5 Things Only a (Good) Former Theater Director Can Bring To Your Business

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This was the last picture ever taken of me during my nearly fifteen-year career as a theater director. After rehearsing offsite, the actors and I arrived at our performing space, in this case, a massive 10,000 square foot warehouse. I asked them to explore, gain some perspective on what it would be like to work in a place this big, and I visited each of them, one by one, to share in that exploration.

My personal website used to be full of images from these shows, testimonials from actors, writers, designers, and producers, and links to reviews. I was excited to see my name in the Philadelphia Inquirer quite frequently, though not as much as the actors in my shows, as they always had the “spotlight”, as it were. But it paid horribly. And beyond your own salary, you never had enough money for the show itself either which, over time, grew quite frustrating. (Although it would be a great lesson on how to be creative within restrictions, which I am very grateful for.)

Today, if you interviewed me for a job, you would hardly know this was a major part of my life. I can say honestly, without blame or anger, that it frequently has felt like a full stop for a recruiter reviewing my work history. It is just not something they are used to seeing in evaluating a candidate for a position – there isn’t an easy reference point. This can be frustrating, but it is completely understandable. And not just for traditional corporate interviews – it can be hard to comprehend even for companies looking for that untraditional mix of creativity and business skills. So I just stopped talking about it. I removed it from my resume. I had simultaneously played a leadership role in non-profits throughout most of this period, so I just focused on that instead.

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Salesmanship For Life and Limb, 2009

I have wanted to work for a design thinking or other innovation firm since I started my MBA. Ideo is my “vision board” company. It has been since I first thought of going to my MBA in 2017, and I registered for two of their classes at Ideo U to begin exploring design thinking. I found myself recently preparing for my first chance to speak to someone from their offices (hooray!) and a couple of nights before the interview grew to tears that I wouldn’t be able to speak to this essential part of my experience in the way I wanted to.

So I threw out the playbook. And I talked about it. I don’t know if it mattered. But it felt great. I felt whole again. Nearly everything that has made me successful in my MBA I owe to what I learned from directing theater. Nearly everything that has made me successful in business or as a consultant I owe to what I learned from directing theater.

Or, if I want to be even more confident in myself, let me say this. What makes me special as a strategist, an innovator, and, yes, as a leader, can best be exemplified by my work as a theater director. It’s me, it’s what I bring, and I grew and nurtured it by doing an amazing activity that takes truly special skills to pull off.

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Former Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback Mike Boryla in his autobiographical one-man show, The Disappearing Quarterback, 2014

So, in my final days before graduation, I felt it would be fitting to end the wonderful explorations I’ve had in the blog with this “full circle”, if you will, take on my past.

Here are the five things only a (good) former theater director can bring to your business…

  1. A special capacity to bring out the creativity in others.
  2. A unique ability to understand what a user needs and how to craft a product to tell a story that resonates with them.
  3. A depth of experience with research that will inspire a winning product.
  4. Centering a team on a central vision to bring a creative product to life.
  5. Unparalleled expertise at reflective listening and giving team feedback in just the right ways at just the right moments over the course of a project life cycle.

A theater director, for those who don’t know, oversees the entire life of a play. Frequently he or she leads the development process of the script itself, providing insightful feedback about what is working and not working and prompting the writer to explore new territory. My special skill at this was to be the sworn enemy of clarity – in theater, as in business, I often felt the desire to tell a “clear” story was pushed too hard, often at the expense of the discoveries that can be made in embracing ambiguity, which I would later come to realize is a calling card of the design thinking world.

Directors also structure the entire creative process for a team of actors and designers (set, lighting, costume, and sound usually). My strength here was that I would do heavy research on the play I was working on – perhaps historical research for a show set in the early 20th century “Great Migration” of African-Americans away from the Jim Crow south mixed with inspirational research from visual artists, musicians, photographs, and more that I felt supported or responded to the core of what the show was trying to say. I would then present an inspirational deck to the whole team. Another strength I was told I had was that I unified everyone around a single vision so that all the elements of the final product felt thematically linked, but I also left room for them to find their own voice by providing confines in which to explore and offering reflective listening to what I was seeing emerge in their individual work.

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Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, 2011

I would learn in business school that the tech world acknowledges these methods as “Recombinant Innovation” (a theory propagated by an amazing UC Davis professor I got to take a class with, Andrew Hargadon) and a deep belief in “Why Constraints Are Good For Innovation“. Same ideas, different names (and I will add, working within economic restraints to force creative solutions is the DNA of all theater, perpetually underfunded.) I will admit, I worried I would be a bit of a thorn in the side to Dr. Hargadon in Management of Innovation class when I kept relating tech innovation back to my experience in theater. I was pleasantly surprised to see that he pulled inspiration for his work from artists as much as Apple.

The work with the actors, however, is where a director really comes alive.

Do you need someone experienced in gaining the trust of new people sharing a process of innovation? Check. How about someone who had to repeatedly do it with a new group of people every six weeks for over ten years? Check. You want someone who can intuitively grasp what a person is motivated by but also can rely on deep experience and skillset to listen for what they are actually saying and not saying with their words? Check. How about someone who on the job thought every minute of every day about why a person would make the choice they made, then endeavored to share that in a way that someone else could empathize with (director giving note to the actor playing the role), and then turn all of that into a product that tells that story entertainingly and movingly to a consumer (the final production)? Check check check.

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Early in the Mourning, 2009

Most of the world knows the word “rehearsal” but many see it, and it unfortunately often is the case, as the time where the director just tells the actors where to move on the stage. I was an “actor’s director.” We would often spend all day just reading the script out loud – asking important questions about what motivated the characters to say the things they said and to do the things they do before we ever endeavored to “get it on its feet.”

On that note, one of the things that I have translated well to consulting is to recognize how to give feedback that is actually received by the client. There is a big difference between a vague note you give an actor in the first week of rehearsal when they are just exploring, a direct note you give in the middle when they are finding details and making choices that meditate their movement and actions, and an enabling and manageable note you give them the night before the show.  Knowing what to say when is a learned skill and a nearly forgotten part of the literature on critical feedback in business environments.

And that is not to say that you don’t learn technical skills too, particularly in working with designers (hello Ideo :-)!) They call it “tech week” for a reason in the final days before the show premieres. Deciding how light should shine just so to tell a story, playing around with the colors in a costume, getting that drumbeat to be mixed to sound just a little bit more like a heartbeat, that’s all part of it. Every moment of every play (or movie for that matter) should be a painting for the audience, though they should never be aware of that painting’s existence or focused on its contents. It should never distract from the product: the actor telling the story.

I can’t wait to tell that story when leading a new product development process. What an exciting way to think about the work.

