What Will You Do With Your One Wild & Precious Life? Harvard MBAs Answer

by John A. Byrne on

Lindsay McGregor

MBA Lindsay McGregor had lost the use of her hands in college (Photo courtesy of Tony Deifell)

Adversity teaches life’s most profound lessons.

Just ask Lindsay McGregor or Irem Metin.

On the surface, these two smart and attractive women have so far lived an enchanted life. After earning a B.A. in English lit at Princeton University, McGregor worked for tony McKinsey & Co. for nearly four years. Metin gained her undergraduate degree in economics from Yale University, then did stints at JP Morgan Chase and private equity firm Castle Harlan. Both women recently graduated with MBAs from Harvard Business School.

 OVERCOMING HARDSHIPS AND LEARNING KEY LESSONS FOR LIFE

You would never guess that they overcame hardships that would crush many. While at Princeton, McGregor lost the use of her hands. She couldn’t write, type or turn a doorknob and was in excruciating pain all the time. Metin, at the age of 14, endured a severe spinal disorder that enslaved her in a full body brace for two years, 23 hours a day.

Their stories—and the lessons drawn from them—are among the latest crop of introspective essays crafted by 32 graduating MBAs from Harvard this year. These are the students who sought to answer the deeply penetrating question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

It is a question that was first posed by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver in her lovely poem, The Summer Day. Eleven years ago, an inspired MBA student at Harvard by the name of Tony Deifell borrowed that line from the poem and asked it of his classmates, beginning the annual tradition of Harvard’s Portrait Project. Since 2002, entrepreneur Deifell has returned to campus from his home in California with his camera every year to photograph the winning essayists in stunning black-and-white portraits—all 464 of them over 11 years.

 IN THE BEGINNING, ‘IT DEFINITELY TOOK PULLING TEETH A BIT’

When Deifell started the project, most Harvard students were uncomfortable exposing a part of themselves that they considered private. “There were 100 people who did it in the first year and under a third of them had essays that reflected what I had hoped for,” he recalls. “They were all good and fine, but it definitely took pulling teeth a bit. ‘I don’t like being all personal in public,’ some would say.”

Over the years, believes Deifell, the students have become more reflective and more willing to reveal highly personal, often intimate, details of their lives. “The project breaks the stereotypes of the Harvard MBA,” he says. “It frees people up to be more vulnerable. I have just been floored by how the original intentions of the project have been manifest way more than anyone thought. Shooting really intimate portraits and asking people to write personal essays that are vulnerable is at its core a simple idea. I think that’s why it worked. The school has embraced it. Students encourage it. It’s part of the culture.”

Indeed. There’s an on-campus exhibition of the project during commencement week. Incoming students at Harvard are exposed to the portraits and accompanying essays in an early leadership exercise. And the portraits line the walls of Dillon House, the locale of the school’s admissions office. Among students who saw the Portrait Project before deciding which business school to attend, 19% said it had a “high” or “very high” impact on choosing HBS. Over half believed it had “some impact.”

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  • Hmmmmmmmm

    Some of these stories seem a little more “legit” than others.

    Introspective reflection… or pure horseshit?

    You decide.

  • Reggie

    Great piece, John!

    I’m an avid P&Q reader and really enjoy these types of articles that go beyond the usual commentary about rankings and employment figures and such.

  • michael

    awesome piece… thank you for painting a portrait of a portrait

  • BigDick

    I am a HBS alum with a 20 inch slong

  • lara

    This is a joke. I’m so sick of the whole adversity crap. So Harvard wants to change the image of their graduates, from sharp-elbowed and money grubbing, to altruistic change-the-world do-gooders. It is very unlikely that any of these stories would singularly define a person and their values anyway. It is the many years of good parenting that cultivates morality, compassion, and social responsibility, etc. It seems that if you don’t have a “story,” no matter how qualified, hard-working, or just plain brilliant you are, you lack the “edge” to enter a place like HBS. I think articles like this will only make applicants’ stories more creative–in other words, made-up! These people are not exposing anything personal about themselves–they are just exploiting their past experiences to get them what they want–and that probably is a common characteristic of a typical HBS accepted applicant! It’s amazing how far people will go–really–writing about your mother dying to get into business school????!!!! That’s pretty low.

  • I disagree

    I’m someone who wrote about my dying mother to get into b-school. I did so because it was one of my experiences that altered who I was and what decisions I wanted to make with my life. There may be plenty of people who “exploit” their stories to get into b school, but there are plenty of us who do so because of how important those events have been to our lives. I don’t consider it low or inappropriate, and I can assure you that those essays were personal and took an emotional toll on me.

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