“Easy double,” my financial advisor said 18 months ago, predicting what my money would do if I put it in the market instead of joining the HBS Class of 2002.
He was one of many who helped convince me to actually reject Harvard Business School last year. While he could not have been more wrong about the stock market, I am glad that I did say no to HBS at the time, because of the experiences I’ve had over the past year. I can say that now, of course, because HBS accepted me again when I re-applied.
The idea of turning down the most prestigious MBA program in the world would make most people break out in a cold sweat. For me, the effects were sleeplessness and ulcer-like pains, exacerbated by the fact that I vacillated for so many months, from the time I was admitted in the first round through to the beginning of August, when I finally decided not to go. Over the past year, I usually braced myself against the typical reaction when people found out I had blown off HBS: “You did what? Why?” My usual response was something to the effect of, “My company made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
And it was indeed an offer I couldn’t refuse-and not simply for financial reasons. After rolling up post-production, visual effects, and sound mixing and editing boutiques into the world’s largest provider of creative and technical services to the entertainment industry, my company had itself just been acquired by Liberty Media Corporation and its visionary leader, John Malone. As part of the high-profile and inventive Liberty Media family, the company was now poised for a shift in strategy building upon its core business but exploring the fledgling interactive television space. It was a formative and very exciting period. My role within the company was primarily in finance, as well as mergers and acquisitions. Having been there almost from the start, I had strong relationships with senior management. I could not walk away from the opportunity to play a role in shaping the company yet again.
Amazingly (or perhaps not), my mere acceptance into HBS gave me newfound credibility as an executive. After being promoted to Vice President of Mergers & Acquisitions, I was directly responsible for managing and closing actual transactions. (The company did not hire investment banks for M&A transactions, as the CEO has always believed in keeping transactional and industry expertise in-house.) I negotiated directly with principals of target companies and oversaw the documentation process handled by a prestigious law firm. I also managed the process of syndicating a senior credit facility in what many have called the worst bank market in at least 20 years. I supervised two financial analysts and reported to senior executives including the CEO. I was, as my boss put it, a “gunslinger.”
From a personal perspective, I had to start almost from scratch in Los Angeles. I had sold my condo in anticipation of the move to Cambridge, and in fact had even signed a lease on a great apartment at 602 Franklin Street (the current residents who took over the lease can thank me with a drink later). Without a mortgage tying me down and with a burst of energy that comes with taking major risks, I found myself on what seemed like a year-round vacation, living in an apartment in Marina del Rey with a view of the boats, the water, and snowy white egrets in my trees. Sometimes I even rode my bike up the beach to my office in Santa Monica, six blocks from the ocean. It was a great life, and it helped me forget about HBS. Then, in February, a bad week at work made me think about my long-term career options. I decided to re-apply to HBS, “just to see what would happen,” with 10 days to go until the third-round deadline.
And now, it’s a year later, and here I am, my deal guns put away and instead wielding a Sony Vaio laptop, a Palm Pilot m505, and a high-tech portable Palm keyboard (all courtesy of my company). The Pacific Ocean could not be farther away, especially when I think about the inevitable New England snowstorms. I miss “the action,” doing deals and, beyond that, integrating acquisitions into the company. I miss the adrenaline rush generated by the day-to-day management challenges. I miss the CEO hovering over my shoulder at two in the morning and trusting me to convey his vision on a PowerPoint slide. Oh, wait, maybe I don’t miss that. I miss the Southern California lifestyle. And of course I miss having an income.
Believe it or not, my timing has had nothing to do with the economy. In fact, it’s gone counter to it, thanks to my over-eager and soon-to-be-former financial advisor. I am worse off now than a year ago because the “easy double” became an easy eighty percent loss. If I had spent it on tuition last year and left the rest in cash, I would be rich, comparatively speaking. Now I have at least 18 months to watch it either become a hundred percent loss, or slowly crawl back to some meaningful number so that I won’t be utterly destitute upon graduation. (From my keyboard to God’s ears.)
But, boy, am I glad to be here.
I’m glad to be here because I know what it feels like to wonder. Throughout the past year-despite the extraordinary professional experience I was getting-I wondered if I had made the right choice. Had I closed the door on the opportunity of a lifetime? I wondered if I would be lucky enough to have that door open for me again, and I knew how terrible I would feel if it didn’t. I wondered what sort of social activities I was missing out on. I wondered what kind of people I was not meeting, what kind of perspectives I was unaware of, what kind of lessons I was not learning, what kind of experiences I was simply not having.
I had chosen one path, which was-at the time-absolutely the right thing to do. But when I faced another fork in the road and, again, one path led to HBS, this time I knew I was ready. And now I’m glad to be here because I have been on both sides and can judge for myself which side is greener. I have had that rare experience: the best of both worlds.