Balancing Your Workload

A note from Pete Long, MBA '11

Peter LongI'm probably the last person that should be writing an article about balancing the workload accompanying the pursuit of one's master's degree in business and/or administration. And can you blame me: going from 60 hours-plus a week at work to maybe 16 hours a week in class; from cruddy, unpredictable Chicago weather to beautiful, temperate 90263; from casual Fridays to casual Fridays. B-School? What a transition!

Nope, I don't think I even remotely placed in the Pepperdine Top 5 school/life balance rankings after our first year in the cohort. But not for the reason you think: rather than leave the real-world of work and immediately regress into some second-chance, Malibu beach-house "senior slide" mentality, I may have worked too hard in my first year as an MBA candidate. Allow me to explain.

There are maybe four or so major, top-of-mind concerns a student develops after beginning a graduate business program:

  • How can I parlay my schedule into a 4-day weekend?
  • What is 'networking' and why do I need to do it?
  • Wow, this internship process is incredibly important ֠who do I know at Google?
  • And how is this all going to lead to me getting the job of my dreams?

[Author's note: this is more or less the chronological genesis of the thought process during Year 1]

But, as you'll soon find, there is little that is truly tangible emanating from the graduate business education while you are an active participant. Sure, you are constantly learning new things and developing personal and professional proficiency in myriad areas, core fundamentals or otherwise. But these are the gooey, unformatted developmental things O.D. wizards deem organic.

So how do you keep score? Well, you could count how many times you raise your hand in accounting to explain to the prof how your former employer did things (but this activity likely drops off around the two-hour explanation of J.I.T. inventory flow midway through Session A). Really, there is not tangible way you can use to see how you're doing. Except one, minor thing: grades.

Grades were my success metric. How well did I grasp the last chapter in Econ? Let me check how I did on that last quiz. Qualified for a finance-related MBA internship with MegaCorp , Inc? Hmm...midterm in Finance wasn't so bad. And so on. I used grades as a proxy to gauge how well I was learning ֠and how much "return" I was receiving from my (extreme) investment.

To tell the truth, based on that metric, I wasn't doing too badly. But I had no balance.

Somewhere in the middle of the fall term, I began spending most of my Friday and Saturday nights (and afternoons and evenings) at the Law library. By the time the spring term rolled around, if I wasn't in class, I was back in my room working on assignments, scheduling group meetings, or sending my resume to every MBA internship recruiter in the United States. My one indulgence was running on the most beautiful collegiate track in the world (Pepperdine's), but even that activity dropped off as the Marketing busy-work ramped up. Per term, I must have turned down about 20 invitations to just plain hang out, 10 opportunities to relax with some beach time or BBQ, or (gulp) weekly excursions to ride the waves. That's a lot of important relationship-building activity I missed out on. My classmates must've thought I felt I was too cool for school. That, or too busy hanging out with my cellphone-tossin' celebrity pals at the local wine bar.

But it was none of that. I was just really focused on proving I made a good decision to go back to school and get the formal business education to fill my gaps. And it wasn't really about the grades. It was about having something tangible to prove that I "got it," that I was learning and synthesizing and mastering the material. Grades were the only material things I could point to and think, "Nice work, Pete. You belong here."

Was I happy? I was happy with the professional skills development my first year efforts allowed me to experience. Socially, however, I feel like I self-sabotaged my growth. In class, in group projects or student club meetings, I felt like I had made some excellent connections with my colleagues and gained their trust and partnership. Out of class, at our formal and informal networking opportunities, I felt like I fell a little flat, especially as the stress of school and internship hunting began to consume more and more of my attention. When Session B finally concluded on April 15 and we celebrated on our charter boat to the edge of Marina del Rey, I looked around and thought, "Where the heck have I been for the past nine months?"

So how do you avoid this? How do you learn and grow and develop the way you want, without falling into the trap of doing too much (or not doing enough)? Everyone develops (or tries to) a system of checks and balances that works for them. My favorite B-school colleagues so far have been the ones who didn't compromise the person they've always been for the person they're getting an MBA to be. You are about to embark on the biggest single gamble of your life (aka a little sport I call EXTREME DEBT!!!), all to win the job of your fantasies, boost your earning power, switch careers or just to take a break from the break-neck speed you've been on. All are legitimate reasons ֠it is your right as the consumer to retain at least a modicum of yourself as you invest a majority of your money, time, spirit and energy into this one goal.

The antidote sounds easier that it really is. Focus on your studies and your internship/career search ֠these are jobs number 1 and 2, always ֠but make time for the things you enjoy, the activities and interests that make you you. Future employers will appreciate the "3-D" you, the adept work/life balancer who works hard and enjoys work, but who also finds fulfillment away from the job, the manager who knows when to step away from the work and clear the mind.

The static, two-dimensional professional presented on a resume is important but, man! Play the drums? Volunteer? Surf? Cook? Devour spy novels? These things add definition to the whole YOU, and might just tip the scales in your favor when it really matters. Pay attention to your grades this year, but realize when your best is good enough.

You have my permission.

-Pete Long