What Harvard MBAs Really Want To Accomplish

The question, formidable and provocative, is also rather simple. “What is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

It was first asked in 1992 by the American poet Mary Oliver in a masterful poem entitled “The Summer Day.” Ten years later, that question was systematically answered by graduating MBAs of the Harvard Business School.

The idea to pose the question to Harvard MBAs came to Tony Deifell, who had taught photography to blind and visually impaired students before arriving at Harvard as a student. For Deifell, it was a bit of a layup. He was a professional photographer and a budding social entrepreneur. So he used his photography skills to do stunning black-and-white portraits of classmates who had penned the best 200-word-or-less replies to Oliver’s question. In the first year, Deifell approved 100 of the answers and photographed 100 classmates, all of them displayed at an exhibition during commencement for the Class of 2002.

Some 372 Harvard MBAs have weighed in over the years. The photographs, in stark black-and-white contrasts, are stunning. More importantly, the essays often are nothing less than inspiring, even gripping. They tell poignant stories of ambitious hopes and expansive dreams, of dramatic hardships and hurdles already overcome in the journey of life. Perhaps most surprisingly, they sometimes reveal intimate, often vulnerable, details about their lives, from a gay MBA who writes about what it was like to come out of the closet to a man who confesses that he was so overweight as a child that he was never chosen for football practice.

In all, the portraits and the essays represent time capsules of the aspirations of several generations of MBAs. They are almost always surprising, in part because they make a myth of the common stereotype of MBAs as money-grubbing Masters of the Universe with little concern for society or community. In fact, right from the start of the project in 2002, many of the students wrote about their vision to work either immediately or some day for social enterprises.

“When people come to the exhibition during commencement,” says Betsy Brink, an HBS staffer who helps students manage the project, “nine out of ten people say, ‘Wow, I had no idea.’” She says that the Portrait Project, as it is called, has encouraged some applicants, inspired by the thoughtful and intelligent reflections, to apply to Harvard. It is a student-driven initiative. This past year, four student leaders screened essays from 120 of their classmates to choose the 34 responses that ended up online with photographs.

In the first year, when Deifell organized it on his own, he discovered an Asian classmate who saw himself as the “repository of my parents’ hopes and dreams.” His goal? To make his parents proud. Another graduate noted that he had come to Harvard Business School hoping to find answers and would leave with only questions. He shunned investment banking and consulting jobs, resolved to assign himself to “Saving the Planet and Promoting World Peace.” Yet another MBA left Harvard with the desire to change the world. “I want to teach these HBS cats that it’s not about what kind of car you drive, what kind of house you live in, which top-tier consulting firm or investment bank you join, or how many zeroes are on your signing bonus check; but instead whether you can look at yourself in the mirror in the morning, how many lives you touch, whether you can laugh at yourself and the world, and whether you made a difference.”

  • Vanmeet Singh

    Your last name does suit you. Where do I begin with what’s wrong with America, that we need to fix – from going to wars with nations who don’t have WMDs, to financial crisis, to loosing patent wars on critical drugs to companies in Asia (India and China), to increasing concentration of weatlh. If someone is looking to make a difference, then we should applaud their courage and thought, rather than turn a blind eye towards the numerous problems we are facing as a nation. And putting minorities down, isn’t very “American” either – wake up Arthur and grab a coffee from Starbucks!

  • Jane

    It is so easy to target those who are willing to put themselves out there to be judged by all, yet it is more often than not that the harshest critics are those most fearful of being exposed to criticism.

  • Not Moved

    This is so lame and just PR for HBS. Survey all of the profiled people to determine if they followed through on their altruistic aspirations and you will see most are full of it. Let’s be real – we go to business school to have a better life through a higher salary.

  • Bar

    I don’t believe in any of these. It’s too good to be true! LOL!

  • AzhakMansor

    Hi guys, I think this HBS alumni tells a different story about HBS: http://diversitymbamagazine.com/category/career-development

    Given the quality of candidates who were matriculated and HBS’s boast about its diversity, this story offers a somewhat ‘rare’ insight into the school.

  • Arthur Dullsworthy

    Mr Singh is particularly amusing: “I want to rebuild an America that the next generation will be proud of.” Rarely do I write LOL and mean it. I mean, what have we done to deserve his attentions?

  • You can see them online at the Harvard website, but cannot use them without permission.

  • nick

    Are these pictures available online?

  • cranky young man

    While this was a pretty fascinating piece, I couldn’t help but thinking – gosh, another piece of self righteous bulllshit from HBS! First the really stupid ethics signing, now this. Ethics are supposed to be IN BORN, not taught or “signed” into.

  • My take on this story is that it is promoting the diverse set of individuals that go to Harvard, who aren’t, whether they admit or not, the typical Wall Street, financier types.

    I think it is supposed to encourage people with true, sometimes heroic, sometimes conventional stories, to apply. Yes, people with these types of stories can apply anywhere, but I think this article begins to chip away at the rock solid, heartless stereotype that a Harvard education has.

  • But does anyone really believe these idealistic replies? If these individuals truly felt this way, what are they doing at Harvard Business School? Isn’t it a little suspicious that none of them say ‘I want to go to Wall Street and become obscenely wealthy’? Forgive my cynicism but while I’m impressed by the photographs, I find the statements sentimental, pompous and disingenuous.

  • Georges

    Wow, if people didn’t think that Harvard MBAs take themselves too seriously, they will now.

  • So many Quants engaging this poetic story! Tony, thanks for initiating this wonderful project.

  • Very cool.

  • Mala Karattil

    This is certainly an inspiring look into the students’ lives, but it doesn’t really bring out how Harvard or their B-school experiences influenced what they plan to do now. They could have been graduating students from just about anywhere, and I guess that’s why this project plans to cover students from other universities and schools as well?

    I also wonder if the students had been this open and intimate in their B-school application essays, would they have been accepted into HBS? Most schools declare that they value diversity, but how willing would they be to frank confessions of vulnerability on the part of their applicants?

    All in all, though, a very interesting read.

  • Thanks for your comment Frank, but let me say I think you’re being too cynical here. It’s not about being “the center of attention.” It’s about expressing one’s hopes and dreams. Many of the people who have participated in this project are also making themselves vulnerable in one way or another by revealing handicaps and burdens they have had to overcome. Like all of us, those disappointments and setbacks help make us who we are. They inspire us to be better. I find that refreshing.

  • Frank Furter

    Cool project, and some intriguing reflections. But are we really so surprised that a stereotypical MBA is interested in being the center of attention?

  • Thanks Tony for coming up with what is a spectacular idea. I think every business school should launch a similar, if not, identical project. It would be fascinating to see how MBAs from different schools around the world answer the Mary Oliver question. And thanks again for the use of your stunning photography.

  • Great story John!! I’m sure folks at HBS will love it too. Maybe other schools will want to do it too. It’d be very interesting to see answers across many different schools.

  • Ji Hwan You

    I would love to see this project track the lives of those people whose answers have been chosen and see the progress, or lack there of, and maybe even cite reasons for success or failure.