When Harvard MBAs Turn Introspective: The Class of 2012

Juan Felix: “‘”There’s more than one way to carry money,’ my parents promised me over the phone.” Photo by and courtesy of Tony Deifell.

Life’s journeys are almost always compelling—and so are the dreams of those who imagine a meaningful life.

And when those journeys and dreams belong to people who have the raw talent and desire to make their way to the Harvard Business School, they tend to be more than a little interesting.

For each of the past ten years, Harvard has had a dreamcatcher of sorts run by students who gather essays from classmates that seek to answer a rather profound question: “Tell me, 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. Ten 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—all 432 of them over ten years.

His stark and stunning black-and-white portraits tend to bring the sentences of the subjects to life. Their words, often highly personal if not intimate, are paired with the dramatic photographs at an on-campus exhibition during commencement week as well as online and, for the past three years, in print.


Ultimately, the project is about storytelling. As Betsy Brink, the assistant director of MBA communications and marketing at Harvard, puts it, “Storytelling is at the heart of every great community. And the storytelling that happens through these essays reveals our students in a way that no other medium does. These stories leave a legacy among classmates who I’ve overheard say, ‘Gosh, I have known this guy for two years but I didn’t know this about him.” The legacy also filters out through the world to prospective students and alumni and it really smashes the stereotype of the HBS student. It shows our students to be amazing people in a way that nothing else we do here does.”

For the students, the Portrait Project is a chance to abandon their bullet-point approach to communication and reveal through creative prose some inner truth or secret. Sometimes, it’s writing about a powerful loss that still lingers and informs a life, other times a public pledge for the future. “I see it as the last statement of the class before we leave: What do we want to say to each other, to our family and friends, and to the classes of students that will come to Harvard after us,” says Meredith Cantrell, one of the student co-leaders this year.

The project also is a rare opportunity for MBA students to start a conversation with the wider world. In fact, this year for the first time, Harvard put note cards and pens under each essay at the exhibit in Spangler Hall, inviting viewers to write their own thoughts and drop them in a bowl on the floor. Hundreds responded. Essayist emails were handed out and put on Twitter and Facebook to encourage dialogue.

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