Tony Downs: 'Heaven forbid I admit that as a teenager I didn’t have my entire life figured out'
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Tony Downs is an MBA student at the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, where he is a regular contributor to the MBA Blog. Originally from the US, Tony currently lives in Dublin and “still looks the wrong way when crossing the street”.


When I was 18 I thought I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. At the time maybe I did. The decision process probably assumed that I knew myself well enough to choose a career path for my entire working life. I didn’t.

I’m a stubborn person, out and proud. When I’ve made up my mind on an issue I tend to stick to my guns and follow through with it. That is how I approached my early career – I had one vision of what I was “supposed” to be doing and where I was “supposed” to be heading. Wrong again.

I studied chemistry, then began work as a research and development chemist, formulating new products for a company making toners for printers and copiers.

Upon entering the real world I figured out pretty quickly that there is a big difference between studying a subject in college and the realities of working in that field. What I was doing was not a good career fit. I was miserable. I knew it. My friends and family knew it.

Did I take steps to change my situation? Of course not. Hoping things would get better, I toughed it out for years. Heaven forbid I admit that as a teenager I didn’t have my entire life figured out.

My relatives kept telling me to go back to school. Why didn’t I think of that? Actually I thought about it every day. Except I didn’t know what to study. I felt burned by my undergraduate experience and did not want to waste time and money on another degree. After being so headstrong for so long, insecurities and fear now kept me in my rut.

Eventually I’d had enough. It probably had something to do with the big 3-0 coming at me like a freight train. I needed to shift the direction of my career and I was ready to take a leap back into school.

I had been toying with the idea of doing an MBA for a number of years but I was unsure of myself. Was this really a wise decision? Would I be the dumbest one in the room? Would everyone wonder how a clown like me got accepted in the first place?

I had no formal business education. All I knew about business was what I learnt on the job. But I also knew that an MBA would expose me to a variety of business disciplines I had never encountered before. Perhaps I would really hit if off with one of them. Maybe I would discover a passion for corporate finance. (Spoiler alert: finance and I have been seeing each other for some weeks now but I’m not going ring shopping just yet.)

There were a number of elements that led to my enrolling at the University College Dublin Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School. But two of the key factors were the small class size and focus on individual career development.

My classmates and I get one day a week devoted to asking ourselves who we are, what are our strengths and weaknesses, and what do we really want from our careers. We are given a lot of tools and support to critically look at ourselves. And that is exactly what I need.

There are no easy answers to personal development questions. There is no magic multiple-choice quiz. I wish there was. No one can tell me what I should be when I grow up. But I have the opportunity to examine myself over the next year and to work on the career questions I was not ready to ask or answer in my teens.

I think that is the important takeaway from my MBA experience so far. While getting exposure to a range of business areas, I am also learning a lot about myself. After all, I might only have 12 corporate finance lectures but I will be working with myself for the rest of my life.

I spent most of my twenties trying to conform to a version of myself that was not a natural fit. And it was about as enjoyable as an orthodontic procedure.

I’m kicking off my thirties with a year of intensive study and self-reflection. Will it always be pleasant? No. But at the end I’ll have a better awareness of business and myself. And hopefully a job. That would be nice.

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