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Take Me Out, 2010

To be clear, I’m not saying I was good at everything. I tended to let on-stage moments drag out and move too slowly, sometimes foregoing crispness in the product for trying to build a single moment. In other words… sometimes my shows got boring. I tried to improve this but it was an ongoing challenge. There are, of course, a lot of failures when you create. Very public failures. So add that to the list about theater directors – experienced in learning from failure too.

And that’s what I wish hiring directors saw when this former theater director applied for their business design, innovation strategy, chief-of-staff, or program/project management position, to lead innovative teams to solve problems for users.

Directing plays was one of the greatest privileges of my life. And I know, when the time comes to share what I learned from it in my next professional environment, as I have again and again during my MBA studies, it will be a privilege to do so.

Thank you to everyone who read my blogs during my MBA journey. It has been a wonderful outlet for the questions I have pondered and the explorations I have taken.

A Mouthful: Reflections from the 1st Annual (I hope) UC Davis Net Impact Graduate Chapter Bay Area Overnight Career Trek

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10 representatives from 7 companies at 5 different locations in 4 different cities in… 29 hours.

If that sounds a bit crazy that’s because it was a bit crazy. What can I say? When brainstorming my goals as Net Impact President after my election last spring, one of the three I wrote down was… think big.

So I promptly tried to organize an international trek to Peru for a week over winter break to consult social entrepreneurs and promote voluntourism for my classmates. That then became a four-day trek to Seattle over winter break. Which eventually morphed into overnight in Oakland on a random two days in January.

Lesson #1: Think Big.

If you are a regular reader and know a bit about my passions and trajectory with my MBA at UC Davis Graduate School of Management, you know I am a big fan of design thinking. One of my favorite parts about it is that it encourages you to, as Ideo puts it, “encourage wild ideas” in your brainstorming. Without this philosophy, I never would have eventually whittled my impact down to the focus of (a) too often when our small class travels the nearly two hours from Davis to the Bay, time allows only a low payoff for both us and our potential employers of usually only one company visited, and a whole day, for us, drained and (b) the Net Impact club purposely represents a broad swath of social impact business from big corporations to small start-ups to non-profits, and it would best represent the interests of club members to see that representation first-hand to truly learn about the breadth of this sector.

Part #1: The First Annual (I hope) Social Entrepreneurship Enablement Design Sprint… or, SEEDS, in Davis.

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Social entrepreneur Natalie Zandt seeming pretty satisfied with the brainstorming happening around her at the First Annual SEEDS! I love naming things and I love acronyms!

Lesson #2: Work with people who share your propensity to “leave things better than you found them”.

Lesson #3: There are a lot of those people in social impact. Not surprisingly.

I met Natalie Zandt at an event thrown by One World Training and Investments called the Innovations in Corporate Social Impact Summit. She was exhibiting as an entrepreneur for potential investors, and she checked off three boxes. Her start-up, MeterLeader, was in the energy sector, one that frequently attracts UC Davis MBAs, she was amenable to my idea to have a bunch of MBA students she had never previously met brainstorm resolutions to her young business’s problems, and last but certainly not least, she “got it” that she and I would be working together to create an infrastructure that I hoped would be solid enough to earn a “2nd Annual” under another leader collaborating with another entrepreneur next year.

So on January 27, from 11 am – 4 pm, she presented her pitch deck to us at our campus in Davis, and we brainstormed innovative ideas for a “Business Model Canvas 2.0”.

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Open-sourced so feel free to download and use!

The words I used to motivate the room were to be “Creative, Brazen, and Useful.” I reminded everyone that the word creative simply means to bring something into existence that wasn’t previously there. We all create, at every moment of our lives. Every spontaneous action. Too often this is seen as a mysterious talent only owned by very few – in fact, it is the most open-sourced of human experiences. Brazen – bold and without shame. Design thinking is about many, many ideas, and I looked around the room at one point and noted, with all of our post-it notes and felt-tipped pens, just how much color we were surrounded by.

Useful. Our second half of the day, we “diverged” into small groups to solve three “How Might We” statements we came up with for the theme of “gaining traction” for MeterLeader. Natalie and I realized she needed not just big MBA ideas, but actionable takeaways for this to best serve her. I am excited to see where it leads – both for her and for our continued support of her work as individuals and as a school.

Part #2: Dinner with alumnus Keith Weissglass of Give2Asia in Oakland

Next, a slightly smaller group of us drove down to meet Keith in Oakland for dinner. As planning developed, I purposely kept some things flexible and open. It just so happened I had met with Keith for some guidance and advice the week before, and when I found out more about his current work, it was clearly a perfect fit for a heavy population of native-Asian or Asian-American students who had decided to join for this event. The timing could not be more inspirational – Keith had spent his weekend enabling donations to support institutions fighting the coronavirus. He also had the exact right personality, a mix of forthrightness and mentorship-able, to give frank advice on how students should prepare and engage during our company visits the next day.

Lesson #4: In planning something so intricate, ask nicely for people to remain flexible. They usually will.

Part #3: Airbnb in Oakland.

Lesson #5: When planning something big, finding time to just bond with the people you are experiencing it with is so invaluable. I am grateful.

Part #4: Clif Bar office visit in Emeryville.

We met a few students who had decided not to stay in the Bay Area overnight in the morning at Clif Bar. What an AMAZING office – truly dedicated to the types of employees attracted to this work – dogs everywhere, a climbing wall, a gym where teams had weekly workout sessions, a full office parade for employees’ children in Halloween coming from the company daycare down the street. And they backed it up with a sincerely happy employee and UC Davis Graduate School of Management alumnus, not just because of the benefits, but the support she felt in being able to innovatively approach her brand management work.

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Clif Bar tour with Emily Rancer

Lesson #6: Asking that your club table at a career fair to recruit student members pays off because you get extra time to chat with people representing firms there, and many months later they (wonderful and supportive alumnus Emily Rancer) become your host!

Part #5: Lunch at Impact Hub Oakland.

The energy shift that happened when we landed at Impact Hub really underlined the sense of diversity in the social impact field. Coming from silicon-valley style laid back vibe of Clif Bar, with employees supported to do fulfilling work with amazing benefits and strong salaries, to the intense energy of small firms in the impact investing space, working within limited resources to support dozens of entrepreneurs and constantly taking meetings to build up the sector and create collaborative networks, was clear from the first moment. Each of our guests spoke at a rush, prompting a clarity that as soon as they were done selflessly giving their time to us, there would be another meeting immediately following just like it, wringing the most impact possible they could make out of every moment of every day, fighting for a better world.

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Kristin Hull, Nia Impact Capital, speaking with Angie Mertens (right) and Jessica Eastling (left) looking on.

Lesson #6: The Social Impact field is all about showing up for each other. I had shown up for One World Investments as a volunteer, and the incredible Angie Mertens, in return, showed up by asking her equally incredible colleagues, Kristin Hull and Laughlin Silvestri at Nia Impact Capital and Jessica Eastling at Better Ventures to join us, who showed up because of all the times she had enabled their work and because they wanted to invest in the future of their field in general with us.

