Sunday, January 10, 2010

What do HBS students do over winter break?

How do HBS students spend their holidays? The answer is telling as to the kind of remarkable people that are here.

1. Travel around the world - There are dozens of trips both officially organized by HBS and unofficially organized by students that go to every corner of the world. The official trips are called IXPs (Immersion Experience Program), and are mostly opportunities to see business in a foreign economy with a little bit of tourism on the side. The unofficial trips are called "treks" and are the reverse; mostly tourism with a little bit of business exposure. Both go to mainstream places like China, India, UAE, etc. and can get as exotic as you wish. My sectionmates are in Chile, Hungary, Ethiopia, Nepal, Argentina, Sweden, Australia, and everywhere you can imagine. There are also treks to Silicon Valley and other US destinations.

2. Climb Mountains - I don't know how many students in my class have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro or the mountains of Patagonia, but it is a ridiculously high percentage. Many students flock to these challanges over the winter holidays, sometimes making the ascent for the second time in their life. Climbing the tallest peaks in the world is a blatant metaphor for how most HBS students think of their overall journey through life. I actually find that rather inspirational.

3. Shadow internship program - The holidays are too short for a full blown internship program, but some students take the opportunity to shadow a professional in a field they are very unfamiliar with, but are very interested in. Examples are working with a real estate development guru, a candidate for the US Senate, and a business leader in a professional sports team. This use of time is great for those who are trying to either A) learn more about fields that they have little experience with and want to get into, or are B) just curious about but don't want to spend the whole summer doing a full internship.

4. Take classes -
HBS offers intensive one week seminars for students who wish to remain local. These seminars are taught by the preeminent leaders of their fields and are a great way to network with other people who are intensely focused on a particular subject.

To round things out, some students try to take it easy and spend some time catching up with family, work on a personal business, travel locally, or do a combination of any of the above.

The common theme is that everybody recognizes this time off from school to be a great opportunity to learn more about themselves and the world, and we are all very grateful to have this moment.

Monday, January 4, 2010

What do you believe in?

Do you believe that your life's purpose is already decided? And that all we have to do is to figure out what that purpose is, so that we can best fulfill it?

You may or may not have a strong feeling one way or another, but I think that most people believe this at least subconsciously. This is manifested in thoughts of "I need to figure out what my passions are" or "I just need to figure out what my purpose on Earth is."

This may seem like an odd subject to cover in an MBA blog, but the question of one's purpose and passions are ones that beleaguer many HBS students. To whom much is given, much is expected... and HBS students love getting every question right... including what impact we were "meant" to have on this world.

Many people probably don't believe their purpose is pre-determined, but we act that way anyway. We act like there is some ledger somewhere high in the metaphysical sky, which says the following:

"[Insert your name here], a smart and gifted 20-something, born in [insert your birthplace], his/her purpose in life is [insert the all-important purpose here]."

We go through life like that sentence has been filled out for us already, and all we have to do is just discover, or decode, what it says. Hence the eternal question of "what is my purpose in this world?" By asking such a question, it implies that people believe the answer comes from somewhere else - from an outside source. All we have to do is "figure it out," and if we don't figure it out, we run the risk of disappointing others; whether that be your friends, your parents, your peers, your society, or perhaps your religion. Nobody wants to go through life only at the end to figure out they lived for the "wrong" purpose, or even worse, missed having any sort of purpose at all. As I said, HBS students like to get every question right.

What I would like to argue, is that no such ledger exists. No such sentence has been written. It is not in fact your duty to figure out what your purpose is in life, but to decide what your purpose is in life. It is your job to fill in the blanks to your own sentence.

This idea can at first be met with some resistance and discomfort. It is after all quite comforting to think that our life already has a purpose (even if we don't know it). That we are indeed part of some grander plan. That it's just a matter of figuring it all out. It's a lot more troubling to accept that there is no such thing. That we are responsible for choosing our own purpose. And that if we don't choose, our lives will have, by definition, no real purpose.

However, after the initial resistance to the idea, it can start to actually be reassuring, and quite liberating. We don't have to worry about disappointing some grander plan, or upsetting some unquestionable system. We don't have to figure out what we think we were "destined" for, or to fear the "wrong" answer. It frees us to no end. We are the ones who choose our own purpose, and while some decisions may be better than others, the only wrong answer is to squander this gift which we have been given.

The sooner in life we accept this, the sooner we can actually come up with a way to internalize and handle this extremely amazing gift. The sooner we are able to master this question, the sooner we are actually able to live out our own purpose driven life. I would wager that people like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, William Buffett, and Barack Obama, didn't just try to figure out their purpose, but at one point decided what their purpose would be.

Do not worry if you don't know the answer on how to fill in the blank to your own sentence. As long as we are here on Earth, the idea can never expire. We can always fill in our own blank, and we can also change and correct it. For some of us, a compelling drive or urge will make it easy. For others, it will be more difficult. But the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can do it, the happier we will be, and the greater the positive impact we can have.

Disclaimer: This post's thoughts are a confluence of many thoughts and existing ideas. I have stated nothing particularly original; just my own interpretation of an old philosophy.