University of Virginia lore indicates that founder and American president Thomas Jefferson didn’t initially confer degrees on graduates, thinking that doing so would imply that the educational process was complete; idealist that he was, he believed that education should be a lifelong process. He only ceased this practice, allegedly, when the school’s graduates, especially doctors and lawyers, had difficulty finding work due to their apparent lack of qualification.
This tale of eccentricity may have some relevance today. too. At some point after graduating in December, I wondered how I was supposed to feel. I think we’re inclined to treat graduation as some kind of binary event: you are a student, then you aren’t. It’s simple. It’s a type of short hand identification, not fully explanatory, but adequate.
Obviously, there are characteristics that distinguish students from those in the land of the working, subtle things like having a savings account, but not being able to sleep in on Wednesdays (we didn’t have class on Wednesdays). But an MBA is different than most degrees. We have the luxury, or the curse, of knowing what life was like as a fully functioning, working adult. We all chose to set that aside for a short while to pursue the dream, for various reasons. And, soon enough, everyone in the class will revert to that state. My question is:
Is it supposed to be different this time?
Since I graduated, I found myself in something of a transition period. I spent my time in business school trying to squeeze every last iota of knowledge out of my textbooks and course packets, and trying to pick the minds of so many professors that they all blend together. I suppose it was a basic value maximization activity. After all, for the vast majority of the class, this is the last form of higher education we’ll receive. Better to strike while the iron’s hot. At any rate, I tried to take these classes with a greater sense of urgency than when I was an undergrad so many years ago. Not more on the line, necessarily, but I figured, time’s running out. I figured this would have been a distant, but fond, memory within a few months.
But a funny thing happened when I started my new job. I remember leaving the financial services world two years ago, and even amid a slowdown that cost any number of folks their jobs, it was a pretty fast paced industry. You could hardly keep up with what was going on, day to day, and by the time you’d put in an honest day’s work, your brain was too fried to absorb anything. I’ve perceived it has having slowed down a bit, but perhaps I shouldn’t be naïve. I think I’m the one who’s changed. I won’t quite say it’s moving in slow motion, but I’ve tried to take the opportunity to digest more of what I’m doing, and so far, the progress is inspiring.
For all the accusations of ivory towers and esoteric theories, perhaps the most meaningful impact of my business education was that it caused me to pay more attention in the school of hard knocks. You don’t think of New York City skyscrapers as cauldrons of higher learning, but in time, with the right attitude, you realize there’s more to the job than doing your work, making a few LinkedIn connections, and collecting a paycheck or two. The game slows down, and you begin to feel like there’s a greater applicability to what you’re doing, like your work goes beyond the PowerPoint deck that’s in front of you. Perhaps I just self-selected into a job that I knew would enable me to act like an overgrown student, but I suspect part of the benefit of business school, only realized in hindsight, is that it renews one’s emphasis on learning, which we’ve long been led to believe is something that’s supposed to fade with time.