Part #6: Office Visit to Third Plateau Social Impact Strategies in San Francisco.

Speaking of energy shifts, I grinned when we arrived at this social impact consultancy and were greeted, of course, by a PowerPoint. Culture differences in this sector, at this point, were crystalizing so clearly, and the organized and focused passion of Third Plateau felt truly like a final representation of impact work. Even the small walk-up office off a bustling downtown block of San Francisco felt right, and the energy of the city greeted us appropriately as we met one last time on the sidewalk to celebrate our 29 hours together.

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From left to right, Whitney Caruso, Carly Strauss, and Ari Eisenstadt from Third Plateau. Also pictured: PowerPoint.

Our conversation on our walk back to the BART was almost entirely on the incredible breadth of what we saw. The general consensus was we could all see ourselves at any of these places, but we all also recognized ourselves specifically one of these places.

Lesson #7 (see what I did there? 7 companies, 7 lessons!): I’ve learned a lot, in recent years, about balancing doing things for others that also create openings for exploration and growth for myself. I used to lean on the former, and the result would often be allowing myself to drift into a sense of unfairness, blaming others that they weren’t returning the favor for me. Whether this was true or not was debatable, but even worse, it made me resentful, and the only person it damaged was… me.

I think there is a deeper lesson about social impact and business and the Bay Area and the 21st century implicit in this. I came to get my MBA up here because I had an unfounded and unsubstantiated sense that impact and making money, in the Bay, were not as clearly separated as they had felt in my small non-profit past. I think, at least if you are looking at it with a “glass half full mentality”, that this sector has successfully linked those concepts in a way that gets at my own personal growth: creating scale for yourself and your work can create scales for others. Circling back to the beginning of this article, in putting together this trek I created an experience for myself to practice facilitating a design sprint, a crucial skillset I aim to perfect, and showcasing my strength in building networks and opportunities for companies and potential employees, while simultaneously aiding 15 of my classmates to take steps in their professional journies.

In other words… whether corporate or non-profit, large or small, you rise together.

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I look forward to supporting the “2nd Annual” as an alum next year.

Now That I Said That Other Thing… Can We Reject Better?

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If you read my most recent post, you hopefully know that I am not here to bitch about rejection. Though I clearly think a lot about.

I guess I’m trying to get it out of my system so I can move on to other things. I don’t know if this is true, but someone once told me that the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel believed there was three different rejections one could receive when they sent a theater their newest writing. As a former playwright rejector, and a hirer in general, I tried to live by these words, which I will paraphrase in a moment.

 

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I couldn’t help but take advantage of the situation to post a picture from a Paula Vogel play I had the privilege to direct, “And Baby Makes Seven” (Philadelphia Gay & Lesbian Theater Festival, 2009.)

Why do I share this as a companion to my previous post(s)? Because, I am sadly seeing that the “real world” is no better at rejecting applicants than theaters are at rejecting actors and playwrights.

I offer a nifty solution, by way of Ms. Vogel by way of some friend I can’t remember by way of my own shaky memory as to what she said.

There are three messages you can receive from a rejection. Likewise, recruiters, there are three messages you can send. And they are equally useful for both sides. I’ll explain why in a minute.

  1. Thanks for applying, but we decided you were not right for this job. Good luck in your future endeavors.
  2. Thanks for applying, we liked you, but not for this position. Feel free to apply again in the future for a position that more closely matches your experience and skills.
  3. Thanks for applying, we really liked you, and strongly considered you. Please stay in touch. You are welcome to reapply in the future for a similar position and can check in with us from time to time to update us on your newest experiences that might enhance your candidacy for this job.

Hopefully this is what you really read between the lines…

  1. Nope. Not even close. Not worth your time right now to try again.
  2. Not for this job. You’ve got promise, but you aren’t here yet. You are a good candidate in general though. Are you willing to drop down a level or can you find something better suited for your experience?
  3. Not right now, but damn, you were close. We are actually serious about you. You should truly network with us and keep checking our job postings.

I read my rejection letters carefully, because I have been on the other side countless times. As an Artistic Director, you are in a constant state of hiring. Each show means hiring at least about twenty new people, multiple times a year, and of course, rejecting hundreds more. And because you have a tiny business, you are doing the outreach, the interviews, and the rejections personally yourself. So the stakes are not only high for your applicants, but they are high for you if your applicants get the wrong message. You don’t want to risk losing that good actor from applying the next time because they simply were bested by another good actor this time around. Likewise you don’t want to have to be constantly rejecting the same person every month when you post something new.

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But also, it’s not fair to them. They need to understand where they stand, so they can focus their energies on building the right relationships with the right people. We make such a big deal about networking in this country, that it’s all about who we know, but then we seemingly, from my experience thus far in this new, larger pond of a job market, make little effort to clarify if we truly want our rejected applicant to do just that.

This lack of fairness impacts your brand and it impacts the quality of your applicants. Keep the quality people close, and you improve the odds they will bother the next time around. Show clear and focused responses that at least split your rejections into three piles, and your reputation rises. I was thanked countless times for my clarity and honesty.

But here’s the catch, the oh-so-important detail. Right now, I can’t even tell by the wording which ones mean it when they do say it. Because they all seem to say things like “you were a very strong candidate.” Am I just always a very strong candidate? I doubt that.

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So the biggest trick up my sleeve, the one that is “100% Daniel Student Open Source” (i.e. I’m sure I got it from someone else, but it feels like it was an original thought so I’m going with that) and will set you over the top…

For a while, I actually started each email to people I rejected but truly wanted to stay in touch with me with a sentence like “What I’ve written below I don’t write to all candidates. Please take it personally as it is intended.”

Boom. That’s the million dollar idea. But I give it to you for free. And if I see it in one of my near future rejections, I will smile and celebrate the open sourcing of genuine clarity, and you and I will both happily connect six months later when I check in with what I accomplished in my final two quarters of graduate school, my recent consulting projects, etc. I look forward to it.

I Resolve to… Be Rejected?

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I spent my first two weeks of the winter break of my final MBA year reeling from two recent rejections. Together, they were the perfect encapsulation of my current career challenges.

I got rejected from “Job Description Written Exactly For Me” first. Small company? Check. Innovation and strategy? Check. Unique background? Check. Hybrid thinker? Check. Learn your way through problems? Check. Check check check check check.

The interviewer tells you that you remind him of himself? CHECK. Receive a rejection a short while later and then see the job re-posted, meaning you were not just bested by a better or more connected candidate but they felt they needed to start over due to your inadequacy? OK, so, maybe that’s a stretch in interpretation, but… that’s how it feels.

I got rejected from “How The Hell Did I Get This Far” second. Multinational corporation? Nope. Agricultural products? Nope. Strategic business analyst? Nope. Hard quant skills? Nope. Nope nope nope nope nope.

