An MBA is a unique degree. It qualifies you to do many things, yet alone it qualifies you to do nothing, all at the same time. As a result, many MBA students grapple with the same big question, whether to pursue more depth in a specific subject, or more breadth throughout the program. Many individuals are happy to explore many of the abundant opportunities that the modern world of work provides, while others plan to follow a narrower path.
“Why specialize?” is a common question MBA students ask as they enter a workforce where creative and novel solutions are highly valued. Finding synergies between diverse subjects by learning all we can about as many areas as possible seems like a smart decision. Similarly, many students object to the idea of closing doors, as they believe their life’s passion may lie behind any one of them, just waiting to be found. Well I’m writing here to tell you why I disagree.
I am, by nature, curious and multi-disciplinary. Like many MBA students, I’ve been swamped with a bevy of diverse activities since I was old enough to remember. From youth years spent rushing between swim practice and tennis camp, to a college experience balancing, at one point, three majors, swimming, music, and fraternity life, I’ve never been the type to choose a single path forgoing all others. When I reach forks in the road, my default setting is to take them. Yet I’m beginning to see the error in this approach.
Real breakthrough work does not come from following every path, but rather from focusing completely on a mission that aligns rare and valuable skills with newly possible opportunities. In his recent book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport outlines the foolishness of believing that great work follows passion, arguing that the opposite is true. Individuals who develop deep knowledge in their field, who develop rare and valuable skills, and who understand the boundaries of their field, are able to identify a mission in the “adjacent possible,” and passion for this mission follows the work. The key is not to follow all paths hoping that they will come together in the end, but to explore the one big idea from every available angle, until the mission presents itself. It is this focus that allows diverse experience to lead to meaningful results.
I am certainly not alone in expressing the following dilemma: “I have too many interests, how can I pick just one?” I believe that this abundance of choice is precisely the limiting factor that causes so many of us to avoid the focused approach to our careers. It is easy to look at all of the problems of the world and want to solve them all, yet not know where to begin. It is much more difficult to pick only one and attack it from all angles. Yet the latter path is the one that has proven successful time and time again. I believe that in order to overcome the paradox of choice, we must shift to a mindset of scarcity rather than abundance. Our time, energy, and efforts are scarce resources that must be deployed strategically.
Ideas to which devoting an entire career or life is worthwhile are never simple. It is daunting to select one big idea, for fear that it cannot be conquered, but, to quote Ben Franklin, “Energy and persistence conquer all things.”
Lest the preceding paragraphs be interpreted as an admonition to focus all of one’s studies in a specific subject area, allow me to clarify that this, too, would be too unfocused. For example, the Smith school offers finance classes covering everything from fixed income derivatives to international project finance. While there is certainly some consistency across finance classes, restricting your selection of courses to only finance misses the bigger opportunity. Financial deals must be negotiated, so perhaps the negotiations course would supplement a focus on finance. The market department offers a class in forecasting, which supports a finance focus for individuals interested in valuation. Similarly, for the finance student focused in international finance, global supply chain management and business law would offer compliments.
The key is to attack the same problem from multiple angles, not to take the same angle to attack every problem. To quote Abraham Maslow, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
David is the president of the part-time MBA association and works in Big 4 consulting, specializing in performing data analytics for financial services clients.