When Lucas Klein graduated from Harvard Business School in 2002, he set an ambitious agenda for his future–and so did many of his classmates. After all, they had been on the HBS campus studying business when terrorists attacked the U.S. in September of 2001, when President Bush ordered an invasion of Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power, and when once high-flying Enron declared bankruptcy in a massive financial scandal orchestrated by HBS alum Jeffrey Skilling.
So when Klein and his classmates were asked to write an essay on their dreams and aspirations for the future, the responses often had to do with improving the lives of others in the world and living lives of meaning and substance. It was the first year of HBS’ so-called Portrait Project, in which forthcoming graduates are asked, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
The question stems from the last lines of a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Mary Oliver. And the idea for the project, the 14th iteration of which just occurred with the graduation of the Class of 2015, came from one of Klein’s classmates, Tony Deifell, a talented photographer who paired their words with stunning black-and-white portraits.
Some students divulge personal life-altering accounts and ambitions. Others boast profound and grand professional goals. But do many hold those paths and ambitions close and use their expressed goals as a life-map? Or do they see the project as little more than an introspective reflection at a moment in time, before embarking into the real world? And how many regret what they say and have the words come back to haunt them?
AN IDEA FROM A GOOGLE STALKING
For the Class of 2002, there are generally few regrets. For Sisto Merolla, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant who is now the CEO of a renewable energy company, NovaPower, life thus far has been humbling. “When I graduated I had dreams of all kind, for every aspect of my life,” he recalls. “Some have come true, some have not. My potential now is definitely much lower, my possibilities are fewer, but … l want to keep dreaming, to be open to new chances.”
Similar perspectives were shared by others in the class. “A youthful path can be a helpful guide or a maddening straight jacket,” concedes one essayist who asked to remain anonymous. “It is a guide if it helps narrow the infinite choices to the ones you think are right for you today so that you are not overwhelmed by the possibility of a ‘wrong decision;’ it is a straight jacket if you become disappointed at your future reality diverging from your past vision and generating frustration at ‘wrong outcomes.'”
For Klein, his 2002 musings became a heavy regret. “It brimmed with arrogance and smugness and self-righteousness and I was ashamed,” he says. In fact, Klein was so embarrassed by his essay that a couple of years ago he asked Deifell, who still goes back to Boston every year from San Francisco to snap the photos of forthcoming graduates, to remove his photograph and essay from its online home on the Harvard Business School website.
The year was 2013 and Klein was scheduled to meet with an acquaintance he didn’t know very well. To get some background on the person, he did what any curious person with internet access would do—he “Googled the guy.” An abundance of information came up. Klein thought if there was this much personal information easily available on the web, there could be the same for him. So he Googled himself.
‘BREAK ANKLES LIKE ALLEN IVERSON’
“I saw Facebook and Twitter and all of this private stuff,” says Klein. “It was a disaster and I didn’t want my stuff out there.” He tightened all of his social media privacy settings but one thing kept popping up with the search—the pesky Portrait Project.
“One can be arrogant in many different ways and contexts and I was embarrassed by what I had said. In retrospect it was very holier than thou,” Klein explains. “If someone was looking for me for the first time and didn’t know me, I didn’t want that to be their first impression of me.”
Yet, Klein’s words were among the more altruistic and revealing of all the essays from the inaugural group. In fact, his aspiration can easily be taken for a rather common ambition for today’s generation of MBA graduates. Part of it even serves as the mission statement for Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. The first line of Klein’s original project states boldly, “I want to change the world.”
Actually, all 11 sentences in Klein’s statement start with “I want to.” The list goes on from everything from marrying the woman he loves to “hit bank shots and break ankles like Allen Iverson (a reference to a professional basketball player known for his fast, ankle breaking moves on the court).” Klein wrote of benching 315 pounds, educating at-risk youth, reciting poetry and sharing it in coffee houses around the country, and running a company that would be just as focused on developing and growing its employees as the bottom line.
But Klein’s idealism became somewhat fanciful when he brashly stated: “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.”
A TOO REAL BRUSH WITH DEATH
Klein, who comes off as light-hearted, laughing frequently, couldn’t allow this to stay–especially since he did a stint at Morgan Stanley as a research analyst and is now portfolio manager for Putnam Investments. He contacted Deifell, the long-time keeper of the Portrait Project, and asked that his essay be taken down. Instead, Deifell suggested that Klein write a reflection. So Klein, a self-proclaimed “push over,” obliged.
“I look back at what I wrote 11 years ago and I cringe at my remarkable lack of humility,” Klein penned in an addendum to his earlier reflection. “What I thought was aspiration and idealism feels like arrogance now. After a decade of learning and getting whacked around by life, I’m far less brash.”
The getting “whacked around by life” Klein alluded to in his addendum involved being diagnosed with stage three melanoma in April of 2012. Depending on the size of the initial tumor and how much the cancer spreads into lymph nodes and organs, the five-year survival rate can be anywhere from 40 to 70 percent.
Klein went through the gambit of cancer treatment—surgery, radiation, a clinical drug trial. He is now healthy, but the struggle to literally fight for his life had a profound influence on him. “I feel different about things,” Klein says bluntly. “My faith has changed and deepened a lot and has become a much greater part of my life. I have a greater recognition of my own deep character flaws. The singular most important lesson I’ve come to understand is having complete tolerance and love for others. We’re all messed up, and we should all love each other.”