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Options Have Value

Before I came to business school, my boyfriend (a former investment banker) advised, “If you only go to school knowing one finance concept it’s this: options have value.” To his credit, I have used that phrase almost weekly in various contexts (some even appropriate!) ever since.

But I’m starting to wonder. With Hell Week just around the corner, I find myself feeling completely paralyzed by the sheer number of career paths I could go down. I’m starting to wish that my options were limited rather than endless. But no one ever claimed that feelings fit easily into financial frameworks.

When I got to HBS, I sat through all the Career Services seminars in which we were cautioned not to follow the herd mentality, chuckling. Who would do such a thing? I knew what I wanted to do. I had invested three years in a marketing career and I was headed back in that direction. No banking or consulting for me. Not a chance! I remember looking around the room, almost feeling sorry for all my classmates and the cookie cutter jobs they would inevitably take, whereas I would obviously go off in a different direction.

Well, guess what. Here I am, one year later, with two consulting interviews lined up for next week. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone. When I tell friends, especially sectionmates, about my upcoming interviews, they look at me as if I’ve told them I’ve joined an underground prostitution ring. “You?” they exclaim.

I know. I caved. I changed my mind.

So why has this happened? Well, I wanted “options.” I wanted to “keep my options open.” I started to explore new and possibly really interesting, exciting careers. But there are just so many that sound good!

Of course, this is not about me, or consulting, or marketing, or even Hell Week. This is about the overabundance of career paths available to well-educated, intelligent, multi-talented people (aka HBS students). “We can do anything!” “We have the whole world to choose from!” “We’re so lucky!”

But are we? I, for one, am wishing desperately that I was passionate about only one thing instead of many, one area in which I could dedicate all my energy, one career that was just perfect for me. Then, life would be so easy, right? I could just follow the path, get to know all the right people, develop the right skills, feel confident in my decisions.

Unfortunately, I’m just very interested in and capable of doing too many things. After all, I’ve been trained for the past 26 years to do just that: learn new subjects, learn new skills, adapt, succeed. I’ve been trained to believe I can do “anything I set my mind to.” So now I pretty much can.

We all can. We all have the fundamentals to build careers in almost any domain we choose. We all have so many options.

What no one teaches us, however, is how to sort through our options, pick the best ones, and pursue them. No one reminds us that just because we can do things, doesn’t mean we should. No one goes out of their way to encourage us to pursue the things we love to do, even if those things are non-traditional, risky, off the beaten path, away from the herd. And if they have told us, we probably didn’t listen.

I’ve changed tremendously since I arrived at HBS. The past year has forced me to evaluate life and what I want out it, how I want to be remembered and how I want to achieve that. I’ve shifted my priorities away from blind ambition toward meaningful accomplishment. I’ve realized what really matters to me.

But still I find myself afraid to do what I really want to do. Still I find myself hesitant to take career risks. Still I find myself concerned with what others (classmates, colleagues, future recruiters) would think. It’s just not easy to make life-altering decisions.

So yes, okay, options have value. But they also have diminishing returns. And “at the end of the day,” it’s up to us to know when to exercise them, or at least to find the right criteria to maximize our return on investment. Until then, we’ll just have to let our options vest and hope that they’ll give us the value we desire.

As for me, I’m just trying to look on the bright side. If on-campus recruiting doesn’t work out, at least I’ll have eliminated some options.

October 28, 2002
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