Don’t let the title mislead you. This blog article by Erika Andersen is about much more than ranting against MBAs. It’s about how to become good at what you do – a master of your trade. I would also recommend a little handbook titled Mastery by George Leonard for anyone who wants to master anything in life. Having read has lead to my perspectives changing for the better. The idea, presented in the book, of loving the journey rather the destination is so universally true. Once this principle has been understood, I see it everywhere, most recently in Mihály Csíkszentmihályi‘s notion of flow in positive psychology – the complete, immersed involvement and enjoyment in the process of an activity. We need more of this kind of flow in this world.
I feel conflicted about MBAs. On one hand, I get that the conceptual and analytical tools that form the bulk of most MBA programs are very useful to someone who wants to operate a business. On the other hand, I know way too many MBAs who can’t manage or lead their way out of a paper bag – and still think they’re the bomb because…well, because they have an MBA.
I just read an article on MBAs and their merits by a guy named Todd Tauber. Todd is fan of MBAs, and basically argues that the current vogue for dissing MBAs among young entrepreneurs is misguided. Interestingly, although he acknowledges that MBAs may be outdated and less useful for the 21st century than they need to be, he also proposes that they’re being fixed even as we speak, that the B-Schools “get it,” and are in the process of making MBAs relevant.
Uh-huh. I’ve been hearing that for a long time, and I don’t have much confidence that it’s true.
Here’s what I really think about MBAs.
– If you want to make a lot of money working for a big corporation that only hires its management track people from the “best” business schools, and you have $150K to invest in helping assure that will happen, get an MBA.
– If you really love going to school, and you’ve finished your undergrad degree and are interested in business (especially the intellectual and theoretical aspects of business) and you – or your parents – can afford the six-figure price tag, get an MBA.
– If you want to run a business or be a senior executive, but you don’t feel confident in your own ability to learn how to do that on your own without the framework of a curriculum, get an MBA.
Because (sorry Todd) my experience of observing and working with people who have MBAs over the past 40 years leads me to believe that whether or not people have that degree doesn’t seem to have much to do with whether or not they’ll be able to create happy, successful lives for themselves. Having an MBA really just means that you paid your money, and you went to class and studied sufficiently to pass enough of your courses to graduate. It doesn’t predict whether you’ll be able to apply what you’ve learned to the real world, and – most important – it seems to have very little bearing on whether or not you’ll be able to continue to learn, to keep acquiring the skills and knowledge you’ll need along the way.
I’m convinced that being a world-class learner is much more important to your success in business (and in life) than having any kind of advanced degree. In fact, I become more sure every day that the ability to learn quickly and deeply is the single most important skill for the 21st century. Someone who’s a great learner will take best and fullest advantage of time spent in business school – but he or she will also take best and fullest advantage of all the circumstances and resources available to him or her every day. The key is that ability to learn – it’s like a continuously revving engine of growth. I actually wish there was another word for it – ‘learning’ has such boring, schoolroom-ish connotations as a word. How about mastery? Maybe we should call such people masters of mastery.
Here are the qualities I’ve seen over the years in folks who are true masters of mastery – the people who are just plain good at getting good at things.
Aspiration. Great learners are not satisfied with the status quo. They have a vision of what they could be, know, do, achieve, master – and they’re relentless in figuring out how to get there.
Neutral self-awareness. In order to learn something new, you have to be clear about your current knowledge or capability, and able to look at it almost as a third party. For example, I met someone a few months ago who thinks he’s a truly great leader, and he’s really committed to that self-assessment – not neutral at all. However, based on the evidence of how he operates every day and how he’s seen by those around him, it seems he’s actually a poor leader. But his lack of neutral and accurate self-awareness makes it nearly impossible for him to be open to feedback or learning in this area. I call this kind of deeply inaccurate (and deeply committed) self-assessment The American Idol Syndrome, in honor of all those contestants past, present and future who are convinced they’re going to be the next American Idol – but can’t actually sing. In order to master anything, you have to be a ‘fair witness’ of your own current capability: to be able to stand back from yourself and say “I’m a novice,” if that’s true for you right now.
Endless Curiosity. True curiosity is a very powerful thing, and it’s built into all of us. Anyone who’s ever been around a toddler for any length of time can attest to that. The endless “why?” and “how come?” and “what’s that?” are all outward manifestations of that inward engine of curiosity. Curiosity is the impulse to investigate. As children, that impulse is a powerful, instinctive survival mechanism for each of us: the more we understand about our environment, and the more quickly we understand it, the more likely we are to succeed as human beings. Kids’ insatiable curiosity drives them to learn to speak, eat, walk, understand how to manipulate objects, learn to interact with other human beings. It leads them to understand what is dangerous and what is safe, what is delicious and what is disgusting, what is useful and what is pointless.
Unfortunately, many of us lose touch with that inborn curiosity as we become adults. We assume we’re largely done growing, and that we understand things well enough, thank you very much. And our curiosity is often stifled by others, as well. We’re taught, “don’t meddle in things that don’t concern you,” “don’t read ahead,” and “don’t question your superiors,” and even “curiosity killed the cat.” All clear societal messages to stop investigating your environment.
In order to make your way through this modern world successfully – to be a true learner – you have to re-connect with your innate curiosity. The best learners (and most successful people) I know are continually asking curiosity-based questions like, “How does that work?” and “Why is that happening?” and “How can we/I….?” and “What if…?” Endless curiosity is essential to mastery.
Willingness to be not-good. This may be the toughest aspect of true learning. The path to being great at anything includes many, many points of being not great. And that’s frustrating and embarrassing. This is especially difficult for people who are smart and good at things (some things). When they run into a new skill or capability that requires real time and effort to master, where their initial efforts are clunky or incorrect, their impulse is to give up (and often to blame others or the thing itself for their immediate lack of success). Being able to keep going, to work through feeling (and being) incompetent and inexpert on the way to competence and expertise, is essential to real learning of any kind. I wrote a post about this a few weeks ago that seemed to strike a chord with people; I believe we all know intuitively that real learning requires both being OK with our own initial ineptness, and faith in our ability to get through it.
The problem is, as I said before, we generally think of learning as boring. I bet if I had put the word “learning” in the title of this post, very few people would have read it. Don’t get distracted by our ho-hum associations with the concept: call it what you want, but the ability to discover and master new ideas and skills is your surest path to success. Get an MBA if you really want , and if you can afford it…
But whatever you do, post-graduate-degree-wise, become a master of mastery.