The end

During Darden’s orientation our class was asked to individually write letters to ourselves which would be returned at graduation.  I forgot ever having written the letter, but sure enough, it was in my mailbox yesterday.  Below is my letter to myself:

Dear Matthew,

If you are reading this, it means you passed.  Congratulations!  I hope you have a great paying job, because you are in a lot of debt.  Hug your wife, she got you through all of this.



Free advice

One of the distinct pleasures/horrors of marrying a person with whom you attended high school is that they are under no illusions regarding your past.  My wife knows I did not spring from a lotus flower or donate every waking minute of my childhood to volunteering at a soup kitchen.  The upside is that I never had to spend a lot of time worrying whether she would find out about all the distinctly immature things I did as a teen.  Another upside is that she has saved things from our time dating in high school that I would have never thought to save (we did not date in college, so most of my documentation was lost to the ages).

A particular piece of relationship memorabilia is an email I have no recollection of ever composing; my wife’s hard copy of said email and the distinct writing style, along with the sentiment, suggests I am, in fact, the author.  The email was a reply to a note in which she sent me some advice; I responded in kind with my own general life advice.  Because honestly, what could an 18 year old not know?  Most of it is not memorable, but two jumped out as amusing:

1. There are plenty of times when life does suck.  Are you dead?  If not, get over it.

2. You know that you want to, so everyone once in awhile you should act like an ass.  People will envy you for it.  This I cannot explain, but it is a fact.

You should write those down.

In the same container with this email was a list of Chef Geoff’s “Steps to Being Great.”  Chef Geoff is the eponymous owner of multiple DC area restaurants, the first of which employed my wife during college.  He apparently gave his “Steps to Being Great” to all new employees – it is 110 items detailing his expectations, requirements, and desires from employees.  Though it is clearly related to the restaurant industry, most of the takeaways are pretty universal, and I have enjoyed rereading the list when we happen to run across it at our house.  I don’t know Chef Geoff, so I won’t post the document, though I will highlight a couple of points which I think are applicable for MBAs:

1. It IS your job.

2. If you step over something on the floor, you are not doing your job.  Pick it up.

3. Don’t confuse effort with accomplishment.

4. If you pour salt on a grease spill you will only end up with salty grease or greasy salt.  Clean it up.

Darden provides a lot of opportunities to listen to advice from all sorts of successful people.  It isn’t free when you pay 100k for it, so I’ve been recording, evaluating, and internalizing the highlights.  You want to keep the important advice around, so that when each particular piece of advice becomes immediately relevant you can call upon it.  Because frankly, how else would my wife have survived?

Marriage counseling

To paraphrase an alum speaking to our class on Thursday: “If you start a business, go to marriage counseling immediately.  Start going as soon as possible.”  The point, obviously is not that starting businesses ruins relationships, but it definitely can, and one should take precaution to safeguard against that at the soonest moment possible.

From another alum (again, paraphrased): “You can juggle a lot of balls in life – career, hobbies, friends, and family, but remember that the family ball is glass.  You can drop the others and pick them back up, but if the family ball drops it is usually broken.”

I have a non-trivial list of advice similar to the above from alumni speakers (I’m taking a lot of speakers series classes, it is AWESOME).  I’m sure this advice resonates more with some students than others (I probably would not have thought it was particularly insightful if I were still single), but it surely resonates with me.  My wife and I will have been married for seven years next month, and ours is a tale of her constantly taking one for the team in terms of career, geographic location, and time management.

