In The Art of War, Sun Tzu says that a successful leader wins first then goes to war. If "winning first" means laying out careful plans, I won my admission to an MBA program about two years ago. In fact, I don't think I've ever planned anything as carefully as I planned my path to business school.
Recently, I completed the final step in that plan—I accepted admission to the Kellogg School of Management.
While Duke and Michigan (my alternatives) would offer me an exceptional business education, Kellogg ultimately feels like the best fit. Among my options, Kellogg represents the strongest brand name and the most well-traveled path to top strategy consultancies (my target post-graduation career).
A Strong Connection from the Start
Kellogg has also shown an impressive capacity for interpersonal interaction. Where Michigan and Duke reached out to me once or twice after my acceptance, I've received more than a dozen personal phone calls or e-mails from Kellogg students, alumni, administrators, and professors. From the day they called to tell me I'd been accepted, the Kellogg community has made it clear they want me—not just someone like me.
Sure, it's hard to ignore Kellogg's reputation. Many rankings place them among the top 10 (if not top five) U.S. business schools. But I've sensed a strong connection with Kellogg from the moment I started my application process. As if to reaffirm my intuition, Kellogg also offered me the most compelling financial aid package. All told, I couldn't be more confident that I'm choosing the program that fits me best.
Confidence with my choice, however, didn't make it easier to turn down two great schools. Logistically, it was pretty simple. I sent a fax and checked a box on a Web site. But saying "no thanks" to two top MBA programs definitely made me pause for a little reflection. I'd spent a huge amount of time and energy researching and applying to these programs and I'm sure busy admissions officers reciprocated that effort. While I know I'm taking the right path, spurning such good, hard-won possibilities makes me a little sad.
Giving up a Salary, Taking on Debt
After swallowing hard and picking a school, a flood of smaller tasks followed. A subset of my new to-do list looks like this: find an apartment and a roommate, give notice at work, look for additional scholarships, start estimating my budget, order a new laptop, sign promissory notes, plan my move, and submit all sorts of paperwork—from medical records and official transcripts to insurance information and course waiver forms.
The accelerated pace feels both unsettling and exhilarating. In truth, I'm a little anxious. I'm about to leave an amazing group of friends, mentors, and co-workers, family that's less than an hour away, a great apartment, a vibrant city, and a comfortable job. What's more, for the first time in my adult life, I'll be giving up my salary. And if unemployment weren't frightening enough, I'll soon be paying a huge tuition bill. With summer around the corner, my cash flow—not to mention my net worth—is about to go from serenely positive to alarmingly negative.
Of course, I'm also watching the job market. As I noted in my last entry, given the looming recession there's no guarantee this investment will usher me toward my dream job. You can't scan the news without tripping over an unhappy economic headline. While optimistic analysts are predicting a "mild downturn," there's little doubt the marketplace will get tougher before it improves.
Too Many Scripted Moments?
Preparing for business school isn't all tasks, tough choices, and trepidation, however. At the end of May I'll be quitting my job and flying to Central America. I considered working until August, but I couldn't pass up such a great chance to travel. After weighing how far the anemic dollar will take me, I've decided to explore Mayan ruins and coral reefs off the Caribbean coast. For five weeks I'll be backpacking through the Yucatan, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. While this trip should give me the time to recharge and clear my head, it presents its own challenges. I've never been to Latin America, my Spanish is rusty at best, and for the first two weeks I'll be traveling alone. To make my trip as safe and successful as possible, I've been studying guidebooks, drawing up my route, and (go ahead and laugh) taking self-defense courses.
Amid so much planning, I've begun to wonder if I'm letting these experiences rush by me. With so many scripted moments, it has become tantalizingly easy to live in the future and ignore the moments that make this journey so special. Not only have I found it hard to avoid short-timing my professional responsibilities, but a few months ago I realized I was starting to scale back my social interactions. Unconsciously I'd started to let the "here and now" atrophy in anticipation of things to come.
More to Come
"Life moves pretty fast," Ferris Bueller famously reminded us. "If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." He's right, of course. Missing this process would be a huge mistake. My business school journey will take me far, but with a little perspective it's easy to see how much I've been enjoying myself right now. I've been traveling to new cities, meeting amazing people, and exploring career options that weren't possible a few years ago. I know I've said this more than once, but this experience has been enormously enlightening. It has forced me to look at my path and ask the hard questions about where I'm going and what I want. I've also started to uproot my comfortable life and, in so doing, I've become a stronger person.
I'm stunned by how quickly Kellogg is hurtling toward me. Between the fears and the ever-expanding to-do list, it would be pretty easy not to notice how much I'm learning and how much fun I'm having. Getting this far has already been incredibly rewarding and I'm sure there's much more to come. Appreciating every minute of the next two years, however, might turn out to be my biggest challenge.