Park Perspectives: Learning by choosing
Park Perspectives are authored by Johnson’s Park Leadership Fellows.
On a Saturday morning in early November, our Park Fellows class gathered in a lecture hall. Each of us received a list of about 40 words, mostly nouns: words like “achievement,” “health,” “passion,” and “tolerance”—each so familiar it was like an old friend. But along with the list, we had an assignment: choose 15, then 10, then, finally, just five of the words that most represented our values.
Under-caffeinated and sleep-deprived, as we culled round after round of words from our selection, the collective mood grew grave. Brows were furrowed as we weighed the virtues of “commitment” against “involvement.” Erasers squawked, as the selection of “fairness” was haltingly replaced with “integrity.” Likely “decisiveness” had been discarded from most students’ lists long before.
If the exercise had been presented at a different point in my life, or even three months earlier as I began the MBA program at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, I likely would have reacted cynically. What was wrong with living according to 20, 50, or 100 values? Or what was the harm in leaning on a diverse set of values in different situations?
Evolving through experience
That is what I had practiced, after all, in my life and career so far. In college, I had redirected my studies from literature, to history, and again to urban planning, finding increasing value in the practical over the abstract. Craving a dose of technical rigor to bolster my humanities education, I took my first job in financial services, negotiating derivative trading contracts for hedge funds. Then, a few years later, sitting in a theater for my first ballet performance, new values took priority. I was moved enough by the ballet’s beauty and emotional richness to start studying the history of the art, then to volunteer with several organizations, and eventually to make this passion my full-time job. After working for four years as a fundraiser with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—the world’s largest modern company—I found myself drawn again to the value of a technical business skillset and its impact in any type of organization. I began applying to MBA programs.
Across these diverse experiences, I certainly couldn’t say what five values guided my decisions. In fact, none of these career changes felt much like a conscious decision at all. Rather, I interpreted following my gut—whether driven by passion, curiosity, or insecurity—as having its own kind of value, as a kind of authenticity. It was my sense of having lived my values (however evolving) that would normally have put a slight smirk on my face during the exercise, as I tried to choose my values from a list.
And yet, sitting in the lecture hall that morning, I was immersed in the exercise, cleaving off words like “discipline” in favor of “pleasure,” forgoing “fame” for “friendship,” laying bare a central nucleus of values. What would have been an uncomfortable process before business school had become enjoyable. This was because, in the three months since starting at Johnson, my classmates and I had been trained in the art of making choices, and we had become deft in its practice.
Raspberry or grape: Learning to refine my choices
One of the first consumer studies we examined in our core marketing class was the “jam experiment” conducted by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper. When grocery-store shoppers were presented with a sample of 24 jams, many customers sampled flavors, but few purchased a jar. When the selection of samples was reduced to six jams, fewer customers sampled, but these customers were 10 times more likely to make a purchase.
During the first few months of Johnson’s MBA program, we essentially conducted this experiment on ourselves. Navigating an abundance of choices was part of our initiation, and each selection had repercussions on our experience. Before you could say “account receivable,” we first-year MBAs were tasked with choosing which career track to pursue, what clubs to join, whether to go to one or more diversity conferences, and which of the 20 briefings happening over the next week to attend.
As the semester progressed, our choice-sets became more refined. We selected from among seven second-semester immersion classes; we honed our lists of practitioners to reach out to and prioritized companies to apply to. In a few short months, for instance, my list of potential companies to pursue went from approximately all of them to a neat dozen, each with its own particular appeal.
By making a series of decisions with fewer and fewer options, we first-year MBAs become comfortable enough to eventually commit to an internship—to purchase the jam. But through my experience I’ve learned that the process of making these choices—of defining and coloring my professional aspirations, of specifying what it means for a company to be a good “culture fit” —is as much about self-discovery as it is about career-matching. Whether I’m drawn to firms boasting good work-life balance or the most prestigious clients, whether I choose work that builds an expertise or pursues interdisciplinary experience—these choices and considerations reveal something about what I value, not just in a company, but for myself and for my life.
Discovering myself through the choices I make
So by that Saturday in early November, as I sat down to choose my personal values from a list, I was finishing an exercise I had started months earlier. In making choices about my career, companies, clubs, and classes, I had, to an extent, defined my values in life.
It’s an incredible privilege to be here at Johnson, with the opportunity to be exposed to such a broad range of careers and disciplines. But this breadth does not have value in and of itself—everyone chooses a single path, after all. Rather, surveying the field allows us to gather and compare information, to say “no” as much as “yes,” to define ourselves not just by the paths we take but by those we pass by. Taking time to discover myself by making these choices is an opportunity that I failed to exploit as an undergraduate and that was difficult to come by in the working world. It’s an opportunity that I’m deeply grateful to have now.
Applying the framework of congruence to my choices
In the Johnson course NCC5050 – Critical and Strategic Thinking, taught by Risa Mish, professor of practice, we approach business cases through a framework of “congruence.” Are a firm’s strategy, structure, work, culture, and people aligned? Given the firm’s problems, are there incongruences among these factors—such as a premium strategy and a lack of accountability around customer service—that suggest a root cause of the issue?
Having solidified my career choices throughout the semester and my value choices through our Park seminar, I can apply this framework to my own life. Arriving at a potential decision, I can probe whether its consequences would cause incongruence or preserve alignment. Would taking a new role lead me to compromise certain values? Given new experiences, do I need to revise and restate my values themselves? As incongruences arise, I’ll need to make further choices to ensure that I’m realizing my values across aspects of my life. Before the MBA experience, I didn’t have the perspective or the frameworks to fully internalize my values. But since coming to Johnson, I’ve been learning by choosing.