Our engagement and marriage has included the following highlights for my wife:

1. Me being in Korea for the duration of our engagement and not participating in nearly any wedding planning;

2. Her moving cross country and changing jobs following our wedding;

3. Her switching jobs twice in Washington to find something that was both enjoyable and did not consist of a huge commute, while we lived convenient to my requirements;

4. Me spending another year overseas between months 18-30 of our marriage;

5. Me getting out of the Army and finding another job in the Midwest, forcing her to abandon her most recent job after a year in the position;

6. Me getting moved to California by my company after seven months in the Midwest, though at least she found a job where she could work remotely;

7. Me deciding after a year in California that I wanted to go to business school and then only looking at schools on the East Coast;

8. Us moving to Charlottesville, where she had to again look for work, choosing a job about a year into our time here;

9. Me wanting to move to Atlanta following school for career reasons, despite having an option to go to DC, which would have made her next job search far easier;

10. Me taking a job that will require a tremendous amount of travel, meaning that we will move to a new city and I will promptly leave 50% of the time.

In conclusion, my career choices have caused my wife to move from Maryland to Washington to Illinois to California to Virginia to Georgia, endure my being gone repeatedly (I’m assuming this is a hardship, but who knows), deal with late night and weekend phone calls regarding crazy Soldier tricks or ridiculous shipping issues, the constant stress of looking for new jobs, and me constantly thinking about the next complicated life choice I want to make that requires us to put our entire life into boxes and completely start over socially in cities where she has never lived.  When I write all of that out I look like kind of a jerk.

But in spite of the ridiculousness of it all, my wife is both supportive and optimistic about the constant upheaval.  I’m sure she would like a bit more stability, and we are honestly always looking for it, but she rolls with the changes and wears a smile while doing it.  What I’m trying to say is that she makes it all possible.  I’ve asked a lot (and hopefully given a decent amount as well), and thus far we haven’t collectively dropped the glass ball.  But it is good to be reminded that I’m not actually juggling it all alone, and that this is a two person job.

It’s a walk-off

In my senior year of undergrad I shared an apartment with three other guys.  We had a common tv, attached to which was a VCR.  On that VCR we watched the movie Zoolander approximately 20 times in a two month period.  I still have a DVD copy of it somewhere around my house.  It is an awesome film.

I mention that because I spent this past weekend with one of those roommates, and at one point we had a mini walk-off.  I mention that because I can.  It was a great time.

My friend was in town because he and I, during a visit last fall to his home in Raleigh, agreed to run a marathon toward the end of 2011 (like all great decisions, this not reached in a state of full sobriety).  This past weekend was a test toward that goal – running and surviving a half marathon.  I understand for people who are running enthusiasts (or runners, but dear God don’t open that term up for debate), a half marathon is an incidental event.  I am not a running enthusiast, and therefore was not particularly enthusiastic.  But it happened, and I survived, and I was not the last one to finish the race.  So minor victories were achieved.

A few highlights of the run itself, however, were linked directly to school.  The outgoing DSA president was dressed in a full bear costume to wave to runners, which was an oddly inspirational.  About 100 yards from the finish line, a classmate from Section A yelled encouragement at the point at which I was realizing that the whole ordeal was about to be over, which was incredibly reaffirming.  A friend with whom I interned over the summer was at the finish line with mimosas for her roommates, repaying a kindness over the summer when a group of us brought her mimosas at Grant Park in Chicago when she finished a half marathon.  I saw a FY who lives a few doors away from me in our community before the race, at the start line, in the race, and after the finish line.  And after we had started to recover and could get ourselves to a bar, we were joined by a number of friends to celebrate.

A corny “Darden is family story”?  Yes, but I only have six weeks left to enjoy it.

Clean jobs

My wife and I visited Darden together for the first time (minus my interview, which was a solo endeavor) over Valentine’s Day weekend in 2009.  We celebrated that V-Day by purchasing way too much food at Whole Foods in Charlottesville and having a picnic in our hotel room while watching movies.  Last year’s Valentine’s Day occurred, though I’m not entirely certain as to what we did.  A quick review of my Outlook calendar has nothing on the date, though it appears I was likely prepping for Strategy, Global Econ, and Decision Analysis classes the next day.  First Year was a busy time…

This year, however, I had the time, energy, and financial means to do a bit better for my wife.  I even planned ahead, which is a bit atypical for me from a romantic perspective.  This past weekend we took advantage of the close proximity to DC to do a few days in the city, during which we had a long and luxurious dinner at one of our favorite restaurants and went to see the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.  There isn’t any good reason for me to share this except that blogs are inherently narcissistic and I’d like my good work at being a husband to be read about and acknowledged by the random people that will see this posting.  Hooray!

