Park Perspectives: Reading the shorthand
The MBA experience has taught me not to live life short-handed. I do not mean “short-handed” in terms of lacking required skills or resources; rather, I’m referring to the pitfalls of living through shorthands—conflating the convenient representation of something with the thing itself.
The symbolic shorthand often stands in for a legitimate longhand—those qualities, attributes, and sensibilities that imbue something with meaning. The MBA degree itself, for instance, serves as a convenient shorthand for corporate employers—attesting to the quantitative skills, problem-solving savvy, and leadership abilities with which it endows its students.
We are all, of course, surrounded by shorthands both quotidian and profound. Any two-minute commercial break is packed with brands seeking to serve as incarnations of certain values and attributes. Jeep is shorthand for rugged exploration; Nike, for sleek performance. More subtle, and perhaps insidious, are the shorthands we create for ourselves to traverse more meaningful (and fraught) terrain. Marriage as shorthand for fidelity, love, and maturation. Physical fitness as shorthand for beauty and self-worth. A salary as shorthand for a whole lot of things, whether the value of one’s own skills, the access to various material comforts, or the potential for a certain kind of happiness.
And then there is the most promulgated shorthand within the MBA experience: the ‘job’. As a first-year, securing a job sometimes felt like the sole measure of success in the program. A Johnson professor once said as much: “If you receive an offer at the end of your internship, I’ve done my job.” To my mind, succeeding in getting a job was the shorthand representation of my efforts as a student, a manifestation of my qualities as a professional, and—especially coming from a non-traditional background—a much-needed indicator of my prospects for future success in business. All that from a three-letter word.
Making out the mirage
It seems almost cliché to debunk this shorthand as a myth, which I do believe it is. But admittedly, a shorthand can also serve a purpose. My concern with getting a job (a “shorthand-based goal”) focused what would have otherwise been my haphazard and disparate efforts in career exploration and purpose-seeking towards something specific and achievable. Having a shorthand-based goal continually motivated my efforts, thus increasing the probability of successfully reaching the goal. Finally, having a shorthand-based goal galvanized researching and questioning the goal’s details (“what does this company have that the other company does not?”) to a degree that I likely would have overlooked if my goals had been less tangible.
But a shorthand-based goal is ultimately a myopic goal. Its limits often become clear as soon as one achieves it. After all, it can be easier to land a job than to find true satisfaction through work; easier to command a salary than to exemplify real leadership; easier to gain course credits than to actually learn. One can’t simply apply for “work-life balance” – one has to live it, through a hundred daily decisions. Living through shorthands, I realized, serves as a kind of mirage-making. Yes, having a shorthand-based goal increased my pace through the desert—but have I actually gotten anywhere?
A step-by-step second year
That was the question I asked myself coming into this second year of business school. And it’s a question, I think, that is purposely prompted by the format of our program, and by the pay-it-forward values that attract so many of us to Johnson. In this second year, what at one time felt like a straight-shot race has morphed into a scattered series of obstacles, with the goal being to help others— and not just myself—get across. Leading student clubs, serving as a TA for classes, working with a local non-profit for my Park Project, mentoring first-years through Career Work Groups—all of these commitments now seem as central to the MBA experience as my job search had the year before. On the one hand, this second-year schedule draws my perspective in even closer. Sending emails, publishing newsletters, shuffling to meetings, reviewing grading—the tasks require putting one foot in front of the other, albeit with plenty of pivots throughout the day.
But on the other hand, walking in so many directions mitigates the risk of heading straight into a mirage. Instead, my focus has shifted to the steps themselves, to examine their qualities and attributes. The nervous excitement of diving into a challenging problem. The eager curiosity of getting to know first-year students, and the sense of empathy and pride in seeing them practice and succeed. The satisfaction of kicking off a partnership that serves to benefit both parties. A gratitude to colleagues and classmates for contributing so much to a project. These are the same feelings that, behind the scenes, have always motivated my work, and that (I know now) will continue to do so. They are less achieved than lived with, less attained than cultivated over time, through different seasons, in myriad ways. These are the values to pursue in any job, no matter the title or company. These are the actual experiences I hope for my future, which any shorthand is simply standing in for.
An hourglass on its side
I wonder, though. If I hadn’t sought out a shorthand-based goal last year—if I hadn’t vested securing a job with so much anxiety and hope, and hadn’t worked as hard as I did in pursuing it, would I have been able to realize what qualities and values I truly find important? I’m not so sure.
Perhaps, in a sense then, a shorthand-based goal has another utility—not as the destination, but as a threshold, a milestone to pass through on a journey, which provides the opportunity to reflect upon from where one has come, and to re-assess where one is headed.
To use the second sand-related metaphor of this post, the progression of business school reminds me of an hourglass turned on its side. Throughout the first year, my initial, diffuse expectations slowly narrowed into the tiny opening of the job offer, only, once passed, to re-open out to a wider frontier of experience.
For me, a greater sense of freedom has accompanied this new perspective, despite being stuck in my apartment for the last ten months. It arrived like an invitation, offering the chance not only to further appreciate the present, but to imagine a wide-open future. The invitation was written in longhand.