For Deifell, the project has turned into a way for him to make a difference as well. “When I was in business school, we talked a lot about leadership issues,” he recalls. “Reflective leadership is a big part of that, but a lot of people wouldn’t do self-reflection. It was almost like talking a lot about swimming but not ever jumping in the pool.” Deifell wondered how he could use his skills as a photographer to encourage his classmates to be more openly reflective. He began taking candid pictures of people in class, until finally focusing on portraits of classmates. Contemplative portraits had a consistency to them that more casually snapped photographs lacked. Finally, it occurred to him to pair the portraits with some writing. He remembered a favorite poem by Mary Oliver who he had discovered years earlier while doing a Kellogg Foundation interdisciplinary fellowship.
The idea was born. “In the first year, I had to twist some arms to get people to do it,” he says. “Harvard students were more likely to know how to write a business plan than an introspective essay that could reveal vulnerabilities or even a grand ambition. One classmate wrote something that wasn’t quite working,” remembers Deifell. “His ambition was to become President, but he didn’t want to say that. I told him to put a stake in the ground. Put it out into the world, and the world just might support you.”
To Deifell, the project brings to mind the closing scene to the Academy Award-winning movie Saving Private Ryan. “That movie is framed around this solider who goes to Arlington National Cemetery toward the end of his life, stands at the grave of a friend, and then turns to his wife at his side and asks, ‘I just want to know. Did I live a good life? Was I a good man?’ That question runs through all the essays because people want to live a significant and meaningful life. In these essays, people are looking forward, instead of back, with those same questions in mind.”
Each year since, Deifell has returned to Harvard to photograph a group of graduating MBAs who have submitted the most thoughtful or moving answers to the question. Frequently, students reveal things that even their closest friends on campus didn’t know. In the latest batch of essays from Class of 2010 MBAs, Linda Zhang recalled the last words spoken to her by a grandfather who laid shrunken in a Beijing hospital dying from Parkinson’s Disease. Ali Hashmi reflected on the tragedy that befell his 26-year-old cousin whose was cut short in Karachi. “The Portrait Project helps to draw out a perspective you don’t always get from your classmates,” says John Coleman, one of four student organizers. “Some of the folks who are quants and worked for private equity firms have these really interesting dreams and passions. The poem encourages people to be creative.” (Slideshow featuring a dozen Class of 2010 MBAs answering the question.)
Coleman wrote about his earliest memories when his mother read to him every day in the family living room. “I listened wide-eyed and concentrated on every precious word” on The Little Engine that Could and The Bernstein Bears. “I memorized those books cover-to-cover,” wrote Coleman. “But I couldn’t read them. Like a lot of kids, I had learning disabilities that prevented my brain from making sense of the letters and words.”
Yet Coleman’s willingness to disclose an earlier struggle is not unusual, even if it may be somewhat surprising at Harvard. “HBS is a place where students are very conscious of how they are perceived in general so often they aren’t as open as you might imagine,” says Esther Hsu, a Class of 2010 MBA and a student organizer of the project. “But it is interesting that at the end of the two years, a lot of students tend to be very open with their struggles and challenges.” That has frequently been true.
There’s Sarah Sommer, of the Class of 2006, who at age two was diagnosed as deaf who a doctor said may never read beyond a fourth grade reading level. Thirty years later, wrote Sommer, she greets each morning by putting on “my ears”–her cochlear implants. ”Each and every morning, I vow never to take the granted the sounds of birds chirping outside my window; the chime of the doorbell, telling me a friend has arrived for brunch, or the ring of my telephone, as my parents call to chat.
“Each and every morning, I renew my pledge not only to hear, but to listen.
“To listen to my parents — my heroes, teachers and friends — who gave me a world of opportunities and who continue to teach me about the wonders of life.
“To listen to my husband as we deepen our love, marriage, and life with each other…”
There is Amy McGowan, of the Class of 2008, whose father emerged from a life of poverty in the carpet mills of Dalton, Ga., to earn a doctorate in genetics. “Education,” writes McGowan, “allowed him to live the American Dream…I am concerned that my country’s foundation of opportunity and mobility are cracking.
“A class of people who want to earn an honest living is relegated to the status of working poor because of the high costs of essentials like health care, housing, and energy. Our children face unequal opportunities to attain quality education that will help them create their own positive outcomes. I want to spend my life focused on repairing the cracks.”
And there is Jeanine Barnett, of the Class of 2009, who survived a horrific bus accident, which killed and injured most of the passengers. Miraculously, Barnett walked away unscathed and wondered why she was spared. “I stood there with the other survivors — sore, stunned, almost ashamed of the gratitude and relief we felt for having suffered a worse fate.
“That teenage girl still whispers to me, reminding me to live a life of sweet surrender in which conflicting emotions can peacefully co-exist within me as I make my way forward…She challenges me to create and compete; to build organizations that nurture and celebrate the artistic talent in others; to create a world where the thespian and the businesswoman inside of me can work alongside each other, encourage each other and inspire others to keep going.”
Besides such touching words, you also occasionally get a highly inventive response. Nick Soman of the Class of 2010, answered poet Mary Oliver’s question in the same form in which it was posed: via a poem that imagined what his life might be years in the future. His words exquisitely capture the spirit of the poem which celebrates the small moments in life that Oliver suggests must be savored. “My business card is perfect,” he wrote. “Crisp white edges, soft laminate, sweeping font, and a tuft of golden retriever hair stuck to the back with wine, which pushes out between pages of my wife’s novel. Perfect. My suit has collected dust since my sister’s wedding in Fiji. Mom and dad wear straw hats to the beach and Christmas dinner, and tell anyone who asks that they have earned it. I still dream big, about the ideal Reuben sandwich, or how to raise a kid that works out problems without tattling and is not as stubborn as we all were back then. I mentor a few young men these days. ‘How can we get ahead?’they ask, ‘What’s the fastest way?’ Figure out what you like to do and do it. I’d tell you more, but it’s hot outside in California, and my daughter is eating all the cherry tomatoes in the garden.”
By so openly declaring one’s aspirations in life, these graduating MBAs have also issued essential challenges to themselves. Have they lived up to those challenges so far? Deifell doesn’t know. He hasn’t gone back to see whether his classmates have adjusted their expectations or met them.
Deifell, of course, was the first Harvard MBA to answer the question in 2002. At the time, he noted that one of his visually impaired students photographed the cracked sidewalks outside her school and sent them to the school superintendent. In a letter, she wrote, “Since you are sighted, you may not notice these cracks. They are a big problem since my walking cane gets stuck.”
Wrote Deifell: “I want to notice all the cracks in my world–the prejudice I still have about cultures I don’t understand, the arrogance that I know anything with certainly, and the privilege I have by virtue of my skin color, gender, and Harvard education. Sometimes the cracks seem small and easy to overlook…sometimes the cracks are obvious–if I pay attention. My calling in life is to use my skills as a media artist, entrepreneur, and leader to help everyone notice the cracks, because there are many.”
Has Deifell fulfilled his own eight-year-old ambition to bring attention to life’s cracks? “That’s a continual journey,” he laughs. “As you get older, it’s easier to fall back into the easy patterns of life, to rest on assumptions about the world or things that are comfortable. I notice the cracks when I take myself out of old, familiar places, but it’s a work in progress.”