Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Pregnant MBAs

When most people think of game theory, they think of situations in which two or more individuals compete in some situation or game. Chess is the quintessential example. Yet the thinking underlying formulating a good plan when playing against others is just as important (and useful) when thinking about your own future path.

An episode of Seinfeld captures this idea beautifully when "morning Jerry" curses aloud the bad choices made by "evening Jerry." Evening Jerry stays out too late and indulges too much making life difficult for morning Jerry, who has to pay the piper for this excess. He then muses that morning Jerry does have a punishment available to evening Jerry. Were morning Jerry to lose his job, evening Jerry would be without funds or friends to pursue his wild lifestyle. Not mentioned is that this punishment is also costly to afternoon Jerry, who is likewise in no position to pay the bill at Monk's Cafe for meals with Elaine and George.

While the Seinfeld routine is meant to be funny, for many individuals, the problems of the activities of their many selves are no laughing matter. Anyone struggling with their weight curses their night self or their stressed out self for lack of willpower. That giant piece of cake that stressed-out self saw as deliverance means a week of salads and many extra hours at the gym for the other selves.

I bring this up because we all suffer from the evening Jerry problem, but for MBAs, it's one of the most serious problems they'll ever face. For most MBAs, the two years spent getting this degree represents the final time in life when complete attention can be paid to learning and single-mindedly building human and social capital. The constraints of work and family offer vastly less time for such activities in the future. While there may be occasionally breaks for internal training or executive education, such breaks are rare. Moreover, for busy managers, even these times may not constitute a break. Work does not stop simply because you are absent. Crises still need to be dealt with and deadlines met.

Moreover, the gains made during this time can profoundly affect an MBA's career. They can be the difference between the C-suite and merely marking time in middle management. They can be the difference between the success and failure of a startup. They can be the difference between getting a position offering a desired work-life balance and accepting a position that does not. They can be all the difference in life.

Yet, inward thinking would have us see the choices we make quite narrowly. Will an extra weekend in Tahoe be the difference between an A- and a B+? Will it be the difference between making or missing a class? Will it be the difference between actively participating in a case discussion or not? Will they be the difference between seeing or missing some outside speaker in an industry of interest? Viewed in this light, such choices are of decidedly small caliber. An extra day in Tahoe can hardly be the difference in anything of consequence.

Wilhelm Steinetz, the great chess champion, averred that success in chess is a consequence of the accumulation of small advantages. Viewed narrowly, inwardly one might say, the differences Steinetz had in mind seem trivial. To most chess players, the board, and one's chances of winning, are not appreciably different with a slightly better versus a slightly worse pawn formation. Yet a grandmaster does not see things this way at all. Such individuals are consummate outward thinkers, constantly planning for the endgame, for the win, which will only be determined much later. From that perspective, such trivial things are of utmost importance. And indeed they are as, more often than not, they mark the difference between victory and defeat in championship play.

Outward thinking also allows one to take a longer-term view on the time spent while pursuing an MBA. The apparent difference between the talent at the middle and the top tier of many organizations is often remarkably small.  The CFO does not have appreciably more IQ points than someone lower down. She does not work vastly more hours or have vastly better social capital. Rather, her rise commonly represents an accumulation of small advantages--a win early in her career that distinguished her as high potential, a management style that avoided or defused a conflict that might have derailed her progress, an unexpected opportunity because a head at some other firm remembered her as standing out. In the end, it is clear that she is CFO material while the middle manager is not, but it didn't start out that way.

We might be tempted to chalk all this up to luck. She got the breaks while her sister, unhappily struggling as a middle manager somewhere, didn't. Admittedly, luck plays a role, but chance, somehow, seems to mysteriously favor some more than others. Consider the situation of poker or blackjack players. To win, one needs to have a good hand, i.e. one needs to be lucky. Yet some people consistently win at these games and others consistently lose. Luck evens out over many hands, or over many events in the course of a lifetime, yet there are genuine poker all-stars.

Much like evening Jerry, MBA life is filled with temptations, filled with vast stress-easing slices of chocolate cake. We might think, "What's the harm? We all work hard. I deserve this." But unlike the dieter, who can learn from his mistake and say no to the cake the next time around, an MBA gets only one chance to get it right. Mess it up this time and there is no tomorrow to make amends. There are no do-overs. The MBA equivalent of chocolate cake today may not mean a week of salads and workouts, but a lifetime of them.

So the lesson here is our usual one: look forward, reason back. How will our future selves perceive the choices we are making today? Will they be happy?If not, then it's time to make different choices.

So how does any of this relate to the title of this post, Pregnant MBAs. When a woman learns she is pregnant, she will often alter her lifestyle, sometimes radically, After all, she's now responsible for her unborn baby as well as herself, so she eats better, stops smoking and drinking, exercises more, and so on. She wants her baby to have its best chance in the world. In a sense, every MBA is pregnant. You are also responsible for two---your present self and your future self.  Outward thinking is nothing more than this awareness, so obvious to a pregnant woman,,but submerged beneath the surface at all other times. Give your future self his or her best chance in the world.

1 comment:

Eric Miller said...

Love the Seinfeld comparison!