July 20, 2009

Don't go to business school?

NOTE: This post is old, and is probably on different subject matter than my current writing. It is possible the information is outdated or my opinions have changed. -- Josh Klein, May 28, 2012

Ahead of the Curve (Book)

Most of the business reading I do is in the entrepreneurial field. Three of the topic’s writers I pay the most attention to are Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki, and Fred Wilson. All three say that earning an MBA is irrelevant at best, detrimental at worst.

Naturally, all three have an MBA; from Stanford, UCLA, and Wharton, respectively.

Each has had so much success beyond earning an advanced degree, I can’t help but think they’ve forgotten how far it got them.

Edit: I should be clearer. It’s not that they are being disingenuous, but rather that it is difficult to disentangle their success (or anyone’s success) from their pasts.

This has always bothered me, so I was excited when my brother passed along a book recounting a Harvard MBA’s two years at the school.

I devoured Ahead of the Curve in almost one sitting.

This book is a commentary and critique of the industry of business education and even capitalism itself.

My favorite moment comes in an anecdote about an MBA candidate who, not getting his way, complains to an administrator, “I’m the customer! Why are you treating me so badly?”

To which the administrator responds, “you’re not the customer. You’re the product.”

This, I believe, is the entrepreneur’s complaint about the MBA: it is a brand, not an education. The brand matters if you want to be an investment banker, consultant, or Fortune 500 CEO, but for the entrepreneur who needs to Get Stuff Done, why bother?

The author, Philip Delves Broughton, falls somewhere in the middle of this argument. He clearly takes issue with the bizarre world that is the Masters of Business Administration (not to mention Cambridge’s culture), but he is also close enough to graduating (class of 2006) to see how quickly his life changed because of the experience.

The book touches on much of the course material, and is therefore an interesting read for anyone involved in business. It also examines what constitutes “success”, and is therefore an interesting read for everybody else, too.

I recommend this book.

And just incase Seth, Guy, or Fred reads this post, let me throw them a bone:

George Bush Harvard MBA

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  • http://twitter.com/dave_van_horn Dave Van Horn

    MBA? Courses taught by 'professors' who've never risked their own money to people who don't understand business in the first place. ouch.

  • http://twitter.com/dave_van_horn Dave Van Horn

    MBA? Courses taught by 'professors' who've never risked their own money to people who don't understand business in the first place. ouch.

    • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

      I think the same can be said of any line of education, though. Professors teaching economics rarely have policy experience in government or in business, art professors are usually not famous painters, and so on.

      Is everything besides engineering and science unteachable?

  • sethgodin

    Actually, you'll never hear me say that college was a waste, or that the business I started there was a waste, or that studying Zig Ziglar was a waste or that my first job out of Stanford was a waste. So I think I'm being fair to my past in judging what mattered.

    The only two things wrong with business school are how much it costs and how long it takes. If it was free and lasted six months, it would have been an astonishing value!

  • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

    I appreciate the opportunity cost argument, but one thing I had never considered — that Broughton describes as one of the most important takeaways, and possibly worth the monumental cost — is the personality change, the “life lesson”, of his experience. It's a curious question to wonder if part of the value of that business school education is in demystifying and demythologizing business itself.

    Of course, that's the same kind of lesson I get from reading your (and Guy's or Fred's) blog.

    Thanks for stopping by, Seth!

  • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

    I think the same can be said of any line of education, though. Professors teaching economics rarely have policy experience in government or in business, art professors are usually not famous painters, and so on.

    Is everything besides engineering and science unteachable?

  • sethgodin

    Actually, you'll never hear me say that college was a waste, or that the business I started there was a waste, or that studying Zig Ziglar was a waste or that my first job out of Stanford was a waste. So I think I'm being fair to my past in judging what mattered.

    The only two things wrong with business school are how much it costs and how long it takes. If it was free and lasted six months, it would have been an astonishing value!

    • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

      I appreciate the opportunity cost argument, but one thing I had never considered — that Broughton describes as one of the most important takeaways, and possibly worth the monumental cost — is the personality change, the “life lesson”, of his experience. It's a curious question to wonder if part of the value of that business school education is in demystifying and demythologizing business itself.

      Of course, that's the same kind of lesson I get from reading your (and Guy's or Fred's) blog.

      Thanks for stopping by, Seth!

      • http://mdaniels.com Matt Daniels

        damn yo–a comment from the venerable Seth Godin!

  • http://mdaniels.com Matt Daniels

    I've always believed that MBA, Ivy Leagues–really any degree/club/status is a sign of self-selection. It's not that program has in some way endowed an individual with new abilities, but rather that they would have always gone onto greatness.

    We we Godin/Wilson/Kawasaki with degree because of a correlation, not causation from their programs. I can imagine that the grad degree is a difficult thing to shy away from, especially in the dog days of the 80s.

    I haven't read the book–do they allude to my above point?

  • http://mdaniels.com Matt Daniels

    damn yo–a comment from the venerable Seth Godin!

  • http://mdaniels.com Matt Daniels

    I've always believed that MBA, Ivy Leagues–really any degree/club/status is a sign of self-selection. It's not that program has in some way endowed an individual with new abilities, but rather that they would have always gone onto greatness.

    We we Godin/Wilson/Kawasaki with degree because of a correlation, not causation from their programs. I can imagine that the grad degree is a difficult thing to shy away from, especially in the dog days of the 80s.

    I haven't read the book–do they allude to my above point?

    • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

      No they don't, but it's probably true. Good point! And also a good point that the need for an MBA in the 80's was probably quite different.

  • http://www.joshklein.net joshklein

    No they don't, but it's probably true. Good point! And also a good point that the need for an MBA in the 80's was probably quite different.

  • Yaacov

    I got advice from a Stanford MBA, “Just hire an MBA or other professional type when the time comes if you need someone with their skills.”

    Reading books, blogs and case studies seems great to me. Add in a couple of years of startup experience and you're good to go.

  • Yaacov

    I got advice from a Stanford MBA, “Just hire an MBA or other professional type when the time comes if you need someone with their skills.”

    Reading books, blogs and case studies seems great to me. Add in a couple of years of startup experience and you're good to go.

  • http://seeminglee.com See-ming Lee

    Getting an MBA in the business world is irrelevant. Sure.. it's much like getting an MFA in the design world. But it's relevant if you want to teach. It's also relevant if you wish to find a diversity of folks that you may connect with in a very closed space = prime location for sparks to happen in the random universe. If networking means anything in the business world (which it does), MBA (and the school you picked) may be key in your career–just may not be the textbook reason you're expecting, that's all.

  • http://seeminglee.com/ See-ming Lee 李思明 SML

    Getting an MBA in the business world is irrelevant. Sure.. it's much like getting an MFA in the design world. But it's relevant if you want to teach. It's also relevant if you wish to find a diversity of folks that you may connect with in a very closed space = prime location for sparks to happen in the random universe. If networking means anything in the business world (which it does), MBA (and the school you picked) may be key in your career–just may not be the textbook reason you're expecting, that's all.