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.”