Diaries Of A Darkhorse: The Value In Saying “No” To An MBA

I’m saying ‘no’ to getting my MBA this year. Saying no stinks. There’s not any glamor in it…not even a faint whiff of satisfaction.

Saying no for now – even after being accepted by programs on my list – isn’t what I expected. It represents turning down a clear benefit, which is the large potential pay increase for graduates. Most importantly, I feel like I’m losing membership in a community of wise and curious people. Getting an MBA would be a great preparation for my goal: acquiring and running a small business.

There is a power in learning to say no. Warren Buffet loves to quip that “the difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” My hope is that saying no has put me on an alternative path from an MBA for the time being. My gamble is that my new path will better prepare me to pursue my goal. Maybe it will even make me a better MBA student some day.

I made this decision after making a few observations during my MBA research and application process. Here are three that stood out.

1) Path Dependency is Real: When I was traveling to interviews, I was struck by a consistent narrative. Students would enter their program with a diverse set of goals. Some aspired to be leaders in the public sector, while others set their sights on promising startups. During their two years, many of these students shifted focus to instead pursue consulting or high finance. At my top schools, over 50% of graduates went into these fields.

My impression is that MBA students feel several pressures that push them towards the more typical post-MBA careers. The rising cost of the degree means that graduate indebtedness is rising. Subsequently, students need to find jobs that can pay the interest and principal payments on that debt. It just so happens that the highest quartile of MBA graduate salaries is coming from consulting and high finance. Pursuing these careers is a way to remain financially secure.

In finance, where I work, debt can be a good thing. It lets companies invest in things they otherwise couldn’t afford. The problem is, it also makes indebted companies less able to tolerate bad things happening. In those cases, debt creates more suffering. The same relationship with debt applies to us as individuals. Taking on six-figure debt would mean that I could not take bigger risks. The safe route of pursuing lucrative work at an elite firm would be the responsible choice.

There are ways to avoid path dependency. When it comes to acquiring small businesses, there are grants and other institutional support for students from MBA programs. Despite this assistance, many students I spoke with could not tolerate the risk, despite their initial interest in acquiring a business. The pressures to pursue a safer path rise commensurately with your debt. I’d be paying my own way, and I wasn’t sure that I could resist that pressure for the full two years.

2) Cultural Fit Matters: I’ve written previously on the importance of creating your own evaluative criteria for different programs. As a finance geek, I did what I was born to do – I made a spreadsheet. It included dozens of criteria. Some items were more useful than others. It tracked the distribution of MBA hires by industry and the number of graduates in the Midwest. It even ranked the schools by the number of coffee shops within a one-mile radius (I’m particularly proud of that one). It was an exhausting process even before interviews began. The upside was that it left me feeling like I had a good handle on each school.

I quickly learned that nothing can replace visiting a program and engaging with its student body. The term “values” is abstract, but they deeply impact the experience at each school. This lesson hit home when I was visiting one of my initial top choices on the East Coast.

The school was kind enough to enlist some students to share their experiences and chat. Our conversation eventually turned to my background and goals. As a proud Hoosier, I didn’t like having to defend my home state and my dream of building a business there. They sincerely couldn’t understand why someone wanted to go back to the American Heartland. Healthy skepticism is something I welcome, but their responses were more like incredulous disbelief. They repeatedly focused on the students on the recent hiring rounds at MBB consulting firms, which only cemented my conviction that the school wasn’t the right fit.

When it came time to make a choice after all the decisions were in, I faced a problem. The schools whose values and culture captivated me most had rejected my application. Many of them were lower in the rankings than other schools where I’d been accepted or waitlisted. The fit factor is the type of thing a spreadsheet can’t capture, and it was something I only came to appreciate later.

3) There is Value in the Unconventional: After I got an inkling of these first two lessons, my choices became clearer. With the options I had on the table, an MBA might not be right in the moment. It made me queasy to think about turning down acceptances from programs I desperately wanted to join only months earlier. Sometimes, I wonder if I might be the best applicant I can be. I have not (and likely will not) work at one of the top feeder firms into an MBA program. Does that mean my application gets weaker the longer I work with organizations that are different from those firms?

Fortunately, I was dissuaded from that faulty logic thanks to some timely inspiration from the writing of Howard Marks. I was reading one of his investor letters where he cheekily joked, “This just in; you can’t take the same action as everyone else and expect to outperform.”

Howard is on to something.

There is value in working at an elite firm, but I’d venture to say there isn’t as much as commonly thought. These firms have very sophisticated hiring practices that try to attract the smartest people early in their careers. Their high pay, challenging work, and enviable perks make them appealing as an employer. The result is that they hold a disproportionate share of the smartest and most hard-working young professionals.

Not surprisingly, more applicants from these elite firms are accepted into MBA programs. They’re a self-selected group of superstars! Their natural aptitude is what makes them so successful. Attributing their success to the name brand of their employer is a case of false causation. They also have the added challenge of competing in their work with all the other superstars for the same opportunities and resources.

Doing something different can be an advantage. If you have the same skillset and aptitudes as someone at an elite firm, then you can be wildly successful in doing something entirely different. You can make a professional journey that is your own. That will make you interesting – and interesting applicants are exactly the type of people whom I’d expect to get admitted, regardless of their employer.


Inspired by Howard Marks and believing in my hypothesis self-selective hiring, I became determined to strike out a new path. If I decide to go get my MBA, it will be at the school that excites me the most.

In the meantime, I’ll spend my time taking some good professional risks. Instead of pursuing an MBA, I’ve switched jobs and now work in an adjacent industry. I’m doing something that pushes me, places me in new situations, and forces me to adapt. Ambiguity stares me down every day, and it’s my job to wrestle with it. That’s where growth happens, or so I’m hoping.

For others out there on the fence, I hope you consider your other options too. An MBA will always be an option, but the next great adventure might not. Saying no isn’t the right thing for everyone, but it’s changed everything for me.

Ben Fouch is an Associate at LDI, Ltd., an Indianapolis-based family office with more than a century of experience operating high-potential, middle-market companies. He assists the fund in capital deployment and with operational improvement in its portfolio companies.

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