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The final question of the interview is “since I have you here, I was wondering… do you think I should take acting classes?” UH OH. Receive a rejection a short while later and be told that they are going to focus on some other candidates, but they know it’s not you, oh definitely not you? OK, maybe that’s a stretch in interpretation but… that’s how it feels.

I wallowed, sure. But the beautiful thing about being in graduate school is that your life is split neatly into these little chunks of time. At UC Davis, we call them… quarters. At the end of these “quarters”, come these little things called seasonal “breaks” where you breathe and recharge.

Why can’t real life be like this?!? We should all move to Europe.

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And gradually, you realize that these blows you are taking are, well… would it be too much to call them little miracles? Because two years ago, when I first considered an MBA, if you had told me I would have even gotten an interview at a company that felt designed for me, I wouldn’t have believed you. I thought all people could see and would ever see on my resume was theater director, despite the fact that I had built multiple businesses from the ground up.

And an agricultural products company? OK… I still don’t believe that one.

And you know what’s crazy? Actually, I do. I do believe that too. I just needed a dramatic effect in my writing… because of the aforementioned background in theater. I actually feel I belonged at the multinational corporation, at least a bit. They are making a transition, like so many industries, into a more tech-heavy space. I had just wrapped an in-school consulting project as the team lead for an International Fortune 500 company in a similar situation. Me. I have the skills for this now. Or perhaps I have always had them but I am beginning to have the practice and the language with which to showcase them. My resume is night and day from what it once was in its ability to promote the potential employee in the corporate sector I truly believe I can be.

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Rejection means you are trying. Rejection means you are growing. And perhaps most significantly to your belief in yourself, rejection can show progress, perhaps more so than anything else. Let’s be honest – it’s the things you come close to but don’t get that show that you are moving forward. The one you get, well, that’s just the destination. It just means you arrived where you were supposed to go. And, of course, I’m speaking about so much more than a job search in saying this. I am speaking to the inevitable rejections that happen in the workplace, once you have the job, and as the logical next leap, the ones in your personal life too.

So. For the new year? I resolve to be REJECTED. Because I want to deepen my belief in myself, in what I can do, and what I can achieve. I want to be that much closer. I want to be able to feel it.

To all the companies this year who will help me with my resolution, thank you in advance. I owe you one.

And, if you happen to be an avid reader of my blog and are thinking, boy this reminds me a lot of something he wrote about a year ago at this time. That’s because it is. (I even used the featured image in the post.) I’ll let you be the judge what the two posts in tandem say about me. As always, I’m absolutely thrilled if you actually reach out to tell me!

The Values of Daniel Student, Inc.

It’s been percolating, and as I sit here diving into my final quarter, I wanted to at least put down some words to paper. So, without further ado, here we go…

Draft One. I would love your feedback!

The Values of Daniel Student, Inc.

1. Curiosity

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I seek not to find better answers, but to find better questions. I love asking why, particularly of people. Our curiosity peeks as toddlers, who ask why so much it can honestly get pretty annoying. But looking at the world with such wonder creates opportunities for growth and, I believe, is the source of creativity and innovation. That’s why we must try to bring it back even as we are growing farther from our most curious moment, when we are not taking the way the world works for granted.

Being curious also allows you to be expansive. I joke that I can “see both sides” or the value of “seeing both sides.” Curiosity enables you to see all people as humans, and your desire to understand them draws you into making connections between different worlds and different perspectives, out of which births something perhaps new to you and new to the world. This is creativity, to me.

A great way to embrace curiosity, from my background in the dramatic arts, is to say “yes, and…” This improv tool teaches us that taking someone else’s idea and rather than denying it, building off of it, can take you to unexpected and imaginative places.

2. Helping Others

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I find this one difficult to write about because this value by definition is supposed to be selfless. I am culturally Jewish, and one of the things that I value most about that religion is the idea that you are supposed to give to charity anonymously. It is the act of giving without expectation of any praise or reward that brings you closer to God. Or something like that.

That said, if you seek greater value and meaning in your own life, you can end up in an endless spiritual circle, or even worse, a downward spiral. Helping others can lend clarity to your existence, (or as much as you are going to get anyway) and, perhaps more concretely, asks that you see the best in people and their actions, which is, simply, just a nicer way to live in this world. In a more pragmatic sense, helping others accomplish their goals can enable voices and actions which might not have happened otherwise, making for a greater possibility for you, and others, to find the path forward.

3. Joy

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For years and years, I would tell people to stop wanting the “then”, and start finding satisfaction in the “now.” I absolutely never practiced what I preached. I, like most of the performers around me, wanted to make a full time living in theater and film. If we got that, we then wanted to be a lead role. Then to be nominated for a local award. Then a national award. Then win an award. Then win a lifetime achievement award. It never stops, looking outward for other’s approval.

I now subscribe to the movement that wants to measure nations’ wealth by Gross Domestic Happiness. I recently ended a vacation by saying “back to real life” and my girlfriend responded, “this IS real life.” To paraphrase Winnie the Pooh, “wherever you go, there you are.” It is no surprise that Benjamin Hoff wrote the “Tao of Pooh.” Eastern religion tells us to embrace nothingness, and in none of it having any particular value, you can find that it all has value. Or something like that.

Embracing joy puts you in the right now. It is a choice to be happy. Even when you are not. I like to tilt my head back and fully laugh. You can have an external joy or a hidden, internal joy. I would never tell you how to experience joy. But, as a leader, I would ask you to find it.

4. Learning

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Well, needless to say, I have embraced the whole idea of the importance of a “beginner’s mind” towards being a leader, as it is in the title of this blog and its accompanying podcast. I am a lifelong learner, and the things I am interested in learning about our infinitely expansive. I believe everything can be learned and the investigation of something, even if unsatisfying or challenging, is never time wasted. I learned to ride a bike in my 30’s – it was embarrassing and hard when you actually know your limits and pain points. I now am an avid bike rider.

It is in the act of learning where we perfect the skill we are being taught, but subtly, it is also where we perfect the skill of being open to possibilities. I think this applies to leadership because it enables you to imagine the future, and to provide an example of always being open to growth.

Linked to curiosity, a great lesson in learning I received was from my kindergarten creature. He would capture a bug from our garden, and bring it into the classroom and just sit with it, studying it. His interest was a silent invitation for others to come with their curiosity and learn. This is the power of leaders who love to learn.

5. Listening

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Listening is certainly the last but not least of this list. It is, perhaps, the most powerful tool we have as human beings. It creates empathy for others, allowing you to imagine life in their shoes, which means you can be more expansive and creative towards your own life. It also makes others feel heard, engendering their trust in you as a person and empowering them to feel more confident in themselves and their voice. It is a gift to both parties, and the ultimate collaborative tool. It is also the tool that enables most of the other values I have, particularly learning, curiosity, and helping others, to happen. But it also, for me personally, brings joy.

