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.

  • Disillusioned

    If anything, the MBA seems marketed overly broadly. Finance and consulting fields seem to offer the degree a lot of respect, and use it as a differentiator in promotions and work assignments. I used mine to transition from a technical (software) career in to general management, and have been frustrated by the low regard given the degree.

    The technical skills I gained have been little appreciated by executives, who tend to regard any analytical work as a sign someone must just be “good with numbers”, which I’m not especially, and soft skills are only appreciated in context of who you know and how many years experience you can point to. I’ve had former classmates who made the same career choices as me outright told “you do good work, you just need a few more gray hairs.” More generally the euphemism is “needs more seasoning”.

    I could have gained facial lines, belt sizes and a bald spot without investing in the education, and I’m not sure the degree has helped shorten at all the time it takes to be taken seriously.

  • Consultant quant

    I went to b-school for the same reason the author did–because I was at a strategy consulting firm where everyone told me to. And they put their money where their mouth was and paid for my 2-year vacation. So I went.

    I do feel bad for Lindsay because she missed the strongest reasons to go to b-school. It’s not to learn business per se, because you can’t teach business judgment (though you can teach jargon and spreadsheets that are occasionally good substitutes.) I dare say I learned more about wine than business. Go to b-school to take a few years to be social, to do things you can’t do while working 24/7 for clients, learn widely, explore new paths, finish growing up, travel a bunch, etc. There’s a direct correlation between satisfaction with business school and the degree to which one commits to it socially and beyond the classroom generally.

    I join the other commenters in objecting to her rationalizing her decision by blaming the degree. She stepped off the partner path immediately after HBS and went into a position where an MBA is neither terribly useful nor necessary. It was her choice not to use the degree. When the MBA ceases to be useful in helping one climb to the top of the corporate world, that’s when it might need changing.

  • Dave

    I find the notion of wanting to make the degree “useful beyond just the highest echelons of the business and corporate worlds” puzzling. That’s like saying the MD degree should be made more useful for people beyond those who want to become doctors, or the JD degree for lawyers, or engineering degrees for engineers. The MBA is a professional degree, and it should draw applicants who wish to become professional managers. I don’t think anyone should be surprised by this. That’s certainly why I chose to earn it, and that was my expectation for my fellow students. I would not have applied to any school that lost focus of this core mission.

  • Suzy

    The author’s post is an example of why MBA programs have expanded their course offerings, making leadership and organizational behavior courses more relevant.

    Adding, subtracting and market-making just isn’t enough in today’s business landscape. Future executives need to know more about people, their behaviors and how it affects an organizations bottom line.

    Business schools now realize that soft skill building is not restricted to people in Human Resources functions.

  • TJM

    It’s a great headline to draw in a reader, but I’m mildly irritated by Lindsey’s story.

    HBS was only two years out of her life. If there was something else she feels she should have done with that time, then go ahead and do it now. By my math Lindsey can only be 35 — she has time to try out at least two more completely different careers and lives.

    As to the softer side, or being a poet in a quant world, I think you can use that to your advantage. In classrooms (and subsequently business meeting rooms) full of quants, it is a differentiator to be able to offer up the “softer” side of business. I think this is truer now than ever before. We need artists, philosophers, poets, priests and musicians in corporations, especially ones who are also conversant in quant-speak.

    As for not using the things one learned in b-school, I can’t think of ANY two year period in my life where I have not taken something learned during that time and applied it to my work and life, let alone the two years in business school. Learning is an attitude; an openness to new ideas and experiences. If you embrace it, studying for two years at any great academic institution will be a great asset.

  • AOS

    The article reminds me of the importance of choosing the right school. My experience is B-school was great because in just about every negative instance the writer had, mine were positive.

    I went to a school where everybody knew my name, at my fifth reunion I felt like I was back home from a long trip, and conversations just continued where we all left off. I can and have reach out to alums form many classes and I always feel like I am talking to an old friend.

    My b-school experience was one of the best two years of my life, I wish I could do it again.

  • Leo Osako

    Another relevant topic from this story is having the adequate amount of business experience prior to starting your MBA program. I’d personally think 3 years real-world experience (at a minimum) should be the prerequisite for acceptance into a program for several reasons. First, you want to make sure that the individual can relate to the classroom/team discussions based on real-world experiences. Second, it’s important that the individual can also contribute to the classroom discussions beyond business-theories (meaning they need a proper balance of theory & practice). Lastly, the individual would have a clearer vision of what they want to learn in business school than a newly-grad. I believe these reasons did have a significant impact on what she took away from the 2 years program.

  • Adam, thanks much for your very thoughtful reply.

  • Adam

    I can understand the regret about going to b-school.

    To me, this is as much a story about an introvert in a extroverted world as anything else. During my two years in b-school, I also did not connect socially, developed few if any long-lasting relationships, and still wonder if I’ll ever use anything I learned in the classroom, except maybe the powerpoint skills.

    However, I would hate to say that b-schools should cater to those going into non-business career trajectories. It’s BUSINESS school. Sorry if you made the wrong choice of graduate program, but surely HBS taught you about business. That said, I think many schools are doing just what you suggest, diversifying to be applicable to people in many areas, and I think to their peril in many cases.

    The other concern I had with your article is that you fail to credit HBS with enabling the lifestyle you hold so dearly – the flexibility to earn a good salary, work part-time, go on the vacations depicted in the slide shows. Surely it wasn’t simply your decisions that enabled all of this, right? HBS surely contributed something to putting you down this path of freedom and flexibility. If you don’t think so, ask the line worker who can only take a bathroom break when the foreman allows it.

    This article really shows the need for the applicant to do their research and campus visits before deciding on doing an MBA, and where. Be sure you fit in, and be sure you want the life you’re signing up for.

  • bp

    Thanks for featuring this! Although her case is very specific, it gives insight to people looking to pursue non-traditional fields after b-school.