So here we are. September 2002. HBS. In front of us is a land of opportunities. Within us, this burning question: how to make the most out of it? If I may, here are some thoughts on how to have a fulfilling year.
Let’s forget the traditional wisdom. HBS is not an MBA program dedicated to the case method. HBS is a pool of resources. Classes, students, professors, study groups, career teams, Baker Library, clubs… you name it.
This abundance explains why, at the very moment when we can get some distance from our busy professional lives, we complain of having too many things to do and too little time. But if we think about it, hasn’t it always been the case?
I mean, life itself is full of opportunities and time is scarce. Isn’t the power to decide between competing alternatives a definition of freedom itself, a value our western countries are so proud of? So how come this issue seems to be more burning now than ever?
To my mind the reason is that we are now discovering what life is really all about: freedom and death.
I believe that before joining HBS, we may have restrained, conscientiously or not, our freedom. The mere fact that we got accepted here tends to demonstrate that we are experts at mastering external value systems (going to the best college, taking the best job available for the best firm, performing according to that specific firm criteria, etc…).
I’d bet that many of us knew, at every point of their development, what would be perceived as “best” and fought for it. I don’t call that freedom. I call it optimisation. HBS, because it is such a rich and caring community, allows us to give more weight to our personal values. We are the only ones who can decide whether to go out with some friends or to run that Finance model. Here, we may be freer than ever.
No wonder it is making us uncomfortable. With freedom comes responsibility. We’ll be the only ones to blame or to praise for what our HBS years have been. And it will be exactly the same with the rest of our lives.
Similarly, HBS gives us an acute sense of our mortality. Would it make sense to say, “I think I’ll just focus on academics for one term, and then I’ll be free to do whatever I want?” Of course not! How many missed opportunities! We have so little time here!
Because it is such a short experience, HBS forces us to live parallel and not sequential lives. The message here is that a successful life is balanced. There are so many exciting things to do in such a short time.
Of course, we can always dedicate 10 years of our time on earth to be a professional success in a job that we don’t like while deferring our real life. But I don’t see why something that would seem stupid at HBS would be more valid outside.
In short, HBS seems to be a perfect analogy with our whole life. Full of exciting, sometimes conflicting, opportunities….but short. So how to make the most out of it? Think about what you would like to leave behind, about what you’d like people to say about you, and reason backward. Focus on those activities and people that really matter.
Write your credo, prioritise your three or four focus points for the year – you cannot reasonably do more. It can be academics, your partner, a club leadership position. It can be going to all the parties, finding a job, losing 20 pounds. But beware if you want to leave with 10 close friends, have 3 job offers, be a Baker Scholar, party twice a week, reinforce your relationship with your partner and improve your tennis game. It’s just not possible and you’ll end-up wasting your energy and time.
It can be even worse if you don’t define clearly your priorities, because you’ll have your agenda shaped by external circumstances. Living at HBS is like sailing in rough waters, and if you don’t know where you’re going, it will be difficult get back.
In conclusion, define your vision and stick to it. It’ll probably be frustrating sometimes, but you’ll live a much more fulfilling life, and achieve what you really care about. HBS reminds us we are both free and mortal. Let’s use this place to learn how to live the rest of our lives meaningfully.