Listening focuses you and slows you down. Listening allows thinking. I am a big fan of silence. I practice taking in something someone is saying, and then processing what I think about it and how I can best serve that person with my response. In a fast-paced world and one in which social cues require removal of the awkward pause, this is easier said than done. But this is what a great theater director does (and that’s who I learned it from), and it is what a great leader can do as well. I like a nearly uncomfortable silence, that can create a space where truly trying to understand is allowed.

The Organizational Values… of Myself

“Put your money where your mouth is.”

Or, to put it another way.

“If you’re not willing to accept the pain real values incur, don’t bother going to the trouble of formulating a values statement.”

In a Harvard Business Review article from 2002, Patrick M. Lencioni begins by offering a great sample of strong, clear, corporate values.

“Communication. Respect. Integrity. Excellence.”

Where are they from, you ask?

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“Coming up with strong values,” he writes, “and sticking to them—requires real guts. Indeed, an organization considering a values initiative must first come to terms with the fact that, when properly practiced, values inflict pain. They make some employees feel like outcasts. They limit an organization’s strategic and operational freedom and constrain the behavior of its people. They leave executives open to heavy criticism for even minor violations. And they demand constant vigilance.”

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a wonderful pair of sessions led by the UC Davis Graduate School of Management Executive In Residence, Paul Bianchi, in which he led us through an exercise, taken from the book The Leadership Challenge, written by James M. Kouzes and Barry C. Posner. The concept was simple, and not unfamiliar, but effective. You take a large list of values and quickly and instinctively narrow them down again and again until you have chosen a few values that are specific to you.

I’ve (A) thought about my values a lot before and can often reference them in conversations with friends, and particularly in what I guess I’ll call “mentorship moments”, frequently with younger adults than myself in a variety of settings. I’ve also (B) had an opportunity to utilize my values in a leadership role in a work setting. Having run a small non-profit I was able to shape an office environment for which my values set the tone. Finally, I’ve (C) been involved in strategic planning in which we try to understand the vision and goals of a previously existing organization and made decisions that were based on the perceived values of the history of the whole over our own individual values.

But what I haven’t done? I haven’t envisioned an organization I will lead in the future, and for whom my own personal values will set the tone of my leadership, and the organization as a whole.

And, considering I’m getting an MBA and all, which could very well be renamed a “Masters in Business Leadership” in today’s environment, I figured what better time to really dive into this, and think a little about exactly what I want, and what matters to me, if I was in charge and building my organization from scratch. Play the game now… maybe reap the rewards later.

But then in googling around before starting this article, I came across the quote Lencioni wrote.

“If you’re not willing to accept the pain real values incur, don’t bother going to the trouble of formulating a values statement.”

I felt the real pain, myself, of trying to find correct values for an organization for which I was taking over as a leader, values that didn’t exactly align with even my own, at times, but that I felt were right for the business. I often felt hamstrung by these values, and, in the end, I think part of the reason I left was that I found myself unable to comply with the own values and vision I had helped build. It just… wasn’t the right fit.

So I’m going to do this, not simply because it’s a valuable (pun intended) exercise for my own personal development during this time of questioning and exploration, but because when (not if) I am in a professional role again that requires me being clear on my own and my organization’s values, having written out my own values statement seems like a great way to really respect the tremendous weight they hold on top of them.

So, with that in mind, I’m going to make this a two-part blog, for anyone following along. I’ll start with just listing them tonight. And then I’ll sit with them a bit, and you can too if you like, if you are reading this you probably know where to reach me and if not find me on LinkedIn. If you can spare a minute, let’s talk about them. I’m happy to do the same for you. Let’s poke at them. Make me defend them. I want to dive deep.

Because… what else am I here for? (And yes, I purposely left that “here” a little vague.)

Without further ado. Drumroll, please.

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Thank you.

The Values of Daniel Student, Inc.

Curiosity

Helping Others

Joy

Learning

Listening

Understanding Rejection

I don’t watch football much. I once had an opportunity to meet and work with a former pro quarterback and get to know him and his friends pretty well, and I was truly saddened by the low quality of life and health they faced.

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Former Philadelphia Eagles’ Pro Bowl Quarterback Mike Boryla, in his one-man play “The Disappearing Quarterback”, which I directed.

I felt it appropriate then, that with the idea to contemplate “rejection” as part of the MBA experience in this evening’s blog, that I paused to watch the thrilling second half of the AFC Championship Game between a team that always seems to figure out how to win, the Patriots, and a team that has not been in a Super Bowl in 50 years, the Kansas City Chiefs.

Because, much like the Chiefs, I tend to see myself always losing to the Patriots of the world. That somehow there seem to be these forces that allow others access to opportunities, fame, and success that I don’t receive.

And yet, there is perhaps a worthy metaphor in that the loser of this game will not lose the quality of his life nearly as much as the un-regulated paths of his predecessors. As someone who actually suffers from a personal health problem inherited from a predecessor, and for whom the expected survival of this problem has been incredibly and exponentially enhanced due to modern technology, this is actually perhaps less metaphor and more just plain reality.

I bring all of this up because I have been rejected a handful of times recently from summer MBA internship applications. I am struggling with this, and I wanted to understand why. I think I am less struggling with the rejection itself, and more the manner of it. The “not even getting an interview” rejection, the type that renders you perhaps a little more hopeless than the oh-so-close attempt of a millionaire 23-year-old.

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Because I am not 23. Indeed I am not 33 (and that’s as far as I will go in revealing my exact age :-).)

And I have this sense that I do this to myself, somehow. That I have always enjoyed being a bit of an outsider, a bit of my own path trodden. I rejected two business schools with higher rankings than the one I currently attend (with good financial, personal, and academic reasons but… still.) When I received one of my current internship rejections, a classmate noted how I wasn’t going to fit into their competitive culture anyway (she perhaps had more choice words than that, but you get my drift.)

So, then. Is rejection just the world’s gift to you to figure out what you truly value? To make you ask tough questions?

God I hope so.

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Because it is a universal truth, right? We all get rejected. It’s like our collective dirty secret.

So what do the scholars I turn to for things like this have to say? Those business minds or business-adjacent minds in scholarly reviews? I google “Stanford Social Innovation Review Rejection.”

I get their submission guidelines as my first hit. Not exactly the inspiration I was looking for. And yet…

SSIR will acknowledge receipt of your proposal within one to two weeks. SSIR editors will then review the proposal, and that process can take up to two months. We respond to all proposals, but we are not able to provide substantive feedback on each one that we receive. If we think that your proposal to write an article has promise, we will ask you to write it. Please note: An invitation to submit an article draft does not constitute acceptance of the article.

An invitation to submit an article draft does not constitute acceptance of the article.