In other news, this week has included a homemade sushi dinner prepared by friends, watching the Duke-Virginia basketball game, Darden league bowling, and, if I recall correctly, some classes.  Most importantly, however, is that this afternoon was marked by my first springtime cigar at Darden.  Today was over sixty-five degrees and sunny, second years have no class tomorrow, and I had no pressing requirements that would prevent me from enjoying a hour of outdoor cigar smoking.  Truly relaxing.

The time spent sitting in the sun afforded the opportunity to reflect on my current classes and their impact on my perspective on careers, making money, and business generally.  I’d say they were deep thoughts, but I suspect they were either evident to others, should have been self-evident, or perhaps are not really complex; they make my brow furrow, so make of that what you will.  I’m currently taking two classes which complement each other very well: Acquisition of Closely Held Enterprises and Small Enterprise Finance.  In combination, they are a cradle to grave examination of small businesses and the management thereof.  One of the repeated points is that small does not equal less profitable when it comes to business, especially in the middle market.  Though most MBA candidates will join major corporations or large name-brand partnerships in finance and consulting, most MBAs also profess a desire to manage their own business at some point.  If pressed, most of them would describe their “own business” in terms that would fit either a large organization or a sexy Silicon Valley start-up.  There does not seem to be many MBAs investing a tremendous amount of energy trying to figure out how to grow a franchise business, buy a niche manufacturing firm, or start a company to compete with unaffiliated mom and pop businesses (in fairness, some are, but they represent a ridiculously small percentage of the overall MBA population).

To steal from the Discovery Channel, there are not many MBAs interested in businesses that execute the “dirty jobs” of industry.  Banking, consulting, corporate finance, general management, marketing and the like are clean jobs (full disclosure – I’ve accepted a consulting position, and am extremely excited about it).  There is a low likelihood you will have to fire a forklift driver or sweat making payroll in any of these positions, and you won’t have to backfill a sick employee by loading boxes on a dock in any of them.  Before Darden I did fire forklift drivers and jump in on the dock to help load trucks in an emergency (except at the union sites – love you Teamsters!), and business school seemed like the way to move from the brute force end of business to the strategic end of things.  To a large degree that expectation has been met, but the thing with the dirty jobs end of the economy is that for a good businessperson they can be incredibly rewarding, both financially and personally.  Many of the dirty jobs truly represent the pinnacle of enterprise-wide general management.

I don’t need a dirty job right now.  But I might want a dirty job in the future.  The question is how long one can stay in a clean job before they are structurally incapable of transitioning to a dirty job (because of perceived risk, 401Ks, etc).  It is an another compelling issue to add to the pile of gigantic life choices one can contemplate on a lazy Thursday afternoon.

I hate your workout program

Not pictured: MBA candidates

The second semester of the second year of business school is a time for reinforcing friendships, thinking big thoughts about future business endeavors, spending ridiculous amounts of money on GBEs vacations, and, apparently, getting involved in physical training regimes that are grossly inappropriate to our general level of fitness after 18 months of networking drinking beer.

I believe there are three primary motivators for this workout trend: 1) People at Darden abhor a time vacuum, 2) General recognition that on average people are heavier than when they began at Darden, and 3) Speakers in second year classes peppering their remarks with references to how they participate in triathlons (or other equally physical time-sinks).  A perverse combination of unnecessary motivation, a lack of non-academic alternatives, and hyper-competitiveness is currently padding the bottom line of Charlottesville’s church of Crossfit, increasing the trade of second hand copies of P90X, driving up participation in “Navy SEAL Training”, and in my particular case, causing me to pay money now for the right to run on public roads in the Charlottesville half-marathon in April.

