& The Sum of What We Aren’t
In the summer of 2013, I dropped out of my MBA program. Despite the gravity of such a decision, it was an easy one to make.
The framework I used to arrive at this decision came from --oddly enough-- advice that a professor had given my incoming class.
She wrote three words on the whiteboard at the start of our first lecture.
We can do two of the three well, she said. But in order to be great at any one thing, the other two parts of the equation will necessarily suffer. In order to achieve our goals, we must be active in considering what we will sacrifice. What we are is mostly the sum of what we aren’t.
She asked us to consider our personal and professional goals in relation to what we would be focused on in the coming year. She advised us to be deliberate in our planning and shrewd in terms of what we accept into our workload.
At the end of the lecture, the professor asked us to revisit this exercise at the start of each quarter, and to recalibrate our life decisions based on changes to our circumstances and our objectives.
I found this assignment to be much easier to complete and receive value from than many of my classmates. What made it easy was that I had already obsessed over my goals ahead of graduate school. Moreover, my decision to get an MBA was no more than a means for achieving some of my most critical goals, as other goals were financially dependent on achieving these. The two goals were:
Move into a leadership role at a fast-growing technology company within two years.
Move into a VP/executive role within five years.
In retrospect, this may have been the most valuable lecture of my academic career (or maybe it was the class where we learned how to perform a VLOOKUP, I’m not sure). Regardless, I took our professor’s advice to heart. I committed to reflecting and structuring my behavior based on my goals on a recurring basis.
A year later, I was fortunate enough to join a fast-growing startup just before their Series A. Soon after, I was promoted into a leadership role, and I found myself building, then leading, a global team. I saw the path to achieving my five-year objective. I knew I needed to be laser-focused on my career in order to get there. Upon reflection, I realized business school had become a distraction... So I dropped out.
Ayn Rand and Active Reflection
The thing I’ve learned about desire is that it’s easy to want things. However, getting what we want is not easy. In order to get what we want, we need to be deliberate about understanding our desires holistically. And we must be willing to sacrifice the less important.
A polarizing 20th century philosopher who thought about this a great deal is Ayn Rand. Love her or hate her, most agree she was a ruthlessly self-interested thinker who was hell-bent on getting the most out of her circumstances.
In Philosophy: Who Needs It, Rand argues for the importance of reflection, which she says allows us to be deliberate about developing our lives on our own terms. She suggests that we all must do this in order to avoid being manipulated by external forces.
Referencing the person who avoids reflection she writes, ‘When such a man considers a goal or desire he wants to achieve, the first question in his mind is: “Can I do it?”—not “What is required to do it?”’
In other words, when presented with tasks, assignments, or requests, we should not try to complete them as quickly as possible to hurry on with our lives. We should first consider their relationship to our goals and personal philosophies. If the tasks do not further us in our quest to be the things we want, we should eliminate them from Asana.
I remain committed to this framework for evaluating and reevaluating what I’m doing and reconciling it with where I want to go. I try to do this quarterly, but life happens, so I sometimes end up doing it at the start of each year.
What about you? What are your priorities? What will you give up in order to achieve greatness in another part of your life?