I don’t often feel that I am invited into spaces where the elite gather. The best schools nor the Silicon Valley organizations that recruit from them.  I worry that my not being “invited to submit”, or, to translate, not “being recruited on the UC Davis campus because we are not a Top-15 school”, is the reason for my rejection. But, of course, being invited does not equal being accepted.

And, unpacking the word “accepted”, it gets at a bigger theme I’m intrigued about in terms of the nature of rejection. As Groucho Marx famously retorts…

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In order to truly feel rejected, you have to desire something. And in order to be “accepted” they have to desire you back. So if it is the school you chose that is holding you back, then perhaps you would never be truly “accepted”. I’m not, repeat NOT saying that Google employees would hold their noses at a UC Davis MBA grad, that’s far too reductive and a totally ungrounded aspersion (and I have actually applied to Google and have not been accepted nor rejected yet.) I am saying that there is a person who chooses Stanford and a person who chooses UC Davis. It may not be an actual choice, in the truest sense. I was rejected from the Stanford MBA program. But that rejection is, perhaps, the result of a series of choices throughout my life. That in some way we all choose, and refuse, our clubs by the millions of choices that make us who we are and where we are.

I feel like I’m making sense, at least a little there. If I was having a conversation with you instead of writing a blog I bet you could rephrase what I said back to me and we could really get somewhere ;-).

And I acknowledge that many of our so-called “choices” in life are a result of forces out of our control (like, growing up in an impoverished neighborhood or challenges faced by women, people of color, and other minorities that I am not a part of). I get that. And that is an important experience of rejection, one that I am not sure I can or should speak to, as it is not a very large element of my experience. But I did want to acknowledge it here before moving on.

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“Rejection Harvard Business Review” google search works a lot better.

Ron Ashekenas writes in “Rejection is Critical for Success” that “our basic human need to belong causes these incidents to stick with us through the years” and that it leads to “entitlement” and “resignation.” Within organizations, he writes “leaders need to encourage a more conscious and healthy toleration of rejection. While all employees should feel comfortable offering ideas, raising issues, and making observations — they should do so with the knowledge that they may be rejected. If they get discouraged or angry about not having their ideas accepted, they might shut down and stop contributing. Similarly, if employees feel so self-important that the organization should never turn them down, their sense of entitlement will make it difficult to drive constructive change.”

As to the employees being potentially rejected, Nicole Torres asks “what makes one person more resilient than another in the face of rejection?” Lauren Howe, a doctoral student in social psychology at Stanford (yup, irony not lost there) and her professor Dr. Carol Dweck explored what makes people more likely to link rejection to their sense of self.

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They described the challenges that people with “fixed mindsets” (a belief that personality traits don’t change) have with rejection over people with “growth mindsets” (a belief that personality traits are malleable). No surprise there. But they and I were surprised to learn “those differences emerge in the smaller condition,” like simply being “told to imagine how they would respond if they met someone at a party, felt a ‘spark,’ and then later overheard the person saying that they weren’t interested.”

“One reason for it might be that if someone rejects you without even getting to know you first, you might wonder if there is some quality about you that is so obviously undesirable that a virtual stranger would say, ‘No, no thanks, not interested,’” Howe noted.

Ah, there’s the rub. That’s exactly how I feel. In my case, it’s my 10+ years of working as a theater director and, more recently as a film actor. This industry famously involves a LOT of rejection. And the good news is that, in order to survive, you learn to work up a thick skin. But the bad news is that when you are transitioning into something new it leaves you with the immense weight of having spent a lifetime questioning what about you made that opportunity always seemingly go to someone else. You fight the bitterness. You fight to keep up that “growth mindset” instead of falling into a fixed mindset you see in so many around you – that the world is just unfair.

And when you inevitably “flunk out” (which is not the way you choose to look at what happened most of the time, but sometimes you can’t help yourself) and leave the harsh, unrelenting, and unsustainably paying industry, and try to convince the world that those skills translate and the business leadership in running your own theater company is meaningful and relevant…

…it’s hard not to fall into a cycle where you believe that everything you have done in your life thus far has just amounted to the equivalent of a shrug and a “no, no thanks, not interested” before you even have the chance to tell them why.

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Those are my bad days. They are very few. But I wanted to share them. Because actually, I’m not being rejected right now. I have a new part-time job that makes me feel very accepted and allows me to invest in my “growth mindset”. I love my MBA program and feel that it is opening up all sorts of doors and that it has “accepted” me in all facets of the word, and its a club I do want to belong to, even if it would want someone like me to be a member.

And I have to caveat that this post makes me feel a little whiney. And a little guilty. Like, who the hell am I to expect being “accepted” and to be upset when I’m not. I much prefer to be the guy giving advice to my peers, reminding them of all their successes in the face of this one rejection they just got, and delivering words of wisdom like “Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.” That’s some Ralph Waldo Emerson for you. I’m the kind of guy who espouses that kind of stuff.

But the final thought on rejection I’ll offer here?

It’s easier when it happens to someone else.

Resolutions for 2019 from an MBA

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

With that in mind, here’s to continuing to strive for different thinking, as the calendar turns to 2019 in my first year as an MBA candidate at UC Davis Graduate School of Management.

EMBRACE SILENCE

“I think silence is one of the greatest gifts that we have.” – Fred Rogers

I finally watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor? this week, and I was reminded by how much I am still influenced today by the lessons I first saw through the screen back when I was just a toddler.

As an adult, I once had the honor of working with one of our countries best theater directors, Blanka Zizka of The Wilma Theater, who not only inspires by constantly reinventing herself and her company (see the linked article), but also gave me a memorable lesson in leadership over a decade ago.

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She does a tremendous thing before she gives notes to her cast after a rehearsal… she sits in silence, and only speaks once she has figured out what she wants to say. At first, it’s highly uncomfortable for everyone in the room, as she just sits there, staring at us, sometimes for a couple of minutes. After the second or third time however, we all get used to it, and soon everyone does it, taking long pauses before they respond to a question or prompt. The power of thinking through what you want to say before you say it, so that your input can be well-constructed, empathetic, and clear, is a tremendous creative leadership tool.

Fred Rogers apparently once wanted to explore the element of time with his viewers so he set a timer for a minute and we all watched in silence as it counted down. He was also noted for not responding immediately after an interview subject finished a thought, giving them space and permission to continue, reaching topics and feelings they might not have otherwise. More on this later.

FIND STORIES

“For true story finders, the world is a scavenger hunt” – Latif Nasser

It’s probably appropriate that a lot of my business lessons I’m thinking about during my winter break off of business school come from the realms of art and story-telling, as they are the core of my professional background. If you are at all interested in how to ask good questions and investigate challenging problems thoroughly and dynamically however, which is a definite MBA skill, you should be listening to RadioLab, whose most recent episode explored one of their most prolific producer’s process in finding stories. Latif Nasser has great, practical examples of how to use google alerts and Wikipedia for exploration into the unknown, but I preferred to think about his larger message towards exploration.