One of my least favorite activities in the entire world is running.  It is a pointless pursuit which brings me no personal pleasure.  It doesn’t clear my head, give me an endorphin rush, or make me feel healthy.  It does make me feel like not running.  So why run?  I have five years of evidence accumulated during my time in the Army to suggest that I am in fact healthier (read: thinner) when I run on a regular basis.  Additionally, a friend suggested the idea of running the Athens marathon later this year in order to cross marathon off the life to-do list, and since he went to HBS, it can’t not be a good idea.  Thus, I signed up for the Charlottesville half marathon as a personal test case to see if I have either the desire or physical tolerance to train for a full marathon later this year.

After a three year post-Army hiatus from running (or most any physical activity, honestly) I have been taking baby training steps since late December.  Sooner or later I’ll get back to real life and my time will be occupied with activities more interesting than running…or maybe I’ll keep running so I can come back to Darden and shame future generations of MBA candidates by telling them about how I simultaneously run a corporation and do yoga and run marathons.  It isn’t likely, but it is good to keep your options open.

Mood music

Back on grounds at Darden today…though I have limited reason to be here (help some FYs with case interview prep), I decided that being slightly productive on grounds would feel way better than being slightly productive on my couch.  Look – I’m dressed!  Ta-da!

I find myself in a learning team room.  Again.  I’m approaching the point where I will seriously consider building one of these in my future house (you know, the future house we all design in our mind).  Along with my in-home McDonald’s fry station, a learning team room would be of immense value.  You can’t help but to feel the potential energy – big white boards waiting to be filled, a large flat screen staring down at you, and so many outlets you could power nearly everything in my current apartment.  So it is settled, the in-home LT is added to the list.  When it is completed, trust me, you’ll all be invited.

And I’ve lost the point of this post.  Oh yes – mood music.  I’ve got my headphones on in the LT and am currently listening to the Last of the Mohicans soundtrack.  Out the window I can see into other learning team rooms in which interviews are being conducted; the dramatic flairs of this soundtrack are the perfect match for surreptitiously watching an interview.  It makes the stressful proceedings of the interview seem that much more intense, significant, and powerful.

Daniel Day Lewis interviews for an MBA internship

I had, and possibly still have, the Last of the Mohicans on CD somewhere.  It was one of the first compact discs I ever purchased; I strongly associate the music with a memory of a bus ride between Philadelphia and New York City during a school trip when I was in eighth grade.  It was the first time in my life I recall feeling contemplative and purposely considering my future.  While I have no idea what I thought about, the memory is poignant for the emotional content.

Interestingly, the soundtrack has special significance for my wife as well.  Her father would play the CD every Saturday when she and her siblings were required to do chores.  Suffice to say we don’t listen to it on Saturdays at our house.

The white whale

Spicy Szechuan Chex Mix.  It is my wife’s favorite and virtually inaccessible snack food.  It is sold exclusively at convenience stores, but rarely, if ever, will you find it there.  She has exactly twice – once up the road from our apartment in Charlottesville, and once at a random gas station in central Illinois she visited when she was forced off the road during white out driving conditions.  God is clearly tempting her with these, though I’m not entirely certain what the test actually is.  In any case, they are a pain to get.

Enter Darden’s December job trek to Minneapolis, which included a stop at General Mills.  A first year friend from school was to attend the trek, and I asked if she could ask someone at General Mills whether it is possible to just order the stuff (I’ve tried, haven’t found a way yet).  My request was half joking, but my friend put the question to someone there, and not only did she return with two more bags of the mix for my wife, but also with a name for a contact to order more.  Hallelujah.

