Leaders or Sheep?

Who among us are the true leaders? Those who follow the traditional paths, or those who chart their own? Has HBS made me a leader or facilitated my becoming a sheep?

Very bright, motivated friends are leaving HBS. Other very talented friends went through Hell Week and came up empty. What is going on here? Is it the economy, or is HBS simply not the path to fame and fortune (society’s proxies for true happiness) that many of us thought it would be? Think back to your application essays. Are your goals still the same? Have our reasons for being here changed? Were they valid in the first place?

From the moment we step on campus the investment banks and consulting firms arrive in droves. Dinners. Cocktail hours. Countless trips to the Charles Hotel. I, like many others, was very comfortable with this arrangement. I wanted my time at HBS to lead to a job at a top investment bank. Others came to land a spot at BCG or McKinsey. But what about everyone else? What about those who came here for exposure to industries and jobs that perhaps they had never even heard of? I think many of them were left behind.

Now, some of them are leaving US behind. Writing a book. Filming a documentary. Snowboarding. These are some of the pursuits that potentially may be undertaken by some of our classmates who have left or are considering leaving the hallowed halls of HBS. The common theme: the pursuit of self-defined happiness.

Some of them came here because HBS was the next logical step on a well-defined career path. Top undergrad program. Two years at an investment bank or consulting firm. Two years at HBS. Back to professional services. Fortunately for them, some of our classmates on that track have found the perspective and, more importantly, the courage to put the brakes on and choose another direction for their lives. Bravo. Some will tell them that they’re short-sighted at best, foolish at worst. “How could you possibly leave HBS?!” But isn’t their happiness more important than their resume? Of course it is, but how many of us have the strength to put that belief into practice? Those that do, I submit, are the true leaders among us.

I was very, very lucky a few weeks ago. I got the job I was after. But now what? Is my happiness and lifelong fulfillment guaranteed? Absolutely not. I just hope that I too will have the courage to put on the brakes if I determine that this path fails to make me happy. As I sit here at my laptop with the knowledge that I go to HBS and will work on Wall Street, I am somewhat content. But do either of these resume line items allow me to spend more time with my family or friends? Will they allow me to be a better partner for a potential future Mrs. Swearengin? A better father if I have kids? Perhaps to some extent, but for the most part, no. Then why do I value such things so highly?

As Kundera writes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers for fame has no idea what fame is. The things that gives our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us.”

Do we really know what it is that we are seeking in setting our professional goals? If not, then perhaps we simply spend more time just trying to be happy. At a minimum we should be more thoughtful in setting them.