A Lifelong MBA

I think that the business schools should consider an annual subscription to facilitate lifelong learning as a replacement or complement to the 2 year MBA program. This would include contextual webinars / discussions with experts, and bringing small groups of alumni together around shared challenges over longer periods of time.

A month after my 26th birthday, I enrolled at Harvard Business School (HBS) for their two year MBA program. I had worked in consulting for two years and at Google for two years – I was still quite early in my career. I wrote a somewhat ranty post around six years ago about the benefits and branding of an MBA here and I still think those benefits hold true today.

How I learn now

In the last few years I’ve been reading a lot more (Books in 2019) and realize how much you can learn from subject matter experts and from the stories of successful people and their journeys (even if Nassim Taleb would argue that this is mostly just the product of randomness).

It’s also extremely helpful to read books and have focused conversations around a problem that is top of mind – e.g. if you are negotiating a deal or a job offer, then read Never Split the Difference and apply what you learn immediately.

I’ve also participated in some forum style discussions with a group of friends (all HBS alums) led by Beri Meric, modeled after his experience at YPO Forums, and additionally participated in a few conversations with small groups of technology executives through Enrich.

How I learned at HBS

The case study method of learning at HBS is a crash course in many diverse aspects of business. You learn from the story in the case (and often interact directly with the protagonist in the class) as well as from your fellow students and professor and take away a few learnings.

A lot of what we learned was the ability to recall examples and stories without having lived them ourselves. This can allow you to ‘sound smart’ and wise beyond your experience which is useful in a variety of scenarios but particularly in careers like management consulting.

When I was studying for my MBA, I did not appreciate or engage as much as I probably should have in the actual content, or listen to enough of the amazing speakers we had on campus. I was more focused on the lifestyle and friendships, but looking back I still feel like I made the right trade off.

HBS now has an estimated annual cost of $112k and the tuition alone costs $73k per year. If you travel a fair bit, which many students do it can cost even more. With a two year gap in earnings (assuming ~$100k average gross salary per year) a two year MBA can end up costing students ~$400k+ AFTER tax.

This rising relative cost will put downward pressure on MBA applications and create adverse selection bias for folks who are successful early in their career. I think it’s time to reflect and make changes to the education model.

The potential of a lifelong MBA

When I reflected more about how I learn now, and how I learned in school, I came to the realization that I would likely get value from paying a premium annual subscription fee (e.g. a few $k a year) for a lifelong education from HBS, administered completely digitally.

The school could bring together alumni from across classes around specific, focused topics (e.g. how to move to distributed work) which would allow people to learn from each other about a subject that is top of mind. They could also curate small groups (who meet regularly over a long period of time) who are in similar positions across industries and help these groups form strong long term bonds. This would allow alumni to learn continually, build stronger ties within the HBS community, and generate lifelong income for HBS beyond donations.

In the future, I could envision a version of this ‘product’ that replaces the 2 year MBA program for many students, with additional in person retreats to complement the digital program.

This would also be something that many employers could sponsor, as many have budgets for continuing education. I would worry that an HBS only community might be too limiting, but the alumni groups are big enough and and what people do is broad enough that it might be totally fine. The curation of the groups is also not trivial, and would require some technology and people with good judgment.

The opportunity to create structured learning where alumni facing similar problems regardless of experience are able to engage more deeply in topics when they become important, urgent and contextual would be very valuable.

Why are people with MBAs called ‘MBAs’ forever?

I don’t really get why people who have MBAs are pigeon holed with an ‘MBA’ as their primary tagline for the rest of their careers. It’s a short part of your career and half the length of your undergraduate degree. Why am I more of an MBA than an engineer?

I think people probably get a few things out of doing an MBA:

  1. Branding: Much like working at a recognised company, going to a recognised business school helps open doors

  2. Friendships/Network: You make great friends and people at business school are at the same stage of life and in the same mindset, so you make lots of lasting friendships in a short period of time

  3. Lifestyle: Business school is fun. You travel, you play sports, you party and live in a new city/country

  4. Content: You learn from your courses, classmates and professors

I spent 2 years of my life doing my MBA and it was a lot of fun.  I made great friends, travelled to cool places and learned some interesting things through the case method. But by no means do I think it defines me, my aspirations, the way I think or what I value.

I love thinking about what new products and platforms will shape our future and how I can contribute. I love building things and get satisfaction from people deriving utility/joy from the things I build. I feel energised by geeking out about solving analytical problems at work, discussing gameplay strategies in League of Legends or Hearthstone, or just the act of shipping something before a weekend. I’ve spent the last 10 years working in technology and the last 5 in product management. I know I want to spend my career building products and investing in great companies. I feel like my choice of career defines me so much more than whether or not I have an MBA and I’m sure many other ‘MBAs’ feel the same.