For Whom The Devil Dings?

The devil did not wait for Hell Week to start. He is already dinging like crazy. We can almost hear his odious laughter, as he gloats, “Never seen a job market this bad in 20 years.” We all know that we shouldn’t panic, but how can we respond calmly to Lucifer when he laughs in our faces?

Some suggestions:
1. Reassess expectations. We MBAs were once the happy and spoiled prodigy of our proud parents, Mr. Corporation and Ms. Internet Bubble. But now they’ve gotten a divorce and we are stuck with the wicked stepmother, Ms. Economic Depression. And she has no plans to be nice. Expecting a $160,000 starting salary? Forget it. Banking or Consulting? Hope so. Now, more than ever, we have to remember that coming to HBS was a long-term investment. It will still pay off; it just might take longer.

2. Dissociate. Being “dinged” does not make us failures, nor does it make coming to HBS a mistake. Companies that were begging students to interview two years ago, now can’t even find the time to properly reject candidates. In that context, even the most hard-working, clever, sensitive, creative and humane candidates can be discarded because they don’t have the right company names on their resumes. Sure, it’s unfair, but nobody said that recruiting was a fair game.

3. Keep some perspective. We have the HBS brand name on our resumes. What’s the worst that can happen? Going back to our former jobs? According to a previous Harbus survey, 90% of us feel that outcome is likely. Armed with MBAs, returning to organizations and industries that we already know but with new perspectives and greater responsibility sounds like the beginning of a fast track career, don’t you think?

4. Dream. Paradoxically, faced with tough economic times, we have never been more free to choose our careers. As starting salaries decrease and probabilities of even getting “herd” jobs shrink, the opportunity cost of following our true passions declines. We are more likely to find truly meaningful things to embrace now, rather than regretting our decisions later. So pursue that start-up idea, contribute to that non-profit, or discover your artistic vision.

As Henry James said, “It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, as long as you have your life.” We know this may not be the best time to go for it. But if not now, when? As time goes by, making those hard decisions becomes harder, not easier. If we know who we are and what we want, if we are ready to take risks, to make our own decisions according to our own criterion, we may turn initial setbacks into tremendous victories.

So let the Devil laugh. After all, he doesn’t get to change jobs.

January 28, 2002
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