In other news of extremely limited applicability or interest, Dean Bruner tweeted a link this morning related to officer attrition in the military (the Dean includes some interesting commentary and links in his Twitter feed, but I can never help but cringe when I see that he actually typed something was “G8”. Ugh).  An interesting read, even if you were not in the military.  Generally consistent with everything I saw/heard/felt about merit and promotions in the military.  One significant caveat to the author’s very informal survey style is that military officers are like drivers – everyone thinks they are above average.  Consequently, everyone thinks their friends are also above average.  And when they and their friends get out, the is tantamount to quality leaving, while they people they don’t like (and are of lesser quality) stay in.  Thus, if you ask individuals who got out whether quality officers stay in, they are inclined to say no, simply because it reinforces their choice.  So while I think his statistical analysis is garbage (also, polling only West Pointers, who make up roughly 20% of the officer corps…and not the best 20%?  Seriously!), it is certainly directionally correct, and a problem the military will not solve any time soon.  Business school is a logical transition point for officers leaving the military, because of a belief that the corporate world is based all on merit (and rainbows and unicorns).

Best advice I received when I left the military: “What you hated about the military is actually what you hate about working…you’ll dislike the same things wherever you go.”

I’m not lazy, I’m busy!

Well, kind of lazy too.  That’s what the never-ending winter break from business school can create: laziness.  But I’ve managed to fill the void by logging travel miles.  December started with a sell weekend/celebration (I’m signed, so no selling required) in Miami.  Instead of working hard on my finals for Darden, I was waking up to this view from the hotel room:

This is rough living

The following weekend, finals completed, I experienced my first Army-Navy game in a trip that included partying in Annapolis on Friday night, seeing old friends post-game on Saturday night, and a great football experience.

Student sections at Army-Navy. One section was decidedly more pleased with the game.

On the drive south to Charlottesville after the game, a friend was kind enough to drop me off at Washington-Dulles, so I could catch a flight to London en route to Mumbai, India.  The purpose of the visit was a Darden classmate’s wedding.  Side benefits would include massive consumption of Indian food, riding the commuter rail in Mumbai, seeing more Darden classmates at the wedding, and revisiting locations my wife and I visited during our trip prior to b-school.

Gateway to India from the Sea Lounge at the Taj Palace Hotel.

Section A in India, making it look good.

South Bombay in the distance from Juhu Beach.

One seriously expensive home.

My flight home to the states was on the 24th, which, by the grace of God and seriously dumb luck was immediately after the London snow disaster and immediately before the east coast of the United States was destroyed for travel, meaning I actually made it home to my wife on Christmas Eve.  Which has made the last week in Virginia seem like a glorious, relaxing break.

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and best wishes for a prosperous 2011!

Underpants gnomes

If you aren’t familiar with the underpants gnomes, take a moment to become educated with this video clip from South Park or this Wikipedia entry the video is derived. If you don’t inform yourself the rest of this post makes no sense.

The underpants gnomes were on my mind during class today.  A guest speaker, who has achieved a level of success to which nearly every business school student aspires and who undoubtedly has earned more money than I should ever hope to earn, was presenting his vision for a national policy change, which if enacted, would lead to a dramatic shift in the fundamental way US based corporations conduct business.  The line of reasoning was not illogical, but it was aspirational, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that, like the underpants gnomes, there was a giant hole in the middle of the plan.  That is to say, step one could lead to step three, but it could also lead to a dozen different places, and there was little, if any, evidence that step three would actually materialize.

When step two relies on an assumed response rather than an intrinsically linked secondary action, you are probably entering the world of unintended consequences (see all other major government reforms).  Interestingly, I’m not fundamentally opposed to the speaker’s suggested policy change, but I also don’t think it would create the corporate world which he envisions (it is important to note that perhaps I totally misunderstood the logic, which is always, always, a distinct possibility).

In business school, this fundamental problem rears its head time and again, though more frequently with regard to new ventures.  But it’s application in the world of policy is not unique either (see here for a decidedly partisan application of the underpants gnome issue).  All this to say, one of the better parts of second year is the increased number of guest speakers in class, most of which not only present interesting perspectives but a sharper point of view as well.  Much of the first year is spent agreeing with each other in class, which, while polite, does not do much to enhance overall learning for me.  I enjoy dissent and debate, and it is far more interesting to be exposed to divergent ideas, even if I don’t quite agree with the second step.