In doing so, it coupled wonderfully with this great GQ interview with Andy Serkis that I found in my own idle surfing on YouTube this week, whom you may or, aptly, may not know from his motion capture roles as Gollum in the The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, King Kong in King Kong, and Caesar in The Planet of the Apes re-make trilogy, and more.

When I was a director, I would talk about two main types of great actors, the “larger than life” ones and the “slow burners”. There are people who can just walk into a room and be the most outlandish, vibrant person there, think Jim Carrey, and that’s an amazing gift and skill, undoubtedly. But as a director, or more generically, a leader, it’s hard to work with those people, as you mostly need to leave them alone to be the genuises they are. But then there are the ones that you don’t recognize the genius in right away, who give a first read of the script and it’s relatively bland and shapeless and aren’t busy brooding in the corner refusing to lose character. But… they ask you great questions, and they come in the next day with their own pile of research on the character or something they were playing around with, in the mirror quietly at home perhaps… those are the ones you love working with. Andy Serkis really showcases this here, and, I believe, in his work.

So, there is probably some inherent MBA-style value in this notion for some of you, but those looking for a more specific connection…

GIVE GIFTS TO MY NETWORK

I started a new job last week with The Potrero Group, as a Thought Leadership and Branding Associate. I can’t describe what an amazing feeling it is to be offered the opportunity to put the learnings of this past year with my classes at Ideo U and now with my MBA into practice, while I continued my studies and growth simultaneously. Moreso, I am being offered a chance to explore and support the expansive thinking of a team that “are really great social scientists” and “think deeply about social processes and people”, as their clients have raved. So far, that couldn’t be more true.

One of the “Learning Resources” articles on their website, which I perused today AS PART OF MY JOB (how LUCKY AM I), had a section that just killed me, so I am going to present it to you here in whole. Please check out Cracking the Network Code: Four Principles for Grantmakers to read it in its entirety.

“As former regional director for Habitat for Humanity International in the Middle East and East Africa, David Haskell oversaw HFHE’s meteoric rise in impact. In that role and his current role as Executive Director of Dreams InDeed International, he has observed many networks functioning in distressed communities. Haskell noted that networking to accomplish goals is the norm among people in poverty. ‘You have to make ends meet, so you are always finding solutions in suboptimal conditions. But beauty comes out of this. Imagine that you were tiling a floor. You could use uniform tiles that all fit together nicely but are rather expensive. Or, if you cannot afford those tiles, you can make a mosaic of discarded tile shards. It winds up far more beautiful and functional than the fine tiles. That’s the picture of how you do this networked approach,’ he said. ‘You look around, take stock of the broken and missing pieces, figure out how you can support each other, develop trusting relationships so everyone will work together and hang in there, and you finally create a multiparty collaborative effort that produces better results than a simple grantor-grantee relationship will ever achieve.’ Since any given situation will present a different collection of tile pieces, every network is unique.”

For any team, in this case, my cohort at my program, this is such an important and valuable ideal to strive towards. I titled this section “give gifts”, because again, to pull out from my artist bag of tricks, I once got to work with a playwright, Greg Romero, who believed in the creative expression of “gift exchange.” As you may guess, the idea of gifts could range from the very traditional, an item or a long hug, to the very untraditional, asking a great question of someone or sharing knowledge. That the very last thing my class did together before we breaked was an unprorious White Elephant was not lost on me!

We all benefit from gifting each other with our presence and knowledge. It’s why I love the American idea of networking, that simply by introducing yourself and sharing your journey with another and asking them to share theirs with you, that they then can genuinely want to help you, and vice versa. As another great Potrero Group resource article gifted me, “Emergent Learning: A Framework for Whole-System Strategy, Learning, and Adaptation”, we all “could learn something from ant colonies… the more they interact, the faster ant colonies learn where the best food sources are.”

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I just LOVED this graphic the included in the article, with the concept of “Node Thinking”, which, they say, “succeeds because resources of all types — leadership, money,
talent — have dramatically more impact when leveraged across organizations,
fields and sectors”

I want to give gifts in 2019.

Hopefully, this was a good beginning.

P.S.

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“I’d like to give you all an invisible gift. A gift of a silent minute to think about those who have helped you become who you are today. Some of them may be here right now. Some may be far away. Some, like my astronomy professor, may even be in heaven. But wherever they are, if they’ve loved you, and encouraged you, and wanted what was best in life for you, they’re right inside your self. And I feel that you deserve quiet time, on this special occasion, to devote some thought to them. So, let’s just take a minute, in honor of those that have cared about us all along the way. One silent minute…

Whomever you’ve been thinking about, imagine how grateful they must be, that during your silent times, you remember how important they are to you. It’s not the honors and the prizes, and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted. That we never have to fear the truth. That the bedrock of our lives, from which we make our choices, is very good stuff.”

-Fred Rogers

Finals v. Job Search, a battle 16 years in the making

The MBA is a fascinating hybrid of job search and skill building. As someone going back to school for the first time in 16 years and who hasn’t had to do a full search for employment since college either, the last couple of weeks have been a fascinating experience of balance and prioritization and at what changes in life over time and what… doesn’t.

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I can’t honestly say that my first MBA finals made me nervous, or anxious, or scared. And that’s not because there wasn’t anything at stake. While I highly doubt my GPA will come up in a future job interview, I do rely on keeping a 3.5 to hold onto a scholarship which amounts to more than 1/2 the cost of my admission. And while the classes are curved to ensure that the lowest score you can get is basically a 3.0, I do not have a heavy quantitative background, which is the main basis of three of my four this quarter.

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One of the questions from my mid-term for Economics I actually answered by writing “Math is Hard.” I am not used to this level of intellectual challenge. I maintained a 3.5 in undergrad, and that was with a frequent focus on extracurriculars (and no, I don’t mean that in quotes, I really was involved in a lot of student activities!) And at a pretty damn good school too (as Lisa Simpson famously said, “There’s no way I’ll get into an Ivy League school now. At this rate, I probably won’t even get into Vassar.”)

 

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“I’ve had just about enough of your Vassar bashing, young lady.”

 

But, perhaps because old habits die hard, I found myself campaigning to my fellow students in this, my first quarter of grad school, to be careful how much they prioritized their classes and classwork. I actually take a lot of pride that I have had a couple of friends tell me they realized I was right and would focus less on their homework next quarter. The beauty of the MBA is that our goal, first and foremost, is to get a job after we graduate. That’s what ultimately drove me to this decision – I considered a Ph.D. – but knew that what I needed most was a chance to open doors to a larger salary and, I mean this sincerely, a larger impact.

Actually, check that. Not to get a job. Let me quote what I’ve said to a lot of people in informational interviews recently. And, again, it’s a good line, but I also really do mean it sincerely. “I’m not looking for a job. I’m looking for a career.” Translation? These two years are designed for us to explore, to dive deep, truly dive deep, into what excites us, moves us, and motivates us in the working world. And that can be partially discovered in a classroom. But anyone who has spent time outside of classrooms will be the first to tell you that the only way to truly learn it is in the real world.

