I had an interesting experience this last year in Germany with an MBA acquaintance who was looking for a job. After a month of searching and calling she was only offered executive assistant work or possibly reception or other general staff work - and with 45,000 students and over 1500 Ph.D. candidates matriculating from LMU in Munich each year, it's no wonder that MBAs seemed to be growing on trees there. One of the world's most affordable tuition structures (EUR 500 per year) doesn't hurt either to get kids hitting the books and passing all the right tests. Plus, it's Germany's #1 rated university and in the top 100 worldwide.
But what is it really all worth when it's over if the graduates are only qualified to work in a convenience store once they have the sheepskin? What is it worth if the graduates just got the degree everyone else wanted for them and didn't study the things they cared about most?
Each year the Princeton Review and USA Today compile a list of "Best Value Universities" in the United States, and that list may surprise you - with Swarthmore college in Pennsylvania and Harvard leading the list of privates and the University of Virginia and City College of New York heading up the public institutions. Universities in the US are generally the most expensive in the world due to lack of public tax funding as one finds more common in Europe and even Japan and George Washington University in D.C. takes the cake as most expensive at $38,000 per year tuition with public universities rounding out the bottom at an average $15,000.
So what does it take to go to one of the best universities and how might one decide what universities those are? The logical take might be to decide first what kind of education one wants and then see who offers that, but the more predominant and somewhat disturbing take amongst many seeking post graduate business education, seems to be to choose the college that impresses others most according to ones budget. If money is no object, just pick the school that others tell you is the best. Who gives a shit what they teach you if the place is well respected by everyone?
And I've met two MBA graduates recently who have reinforced that question to me.
I imagine asking myself, what kind of advice I would give to my son or daughter in situations of this kind. Yes, I'm old enough to have done that already, but haven't yet, so I'll just have to imagine for now. How do I tell them to look for compassion, energy, love and excitement? How do I tell them to always balance statistics and logic with art and literature and a liberal dose of spirituality? Where can they learn risk tolerance and risk taking as equal pursuits or trend bucking and trend spotting as two sides of the same coin? How does one know when it's time to fit in and time to stand out? And if no one ever does anything controversial or is never called foolish, will they just be looked over like too many beautiful flowers in the garden - too many MBAs hanging from that tree?
And I wonder what I would have chosen for myself had those choices been available to me in university - because essentially, I learned all those things, at the hands of a small city college and the university chosen for me by the Illinois State Legislator's Scholarship program. Yes, I was a guest of the state, but in an institution quite different from what many of my high school teachers might have forecast for me. I was fortunate enough to get one of the few free rides available to college students in the US. A free ride to pursue my dream. But I wonder how many people, at no matter what the cost, ever really consider pursuing their dream as opposed to the dreams their family and society have laid out for them.
Shortly after my graduation and firmly ensconced in my fairly shitty first job I attended a lecture sponsored by the DSVC, the Dallas Society of Visual Communications. At this lecture was the designer of the very first Gap store's logo and I remember this speaker's theme, although I remain powerless in finding his name today. In any case, this day, he walked out onto the stage, with no slide show, no samples, and no hoopla - just a mic, and he said, "Today, I'm not going to talk about design. Today, I want to talk about love. Today I want to look at the idea of taking what you love, which happens to be design, and learning how to make a living, and a damn good living at that, doing this thing that you so love". And what an inspiring talk it was - one I don't ever recall hearing at university amidst all the supposed knowledge that was being thrown about. How to make a living, and indeed a life, doing something that one loved. I wonder if that is being taught at all in MBA school today?
The speaker went on to describe that all the time we were at university slaving away at becoming the perfect projectionists of culture upon society, that the rest of the students, the geeks in polo shirts and dockers, were busy learning business - and that now, it was time to turn our attention to the business of learning business - and that in turn, would teach us how to make our living doing something that we loved - doing something that we were passionate about - profitably.
He said that every artist out there had a much better chance of learning business than a business person ever had of learning art - and I have indeed found that to be true. You will find far many more people educated in the creative arts succeeding at some sort of business than you will find business people succeeding professionally at art - and as much as even I too love Warren Buffett, we are much less interested in hearing him play the guitar, which he does.
But my old boss at Leo Burnett, Michael Conrad, has found a twist on the whole idea of the need to foster more creativity in business. At Steinbeis University in Berlin, the Berlin School of Creative Leadership has assembled an all-star squad of current and former advertising creatives to shepherd and lead an EMBA program for working professionals - people schooled in all the proper "T" crossing and "I" dotting of MBA programs who have realized the need for passion, serendipity and the value of doing just enough more than usual to create the kind of "happy accidents" that all great lives and businesses so need to stay vital. How important it is to know that we are not perfect, but to be imperfect often enough to let the law of averages take over and produce something that is just absolutely perfect, every once in awhile - even if only once in a lifetime.
Another recent MBA grad I met recently wondered openly whether her new corporate job would allow her to exercise passion in her life - a question probably far better asked before spending the 70 grand on that prestigious MBA program - a question probably far better asked before half of the people in the world attempt a marriage - a question probably far better asked every single day of our lives, before we don't answer it and end up regretting for forgetting to get that one quiz question absolutely correct - no matter what your GPA might have been.