Playing Red Light, Green Light With the Man

She's an MBA! B-school journaler Anne Ruybalid shares her secrets to success. In the end: The journey is what matters

It has been said that the entire business school experience can be broken into two parts: 1) Autumn quarter core, and 2) everything else. I couldn't agree more. Facing graduation, I can still remember the moments after handing in my first accounting exam. Exhausted and certain I had failed, I hurried downstairs and out of the building so nobody would see me crying. The tears in my eyes kept me from seeing the enormous pile of dog poop until it was too late. Yes, it happened just like that.

Autumn quarter, luxuries came in small doses: a 20-minute phone call here, an hour to do a load of laundry there. Autumn quarter I was still learning the rules of Business School Networking: Whoever runs out of either business cards or wine first, wins. (I haven't found another graduate school on campus that gives its students business cards, or even half as much alcohol). Sleep was for sissies. Exercise was for fools. Autumn quarter I was fighting the math bug, stomping my feet at my economics professor, and feigning familiarity with the elusive supply chain.

Flash forward to 2007. Not only did I understand business, I taught it to undergraduates as a teaching assistant. Yes, even accounting. How did this happen? Well, at some point it all comes together. At some point you stop thinking about tactics and start thinking about reasons. You learn to stop fighting—and start feeding—the math bug. I guess this transition in thinking is the difference between wanting an MBA and having an MBA.

Corporate America, Take a Hike

So I did it. I have an MBA. I've spent the past two years listening to the buzz of business around me. But how much have I really changed? I continue my boycott of the American meat industry. I'm still a socialist when it comes to health care. My heroes are Ira Glass and Emily Saliers, not Bill Gates and Howard Schultz. If ever asked the infamous "How would you move Mount Fuji?" Microsoft (MSFT) interview question, I would quote Michael Franti: "Those who dam streams can build fountains, but those of us who let them run free, we can move mountains."

But last week, when waiting in the 75-minute line to get into Franti's concert, all I wanted to do was get out my megaphone and shout to the show's organizer, "You call this mess a queue?!?" Yes, business school bit me, but I'm no more infatuated with Microsoft or Starbucks than I was when I started. I loved, and learned from, business school, but Corporate America? I could take it or leave it.

June 9 was graduation day. Tickets were so hot I was ready to scalp my parents' for two train tickets to Canada. Graduation included some B-school enthusiasts' "this is the first day of the rest of your life" messages (at least nobody broke out the PowerPoint slides), cake and punch, and a lot of smiling for the camera (NOT my thing, but I was a good sport). Our post-graduation party included a family trip out to Lake Desire, where the professor for whom I was a teaching assistant pedal-boated my 62-year-old mother into the middle of the lake, at midnight, to test the echo.

Stay Away From Rankings

For those of you who have read my journal for the past year or two, hoping to learn about how to choose, and succeed in, a business school, I can offer you advice on both.

First, the choice: Distinguish among your favorite programs without using school rankings. This is hard. Many cases are the same. No matter what MBA program people end up attending, I suspect they'll spend some time on the usual suspects: Coke (KO) Classic/New Coke fiasco, Wal-Mart's (WMT) distribution system, and Cirque du Soleil's reinvention of the circus.

The difference in MBA programs comes with the quality of discussion and depth of analysis. The difference comes with the social and professional network that people build. The difference comes with the access to professors, program staff, career connections, and people who are interested in you and your career. When you're looking at business school programs, don't focus on the curriculum. Ask about how much time professors spend helping students apply the material in their summer internships. Don't count the number of clubs. Rather, learn about how students interact in social settings, and how they find opportunities to meet people from the community.

Next, to help you succeed, I've compiled Anne Ruybalid's Secrets to B-School Success:

1. The things that won't end up on your résumé are often the things most worth doing. Join a board. Volunteer. Stand up for your beliefs against a classroom full of dissenters. Try something you've never done before, won't understand, or don't think you'll be good at.

2. The "coolness premium" on jobs leads to the following implication: Don't put yourself in too much debt to take the lower-paying job you really want.

3. Just because an economist, or businessman, says it's true, doesn't mean it is.

4. In a balanced world, division of labor and comparative advantage are kings. Fiction writers should not be operations managers, and operations managers should not write fiction. Avoid reading Goldratt's The Goal at all costs.

5. Business school will teach you a lot of things, but it won't teach you who you are. (Although a Crystal Ball simulation can predict it within 58% accuracy, which you may learn depending on your core and elective curriculum).

In the game of "Red Light, Green Light" with The Man, business school is like a two-year free pass to keep moving forward. The pace and intensity with which we chose to walk was different, and we all started at different places. Our reasons for entering the game were different. Some of us walked sideways, keeping our eyes on a different goal. Some of us charged forward; some paced themselves by stopping at an occasional watering hole. Some places were as dark as tunnels, and only a couple of us had the foresight to bring flashlights. Sometimes, if we were lucky, another classmate would take our hand and guide us through. In the end, the journey is the difference between having an MBA and being an MBA.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.