Stanford diary

“One…two…three…four…sexy-move…one…two…three…four…
sexy-move…” I am climbing up a vertical ice face on a glacier in Chilean Patagonia, while listening to the “instructions” from a guide 10 metres below.

The “one” to “four” are pretty easy to do and relate to sequential repositioning of the picks and crampons that hook you to the ice. The “sexy move” is a little harder to figure out, and relates to how you move your body once you have repositioned your picks and crampons. And even if you master the motion, it remains difficult to describe it. You really have to be there and do it to fully get it…

For me the decision to come to Stanford Business School was always an obvious one. However little I really knew about the whole experience, I had some gut sense that it would be a smart thing to do.

At the time I was applying, some of my colleagues in management consulting were also considering an MBA. Their approach to evaluating the opportunity was a little more thorough than mine. Developing a very detailed return on investment (ROI) spreadsheet model, they took account of a host of quantitative variables to assess the financial logic of the decision. In the end, they concluded that it was not worth it.

I remember ending our debate with an unconcerned “whatever” and never really thinking about it again until this spring break, which I have been spending in Chile with seven of my classmates. Hiking around the beautiful Torres del Paine has given us a lot of time to reflect and talk about our experience at Stanford, which is all too soon coming to an end in June. And while everyone’s time at the school has been unique in its own way, it is easy to detect some common threads that run through our discussion.

Stanford has been an amazing life experience in and of itself. For two years we have been pushing the limit of every day (and sleeping very little as result) to grab as much as possible from what was available to us. This past week is a case in point. After the usual 20 hours of classes, two final papers, three conference calls to potential customers of a business idea, two dinner parties, a birthday bash, a lunchtime talk by Steve Ballmer, chief executive of Microsoft, hiking in the foothills, a 6am meeting to finish a presentation for an 8am class, brunch with a first year student and filing taxes, I barely made it to the airport in time (arriving straight from the outdoor shop and stuffing my acquired equipment with label and all into my backpack).

Even once airborne for Chile there was still more to do, as I had set aside the flight hours for finishing my last paper. Twenty-four hours later I was crawling like a spider on an ice wall. And this week was really no different from any other.

On the hike this morning, someone pointed out the extent to which we have lost track of reality. At the same time as Mr Ballmer’s talk last week, a group of students also had the option of lunch with Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google. With trade-offs like these, the Stanford experience has become somewhat of a “steroid” version of being a kid in a candy store. And knowing that it would not last forever has made it so much more imperative to get the most out of every day.

Above all other reasons, I chose to come to Stanford because of the likely profile and character of classmates that I would be working with on a daily basis. Entering the class, I was awed by the French entrepreneur, the US Special Forces commander, the rocket scientist, the oil tanker skipper, the super athlete and just about everyone else that I bumped into.

Soon this awe was replaced by an even stronger feeling of friendship and respect which developed as we spent hours poring over group problems, going at it in class debates, exploring business opportunities, living together, visiting each other’s homes and countries, or just grabbing coffee to catch up.

There exists some misconception that relationships in business school are all about “networking”. Getting to know my classmates at Stanford has meant so much more than developing a Rolodex of connections. I find our personal bonds very meaningful. Some of these bonds will strengthen over time, while others may weaken.

If our discussion on the hike is anything to go by, it seems that one of the most consistent outcomes of the MBA experience is a change in perspective. While obviously very subtle and different from the practical knowledge and skills that we have acquired, the gained perspective relates to knowing the magnitude and breadth of opportunity that is out there. It relates to the privilege and obligation of where we find ourselves. It relates to focusing on what we want to be and knowing what we need to do to get there. More than anything, it is the realisation that we have what it takes.

Maybe this perspective is naïve. Maybe it is all hype. But it seems to be consistently there. Some people will leave here and never act on it. Others will act on it and crash and burn. Yet some will act on it and become what they always wanted to be.

Surprisingly little of our discussion on the hike has centred on the practical knowledge and skills gained over the last two years. Maybe we talk about this aspect of the course so little because it was everyone’s incoming expectation – it is what we hoped we would get. And now that we have got it, it is so much more exciting to talk about everything we obtained in addition.

After two years with a fair share of classes in finance and modeling, I am still not able to value the opportunity to come to Stanford with an ROI spreadsheet. How do I plug in an unforgettable experience? Which cell do I link to meaningful friendship? What value do I assign to a change in perspective?

Even evaluating my MBA qualitatively leaves so much unsaid – it is a bit like describing the “sexy move” on the Patagonian ice climb: you really have to be there and do it to fully get it…

Part 8: World of adventure underlines friendship

Part 7: Exotic sports, friendship and exploration

Part 6: Work and play sees the summer away

Part 5: Doing, not just saying

Part 4: Scramble begins for summer internships

Part 3: Heaps of work and some play too, as the pace quickens

Part 2: I’m having a great time but I’m still at school

Part 1: Close to death before it starts

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