are so personal. Yes while entrepreneurs(especially the silicon valley based tech entrepreneurs) unanimously agree that an MBA is a 2 year vaction (eric baker, hamid kordestani etc etc) what people dont realise is that not everyone is an entrepreneur or has access to being one.
    Now I have completed my undergrad and grad school in 2 top 5 engineering programs in the United States as an international student. The useless broken immigration system doesnt even offer me so much so as a path to permanent residence . hell I would love to work in a start up company or start one my self. But I cant. An mba from a top 10 b shcool will give me a visa to go somewhere and start a business. People in Chile or singapore or new zealand or hong kong will recognize it.They will give me a chance to present my ideas because I have an MBA stamped from so and so university because that is the way the world works. I am a human being. If im not commiting a crime and I have a job I should be allowed to work anywhere I want. Who gives other human beings the right to draw boundaries and establish retarded immigration policies. 

    I dont understand why all these silicon valley entreprenuers (the successful ones atleast) take out their personal frustrations on b schools. B schools are not meant to train entrepreneurs. You cant brainwash someone into being a risk taker and investing millions into what at the time can sound like a stupid idea.(on top of having invested 250k on a premier program…as if that’s not enough risk).

    And for the love of God silicon valley needs to take a cold hard look at itself in recent years. They have no less of a bubble over there. I mean endless rounds of funding for silly websites like instagram , twitter tumblr zazzle and all that rubbish …… while there are millions and millions of kids begging for  a text book to educate themselves.I dont any creativity and innovatiness in beating this dead horse called social media. atleast b schools attempt to bring people together and to foster interpersonal human touch and skills and not make them useless freak sitting on facebook all day.

    Now Lindsey did not enjoy her experience at B school then thats part of her life and her journey and evolution. That does not mean that B schools inherently are doing wrong things. Even HBS graduated super bankers making over 4-5 million dollars a year are often depressed . Happiness is a state of mind not of being and the sooner one accepts it the better.

    By and large the point is bubbles are not good. we can make and break our own destinies but we have to work for it. Just like starting another social media website does not make you an innovative entreprenuer neither does walking into a premier mba program. 
    Strategize, analysis what you want essentially and work backwards from there and on the way accept any diversions if at all.

  • anon

    I am a second year student at a top business school at the moment.  I can completely relate to what Lindsey says here.  I do think that business schools are not a great place for introverts.  I consider myself an introvert (because I am only chatty in groups that I know well or comfortable in).  I have to say that I love the study of business, am learning a lot of new concepts (have to wait and see if I will get a chance to use them).  On the same note, I also feel left out, lonely, stressed, overshadowed by the few that have either connections, money or nobel laureate level quant skills.
    It is great this topic has spawned off a good discussion.  But some reactions make me wonder, especially about those who are offended or mildly irritated.  Why is it not ok to say what is on your mind? Lindsey simply chose to state what she went through.  Sure, you do have a point about preparing enough and researching enough before you go off to bschool.  But that does not mean – one does not share their perspective.  This open attitude towards to colleagues who disagree is what ‘s needed to solve issues plaguing wall street and main street today!  

    Dissension is good especially when it is against prevailing consensus. By listening to someone like Lindsey, bschools and student community at large can only benefit by improving this experience for future students.  We do not lose anything by airing our thoughts out – we only gain, I would like to submit.  

  • Abhitechie

    The issue is world of business is far more unstructured and vague than the semester/grade based system of universities. The onus is on oneself to find a job that is a perfect fit for aptitudes and interest.
    In short, one has to be a shuffler and a good one at that, to really excel in business. Another point to be noted is business globally have not found a way to integrate family and business obligations of women,

  • Guan

    A.M., your point and the author’s experience highlights a concern i have about HBS program. has anyone noticed how young their students are?

    don’t get me wrong, they are very bright and some have done some amazing things prior, but i wonder even with the MBA, how much impact/value can they bring to an organization? i could be very wrong so i’ll leave it as that.

  • A.M

    The author is now an executive search consultant…I’d like to know whether the HBS degree or network was used at all for her career movement?
    Also, the fact that she started at 23 (probably right after undergrad) might have more to do with her disillusionment than the education she received.

  • anon

    this article is more than a bit confusing. The Harvard MBA is an option she bought and one she chose not to exercise – does she now have buyer’s remorse? would her life have been much better without it? What was the opportunity cost of the MBA? Did she lose out on other things because of the time/money wasted? I am not entirely sure what she is trying to say or what to take away from the experience…

  • As a entrepreneur, I was amazed at how pursuing my MBA dulled my creative urges. I tried networking with my classmates about creating a business opportunity at the beginning of our program to launch either during or after completion, but was always turned down. When we spoke about our career goals, I heard countless time, “I want to be a CEO or CFO.” I always laughed and told everyone that I had been a CEO 4 times already for my own various business entities. B-School just produces more cogs for the American Economic System or Workers (highly paid, but still subservient to the company and a less intelligent manager). On the other hand, Creators, like myself and other entrepreneurs, are left wondering why we accumulated more debt when we could have just focused more on networking and fundraising. There are FREE resources available on how to start and efficiently run businesses. I figured that B-School would provide me with more in-depth tools, but instead, just prepared everyone to work for other people. I was in my mid-20’s when I started my program , finishing in 2010. Here’s a funny true story, in 2008 during one of my first classes, I asked my professor for a few minutes before his lecture to present an idea I wanted to pitch to my class. The idea was for a new social network, focused primarily in video (this was before video chat on cell phones and during the rise of Skype). I saw where technology was headed and felt that video messaging was going to take off, sooner than later. My classmates laughed, and my professor said that it probably wouldn’t work. Well earlier this year, Skype and Facebook announced a partnership, which would introduce more video capabilities to Facebook in the near future. One of my classmates emailed me, acknowledging that I correctly predicted this 3 years ago and apologized for not coming on board to at least trade ideas. No vision, but B-School doesn’t encourage vision, only how to market yourself for employment, not how to develop transformational business ideas…