How to talk yourself out of getting an MBA

Think about it.
Think about it.
Image: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
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Here is Brooke Allen’s response to a letter from a reader asking for help deciding on what sort of MBA to get, which appears below in a lightly edited form.

Good morning Quartz,

I read your article about an MBA not being that beneficial anymore unless you plan on sticking to a large firm. I personally work in healthcare; my primary passion is to be a top administrator one day within a healthcare organization.

I understand your point of view, but if an MBA with a concentration in Management is no good, then what degree should I pursue? Again, my plans are to attend a professional MBA program and concentration in Management and I plan on staying with a large organization.

I’ve been in healthcare for 11 years. I know Finance is coming up big now. Would I be better served with an MBA with a concentration in Finance? My undergraduate is in Health Services Administration.

Thank you for your time,

– E

Dear E,

Since I don’t know you I cannot give you too much specific advice, but I can teach you a few things I know about management. I learned only two of these things in school, which means that now you don’t need to pay for an MBA to learn them.

Rewarding success vs. rewarding failure

The first thing I learned in business school is that successful people reward themselves for success and unsuccessful people reward themselves for failure.

Many people do not realize that they are rewarding themselves for failure. For example, if you blow an interview and call up a friend to go for drinks so that you can feel better, then you are rewarding yourself for failure. Instead, go over the details of your interview together while the experience is fresh in your mind. Go for drinks next month or the month after when you finally land a job. Drinking after failure won’t land you a job but it might land you in AA.

Going back to school is often a reward for failure. You can pound away at a job for a while, grow to hate it, convince yourself that it is a lack of credentials that blocks advancement, and then imagine that it is a lack of advancement that is making you unhappy. So you decide to take time off to go back to school. But…

Are you rewarding yourself with school, and if so, why?

If you’ve failed to enjoy your work, and if you have fond memories of the safety and relative happiness in school, then you might be giving yourself an expensive vacation in a place you like because you have failed at a place you do not like. Will time away from the salt mines make you happier when you return if you never liked salt in the first place?

Consider all the alternatives

You ask if you should get an MBA in management vs. finance, but there is a chance neither of those is even in the ballpark.

I met Kathy in graduate school at NYU in 1983. She, like me, was getting an MBA part-time while working on Wall Street. She had a bachelor’s in business from Wharton, and she told me the MBA was redundant but good news was that this time it was easier because she’d seen it all before and because part-time grad students don’t have the time for hard schoolwork or the inclination to do it. Why was she getting an MBA? Because she imagined she needed it on her resume in order to advance.

Every year or two she’d get a bonus and then move to another firm. I’d needle her each January, “So, where are you working at now?” Then I lost touch with her and when we caught up years later she told me she had gone to medical school and was now a doctor. She had determined that the reason she had been unhappy was not because of any particular employer – and she’d run through quite a few – or because she didn’t have enough degrees. The problem was that she didn’t like the work.

Now Kathy works with the poor and the  homeless. She earns less than when I first met her 30 years ago, and she is still living in the same small apartment. But now she is happy, and that makes her wealthy in a way that working on Wall Street never could.

People ask me to help them decide whether they should get an MBA or not, as if “not” is the only other alternative. Good decision-making requires that you consider all your alternatives. Why not go to medical school like Kathy did? You might discover that actually caring for people’s health is more satisfying than just being an administrator in an industry that doesn’t seem to. And if in the end you discover that doctoring isn’t your thing then I bet that you’ll get to the board room at a healthcare firm faster by way of the operating room than by layering a Masters in administration on top of a undergraduate degree in administration and 11 prior years of actually being an administrator.

Don’t do anything by default

There once was a time when going to school was almost always a good default decision (if you could get in) because it was cheap and educated people were scarce. Now faith in organized education has replaced organized religion at a time when everyone can get in somewhere. People with degrees are in a glut and grit is the rare commodity.

Colleges give little value for money because they are infested with administrators, but truly gifted administrators know how to do more with less. Rather than give your money to a bloated institution, why not hitch-hike across Africa and visit hospitals where resourcefulness is the only thing in abundance? That might take courage, but if you think courage isn’t needed in our healthcare institutions then please think again. You cannot be exceptional if you are not the exception.

What do you think you will learn?

Management is different from leadership. Most leaders are poor managers. Most managers are poor leaders. Leadership is about vision. Management is more about orchestrating people and resources so as to achieve a mission that is the product of someone else’s vision.  When the philharmonic plays Beethoven’s Ninth, the musicians are labor, the conductor is more management than leadership, and Beethoven is the visionary. Administrators are below all that; the person who books the hall and collects the tickets, for example.

If you already have a compelling vision, and you’re staying up all night working on it, then I doubt you have time to put more schooling on the critical path. And if you’re wishing you had a vision, and you fantasize that you’ll get one some day but first you need two years of all-nighters preceding exams, then you don’t get the “vision thing” (as George Bush the Elder might have said).

