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South Asian Parents vs. the MBA

It is a sound investment in the future ‘to do what turns you on’ advises a leading business guru in the U.S.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   September 2011

One famous professor with a particular insight into the internal musings of MBA students is Srikumar Rao. He developed his course, "Creativity and Personal Mastery," in the mid-90s and has taught it at London Business School, as well as Columbia Business School and the Haas School of Business at Berkley. Rao hands out eclectic reading lists and his lectures include mental exercises, breathing and meditation techniques and "total immersion exercises."

The professor is the author of several books including “Happiness at Work” published by McGraw-Hill in 2010. Rao rated as one of the hottest business gurus in America has coached executives at Johnson & Johnson, McDonald's, United Airlines, Google, Microsoft and Wall Street.

Uttara Choudhury caught up with the maverick professor in New York to tap his thoughts. Excerpts:

A lot of Indian and South Asian parents are not shy about pushing their children to get an MBA degree. Relentless parents goad their children to success and view the MBA as a “safe career” path. What is your advice to young people?

One of the reasons that they are pushed into doing an MBA is that parents are well meaning and they want the best for their kids. The parents find that their kids are not very sure about what they want to do anyway so why not do a MBA? As it so happens many of the kids are very bright so they can be pretty good at whatever it is they set their minds on. I don’t think it is a bad thing to do an MBA, but I do think it isn’t very good not to be in conscious charge of your career. You have to be aware of what you want. In all things in life, you should march to the beat of your own drum.


About the Author

Born: Mumbai
Profile: Executive, educator, writer and life coach
Education: PhD in marketing from the Graduate School of Business, Columbia University; MBA from IIM Ahmedabad, graduated in physics from St Stephen’s College, Delhi
Famous for: Creating a MBA course
Books: Are you ready to succeed (Hyperion, 2006) and Happiness at Work (McGraw Hill, 2010)

My entire program is basically designed to helping you hear your own drummer so that you can discover your own beat and start marching to that. It's only when you march to the beat of your own drum that you unleash your creative energy and find success and excitement in your life.

A lot of MBA students gravitate towards finance because there are bigger paychecks in finance. Should they weigh in on whether they may be happier in other jobs or even take the plunge to become entrepreneurs?

There is a big money pool in finance but you will find that a successful entrepreneur will easily outstrip the earnings of a person in finance. If you are really looking to make money hand-over-fist entrepreneurship is the way to go. Of course, there is catch -- it is far easier to join the legions of people who are in finance and earn handsome bonuses, rather than be amongst the much smaller group of entrepreneurs who develop a good product or service and successfully take it to market. It is comparatively rare to find quick or even assured success as an entrepreneur.

If you are looking for big money, entrepreneurship is the way to go. But the point is that when you focus on something external like money to drive your career choice what you are doing is relinquishing the keys to your happiness. It is extremely debilitating in the long run. It is much better to ask yourself what you really want to do and whether it turns you on. Do I see some societal good in what I plan to do and is it something I can devote the rest of my life to happily?

Do you encourage students to wade through an eclectic reading list from PG Wodehouse to books on Zen and quantum physics before addressing whether they want to spend their lives working 15-hour days in the pursuit of riches?

I have a huge reading list that includes “A Search in Secret India” by Paul Brunton, “Leave it to Psmith” by Wodehouse. I ask people to evaluate the mental models used by Psmith and his cheery insouciance when faced with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. This is the spirit to cultivate.

“You have to be aware of what you want. In all things in life, you should march to the beat of your own drum.”

Then there is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” where he talks about FLOW being a state of intense absorption where the distinction between you and the work you are doing disappears. Time appears distorted with hours feeling like minutes. Peak performers achieve this state regularly and it has been studied in champion athletes as well as artistes. The reason I make everyone go through a ton of books is that we get into mental ruts. These books shake you free -- I like everyone to read them before the first meeting.

MBA students stuck with huge student loans tend to focus on whether they will step out of business school with well paying jobs. But what is the enduring value of an MBA?

That is an extremely good question. I would say an MBA has two values. Firstly, purely economic value where you think that if I graduate from a top business school it will automatically open doors for me in life and I will have a foot in the door of any large corporation. The other value is that it exposes you to a set of ideas, gives you a set of tools and helps you to understand the mindset of business as it is practiced.

“The reason I make everyone go through a ton of books is that we get into mental ruts. These books shake you free -- I like everyone to read them before the first meeting.”

The second value you only get if you go far beyond the formal curriculum of an MBA; if you read a lot of stuff which is not necessarily given to you as coursework. But you can get that if you have an inquisitive mind and ask your professors a lot of questions and talk to all the oddballs that are with you in business school and explore issues that are only raised peripherally. It is the loose end of the sweater that you can follow if you wanted to. If you do that, then an MBA can be a very rich educational experience. My experience is that very few people do that. They look upon an MBA as something to get over and done with. It is very unfortunate but that is the reality.



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