 

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Easy opportunity to show how old I am by putting in a picture of the original cast of The Real World on MTV

 

And that’s both the contradiction and the beauty of an MBA. You are studying business. In a classroom. Because the idea that you can’t learn real-world skills in the classroom is kind of a tired stereotype too, right? Am I really paying tens of thousands of dollars a year just to have three letters by my name?

I didn’t have any perfect professors this semester. Anyone who knows me knows I am not shy to call out their imperfections. But I also want to take a moment to detail the kinds of things, I, who have already 10+ years in the workforce, most of it as the leader of my organization, learned just in the last 10 weeks alone.

And recognize these are core courses, designed not necessarily for directly applicable skills but to give you a baseline to build off of. And yet… some unbelievably pertinent learning, simple but profound, emerged from this quarter.

Micro-Economics (or as we call it, Markets and the Firm)

Every business I go into or connect with these days, I am aware exactly how they are trying to utilize price, sales, and a host of other techniques (in the case of the airlines, making things as unbearable as possible – actual reading from class) to make sure I spend exactly as much as they want me to spend. I can read financial news and not get overwhelmed by my lack of understanding – this is indeed a core skill to build off of.

Financial Accounting

After years of doing my own books for my small business, I sure wish I had taken a class like this. To be able to interpret the numbers for what they really mean… let’s just say I would have liked to have left my theater company in better financial shape than I thought I did when I exited.

Statistics (or as we call it, Data Analysis for Managers)

I’ll keep it simple here and say I hadn’t done any real math in fifteen years. And in a way, it’s like practicing an instrument. You have to keep it up to even keep your baseline skills going. I’m tremendously glad to have my baseline returned. But I won’t be taking Stats 2… at least for now…

Articulation and Critical Thinking

Two things stand out for me in this course. The first is a little bit of a humble-brag, but a necessary one to explain the value sometimes revealed in the learning process. I realized that all those years of learning to speak publicly in the theater will have a major payoff in my ability to impress and succeed in the more corporate world. I started out great in this class and never stopped.

That said… on the writing end, one in which I felt equally proficient, I finally conquered a nagging feeling that my writing, much like this blog, was too profuse and standing in the way of my efficiency in delivering my point to business audiences. As simple as it sounds, this class returned me to some basics I badly needed.

I delivered my point in short sentences. I used simple verbs to emphasize my ideas. I analyzed both sides of an argument, clearly articulating biases. In fact, I’m doing all of that right now.

On that note, I should probably go back and edit this post from the top…

But, I’m not being graded on it… so I won’t.

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*Interesting author’s note. As I was writing this my grades were coming in for multiple classes. I pumped my fist a couple of times. I frowned a couple of times. I felt my value as a person increase and decrease. I also quickly moved on. Things change. They stay the same.

Where There Is Smoke…

You are not quite sure what you want to say about this week.

At its face, the story of how an MBA program was affected by the worst wildfire in California history feels small and any focus on it insignificant at best and disrespectful at worst. Even the obligatory cover photo of a man in a mask feels trite – this is about so much more than masks.

Yet, there is a story there, and in the experience of the week, you think important and valuable lessons for the “beginner’s mind.”

What began with a surprise on the morning of the 13th to find out classes at UC Davis were canceled, led to a conversation on your class’s Whatsapp group about how by doing so, the university shot itself in the foot. If the weather did not improve the next day, or the day after that, they would have set precedent that they would cancel and open themselves to liability. Sure enough, after the initial announcement that classes would proceed they reneged on that promise the following morning. And they canceled the next day. And the day after that.

UC Davis has been closed for over a week now, leading into your Thanksgiving break.

And, to be honest, at first, it felt like a snow day.

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This little inner child screams with glee about the ability to be irresponsible and un-adult. A day to just play. You make plans in the evening with friends. You take that trip to San Francisco for a meet-up and you do so with a lot less reservation of being sleepy the next day for classes. Your international classmates joke, rather darkly, that the air quality causing said cancelation is no worse than an average day in Beijing or cities in India. And they aren’t exaggerating. Which really, truly makes you think. Only when you live it, does the reality of what that means actually set in.

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Shortly, however, reality sets in.

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As one class after another, one club after another, one program after another, gets canceled, you start actually connecting to the inexorable truth that you are, in fact, an adult. You have paid for an opportunity to learn, one that you have placed all bets on to open up new doors of fortune for your life. You are “all in” as the poker players put it.

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You start wondering if you actually had a winning bet, or maybe you did, but the hand is going to have to be played over due to a freakin’ technicality. Sure, you and your classmates are graded on a curve, but will you now be penalized for being an aural learner? Will you lose your scholarship at the end of the year based on the fact that you couldn’t go to a class and learn the material as fully as you can? You are in a quarter system, so each class only has ten meetings. You have now missed two for accounting. This is not a small percentage.

Meanwhile, your professors are canceling homework, and you find yourself using valuable time looking into informational interviews and internship applications, and you are actually grateful for this added opportunity, perhaps, arguably, to do what is really, truthfully the most valuable thing you do in an MBA. Job search. You discuss the tragedy with a couple of people, and it makes you sound smart, informed and caring. Did you just use the tragedy to sound like a better person? Are you that ruthless about getting ahead?

You are also starting to recognize that the air… is getting worse. This is no longer a joke about Americans freaking out over an everyday occurrence overseas. Your family is texting you about wearing masks, and you know you should, but perhaps you are in shock, or maybe it’s your Beijing-resident classmate warning that masks themselves cause danger. You have come around to the idea that UC Davis did the right thing. Being here isn’t healthy.

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Inextricably though, you return to campus one more time. To the annual “Friendsgiving” celebration. You bring your “spare change” coin jar to the event after it is announced that donations will be accepted for the victims of the Campfire. It is completely full at the end of the night, and some of that “change” is in the form of $20 bills and gift cards. There is a low turnout – many have chosen to not come back to campus now that classes are canceled. But, then again, the turnout isn’t as low as you expected. Despite the fact that is now, at times, even hard to breathe INSIDE the building, everyone gathers, mostly people from countries outside of America, and a tradition is held.

You catch up with a few people from adjoining programs you haven’t spoken to in weeks. Who somehow now feel like old friends.

And honestly? You just feel lucky. Some absent classmates have relatives who have lost their homes. Others are absent due to being busy volunteering in Chico. You and your classmates are using the Whatsapp group to reach out to check on the former and reach out to support the latter with pride.

You hit the road the next morning, leaving the eerie grey calm of a near-empty campus behind you. You can’t help but think this all feels a bit post-apocalyptic.

You will be back next week. The journey continues.

You are, indeed, thankful for that. Whatever happens next.