Some 936 MBAs will graduate from Harvard Business School on Thursday (May 26), set to head off for six-figure Master of the Universe jobs at such powerhouse employers as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, McKinsey & Co., and Boston Consulting Group.
But a good number of Harvard’s Class of 2011 seem to yearn for something else, too, a chance to have a positive impact on the world, to do something meaningful for the less fortunate.
At least that’s the stereotype-breaking impression left by answers to a simple, yet provocative question: “What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Ever since 2002, Harvard MBAs have been answering that question, initially posed by poet Mary Oliver in her inspirational poem, “The Summer Day.” Their often-moving answers, accompanied by stark black-and-white photographs of the essay-writing students, go on display today (May 24) for this week’s commencement exercises.
This year, 34 Harvard MBAs weighed in for the so-called Portrait Project, chosen from more than 130 submissions from the Class of 2011. The MBAs opine not about dollars and titles, but rather their desire to do some good in the world. They belie the stereotypical view of the MBA as a sharp-elbowed climber, singularly focused on a high-paying, career-stepping job.
Consider Austin Johnsen. In the second year of his MBA program, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. After surgery and chemotherapy that left him bald, he returned to class and will graduate with his classmates this week. But the experience, he writes, altered his life’s goals. Rather than returning to finance, his career before Harvard, he plans to spend the next year in China working for the World Wildlife Fund.
In his essay, Johnsen invokes a famous quote from Horace Mann: “Until you have done something for humanity, you should be ashamed to die.” Adds Johnsen, “I won’t waste this gift I’ve been given. I will make a difference. I won’t die ashamed.”
A bit of pie-in-the-sky idealism? Shahar Ziv, one of the student organizers of the project, doesn’t think so. “It shows a different side of HBS students,” says Ziv. “It really fosters a heightened self-awareness. There is a lot of talk in the business school community about how analytical the schools have been but one of the big shifts is getting people more focused on leadership. You can’t understand others without understanding yourself. To me, this project really does that, and people will measure their lives against these words.”
Though Harvard provides administrative support for the project, it is largely run by the students for the students. “That provides a really great personal touch,” says Cara McDonough, an MBA who is going to work for sportswear maker Under Armour. “Some are these grand sweeping visions of change and others focus on the small tradeoffs you confront every day. They are so personal and touching it makes you think about yourself and your outlook. And you always learn something new about your classmates.”
In McDonough’s case, her classmates will learn that her father died of an undiagnosed rare heart condition when she was 19. In her essay, she poignantly recalls asking for his advice when she was all of 12 years old. “I asked my dad what I should be when I grow up,” wrote McDonough. “Without hesitation, he looked up from his newspaper and said, ‘a good person.’ Unsatisfied, I pressed for specifics. Doctor? Lawyer? Commissioner of the NFL? But he refused to budge. ‘A good person,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing more important in life than being a good person.'”
It was a lesson that would stay with her. “What will I do with my life?,” McDonough asks. “I will remember that the titles mother, daughter, wife, sister, and friend are far more important than Director, VP, or CEO, and that time is more valuable when measured in birthdays and anniversaries, not quarters and year-ends. I will measure success not my the commas in my salary, but by how carefree my children describe their childhood. I will not let what I do for a living define who I am as a person. And I will be good.”