Know what you are getting into, and know thyself, because the A in MBA stands for Administration, and little more.

How to get good outcomes

The second thing I learned at business school was that the best way to improve outcomes is to:

  1. Make good decisions.
  2. Give people a clear and unambiguous explanation of what you want them to do.
  3. Give them the resources to do it.
  4. Hold them accountable for getting it done.

This also applies when you’re both the manager and the doer, i.e. when there’s only just you. If you are bad at self-management then perhaps you’re not meant to manage others.

School is a very expensive way of buying a clear set of rules and access to some resources. In other words, you will be paying through the nose to be on the receiving end of Steps 2 and 3 (with very little Step 4). But a manager’s job is to make sense of chaos and deliver all these steps unto others. You’ll be paying to get what you should be learning to give. Think about that.

Do you have the money?

Good managers do not ask people to do things without giving them all the resources they need (Step 3). If you don’t have the money then you don’t have what you need, so don’t go. You cannot afford school just like you cannot afford a Lamborghini.

Loans aren’t resources. Resources are assets and loans are liabilities. To borrow money is to write a call on your future and education loans that you cannot discharge in bankruptcy are a form of legalized slavery –  something society should see is a sin. .

Make sure that time and money will be well spent even if you go on someone else’s dime. Good businessmen treat all money as if it belongs to someone they care about. This is called “being a fiduciary,” and if you don’t do it then you are not holding yourself accountable (Step 4). Of course, if schools ever decide to offer money-back guarantees then go ahead and borrow from them and collateralize the loan with the guarantee. Until then, don’t pay for school with money you don’t have

Don’t wait for business school to learn how to make decisions like a manager should

Management starts with making decisions (Step 1), so learn to make decisions before you start business school because I bet they won’t teach it to you when you arrive. For example, you must learn what scientists know: If you want to believe in a pet theory then you need to try like the dickens to find things that might prove you wrong. And if you can find just one single reason not to believe something then you must disbelieve it. That is the difference between science and religion; the faithful only look for confirming evidence.

That was the very first thing they taught me my freshman year in an engineering school, and the very first assignment was to decide if I was in the wrong place. I was, so the next year I transferred.

Perhaps the reason they don’t teach this kind of thinking in business school is because if they did then most of their students would stop believing they had made a good decision, drop out, partner up with law school drop-outs, and sue the bejesus out of everyone. This is just a theory, but I haven’t yet found evidence to the contrary.

Do you really know what passion is?

You say, “…my primary passion is to be a top administrator one day…” I’m not so sure you know what passion is. Passion is about purpose, not position. A passionate top administrator does not say “My passion is to be a top administrator.” She (or he) says, “I am an administrator because it is the only way I can do X.” You must solve for X before you can stake a claim to passion.

Passion is an emotion, like hatred, and emotions are always felt in the present, not the past or the future. You might say “My primary hatred is toward our enemy.” and you might say, “I am a soldier because I hate our enemy.” But you cannot say, “My primary hatred is to be a soldier one day.” Passion is a composite emotion, mostly love for something with an admixture of hatred of something else. If you kill your lover and your lover’s lover and then turn the gun on yourself, then you have not committed a crime of love or of hate, but of passion. I love the word “passion” and I hate it when people use it improperly.

You are probably saying “passion” when you mean “desire” as in “my primary desire is to be a top administrator some day.” As a sentence goes that makes sense, but watch out because desire is at the root of all suffering The Buddha (and everyone else who has suffered a mid-life crisis) will tell you that “to desire” is to trade present happiness for imagined future bliss. Don’t fall for this because, as I said, you only feel emotions in the present, never in the future, and happiness in the present trumps everything else in the future.

An assignment to help you make the right decision

In a piece titled “Ask yourself if your office needs more MBAs—or grownups“ I said that I used to pay for all my employees to get Masters’ at night if they wished, but then I started requiring them to read the book Managers, not MBAs and write a report overcoming every objection it raises. The book is more readable and the assignment much easier than anything you’ll find in school, and yet nobody has done it even though it would have meant free tuition. I strongly suggest you do the same exercise. If you complete the report then please send it to me. If I do not hear from you, then I’ll assume you decided not to go rather than assume you do not want to do the work to make a good decision.

A class to help you do the right thing

Google’s informal motto is “Don’t be evil.” Maybe they are or maybe they aren’t, but to be successful in the ways that count you must learn how to be a good and strong person before you subject yourself to the banal evils that you’ll find at both business school and in business.

To help you do this, I’ve developed a tool consisting of 54 questions to ask yourself. You can find them all here. Barry Schwartz is a very popular TED lecturer who uses these questions in classes he teaches at Swarthmore and at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s giving a lecture related to this topic in New York City on May 28, 2014 called “Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing.”

Do what you really want to do

I apologize for giving you more homework than answers, but I am confident you will be able to do whatever you want once you figure out what that is.

So, best of luck. Or, if you decide to bag it all and become an actor instead, then break a leg.