Is An MBA Worth It?

7 minutes

When people find out I have an MBA, I’m almost always asked about it’s value.

Prospective MBA’s are curious if they should actually go back to school. And nearly everyone else is wondering if an MBA is in reality, a massive waste of time and money.

In my mind, there are two groups of MBA’s, with some fluidity between groups. The first are hill climbers. Hill climbers go to business school to move forward on an existing or predetermined path. They are trying to move up in their same industry, build a network of professional connections, or even switch careers, but in a very prescriptive way.

Random walkers view an MBA as an option with lots of upside. They go back to school to gain new experiences, get exposure to new ideas, and interact with new people. The path it leads them on and the detours they might take are unexpected and often times, unknowable. And the value they get extends far beyond just the narrow focus of a career or vocation.

Hill climbers are often disappointed because their goals are so specific. If they don’t get the bump in title they’re looking for, or find the depth of professional connection, the entire experience can feel like a waste.

Random walkers on the other hand are able to find an incredible amount of value from an MBA. It’s just not always predictable.

As a random walker, although I spent tens of thousands of dollars on tuition, and more importantly, traded away two prime working years, I was able to have many near impossible-to-replicate experiences and change who I am and how I think.

It was absolutely worth it.

The Random Walk

In August of 2013, I was winding down a company with one of my best friends. We had spent nearly the last two years working together, but had realized that it was time to move on from the business and preserve our friendship.

Unfortunately, I had no idea what was next.

Instead of diving into job-hunting, I began toying with the idea of going to business school. Things got real when I bought the serious-sounding “MBA Admission for Smarties” guide on Amazon. Four months after that purchase, I had studied for and taken the GMAT, applied to a handful of schools, and was accepted at and decided on UCLA.

Choosing UCLA created the first big detour that I encountered, even before enrolling in business school. I had to uproot myself from the Bay Area and relocate to Los Angeles, where I had spent almost zero time, knew basically no one, and honestly, had never pictured living. 6 years later, I’m fully committed to LA like I’ve never been to a city before. I met my wife here, started a new career, and love this city. I doubt that I would have been pushed to move, without the forcing function of going back to school.

Before, during, and after starting my program, there were many other detours that I took that changed the way I think and the way I see the world:

  • I hiked the 200+ mile John Muir Trail with a good friend in the months I had off before school started. Over 23 days I deepened an important friendship and developed an extended love of and appreciation for the outdoors.
  • I spent two weeks in Shenzhen, China, exploring electronics malls, prototyping a hobby device I had dreamed up, and meeting interesting people. It changed my perspective on China and manufacturing broadly.
  • I was able to travel throughout Southeast Asia on work-study trips. I visited auto part plants in Thailand, walked through clothing factories in Vietnam, and saw business in the developing world through entirely new eyes.
  • I spent spring break in Hawaii with a great friend where I hiked to the top of a volcano, got stung by a sea urchin, and strengthened my love for reading.
  • I was able to intern at Twitter where I met amazing people, and worked on a really fun project.

Sure, none of these detours were impossible to take while having a normal job, but the act of going back to school provided so many opportunities to have these unexpected, and life-changing experiences.

Self-Awareness by Chance

My second year of business school, I took a class that really unlocked how I see the world called People in Organizations. It is consistently one of the most difficult classes to get into. The format is simple–for a semester you sit in a circle with 10-15 of your peers and answer questions like, “How did your parents make you this way?” or “What are you not getting from your significant other?” Essentially, it’s group therapy for many who have never gone through therapy in their lives.

This class changed the way I view myself, the way I analyze my behavior, and lens through which I view the world. As an example, I previously struggled with an intensely strong desire to be liked by others and was constantly worried about what others thought about me. I’m now able to identify these thoughts of worry, put them in proper context, and not let them throw me off as I go about my daily life.

Becoming a Self-directed Learner

During winter semester of my second year, I was driving from LA to San Francisco and was listening to an audiobook to pass the time. When I arrived, I stopped the book and had a horrible realization: I had been listening for 5 hours and I couldn’t remember a single thing. I couldn’t even remember the exact title of the book (Thinking Fast and Slow). This was an ephiphany moment.

Fortunately, it was the catalyst that changed how I consume and capture information.

I spent the remaining months of school reading voraciously and setting up a system to save insights from the things I read. I started reading physical books, printing out assigned papers and cases, and collecting ideas in Evernote.

This system has allowed me to read over a hundred books since then, take careful notes, and share my learnings with others. While this breakthrough didn’t need to happen in the context of business school, I don’t think I would have had the mental space or time, to both identify a new learning system, and put it in practice.

New Models of Thought

While changes of thought are hard to quantify and difficult to identify when manifest, I feel like my strategic thinking skills have improved.

What do I mean by strategic thinking? To me it’s a combination of consulting frameworks, game theory, and fundamental analysis. It’s viewing business or organizational problems with a new set of tools, and providing structure and a repeatable process around that thinking.

Running through business school cases helped me a lot. Cases can be dangerous because you can easily fall into a bad habit of quickly jumping to conclusions without reconsidering fundamental assumptions–businesses aren’t deterministic simulations, and running one isn’t as simple as following a formula. However, being able to quickly assess the strengths and weaknesses of a business or tactic has significant value.

I also had some fantastic professors that modelled both critical and original thinking: Keith Chen, Derek Alderton, Terry Kramer just to name a few. Interacting with good thinkers is something that is difficult to do with the busyness of day-to-day life. I feel very fortunate to have been exposed to so many wonderful teachers during my time at UCLA.

Meeting Great Friends

Finally, I was able to make some truly wonderful friends–people that are genuine, smart, and inspiring.

It’s challenging to make friends after college, or even a first job. Being in a place with hundreds of other people your age, many of whom have just relocated just like you, makes establishing new friendships natural and unforced.

I believe that good friendships are so hard to come by that any process to cultivate them is deeply valuable.

In short, I gained so much value from MBA, I can’t imagine wishing for an alternative path.

The hill-climber, random-walker lens helps me make sense of the many people who question whether the decision to go back to school was a good one. And helps me process my own personal experience that was so overwhelmingly positive.

While everyone’s journey will be different, if you embark on the random walk of an MBA, and embrace the randomness, you won’t be disappointed.