Shades of Gray

When I was in second grade, my mother told me, “Samantha, you can be anything you want to be when you grow up.” I believed her, as I hope all children do when they hear that. I just had to choose something, and I could be it. A universe of possibilities lay before me.

In third grade, I decided that I wanted to be an astronaut. The dreams of a child are limitless. Mom was kind enough not to remind me that I get motion sickness after 20 minutes in a car. She bought me a subscription to an astronomy magazine and tried hard to remember that astronomy and astrology aren’t the same thing.

Fast-forward to high school, where my biology teacher told me, “Genes are the future,” and I decided I wanted to become a scientist to study genetics. In college, I mutated, mated and counted fruit flies, and in graduate school I mutated, mated and counted yeast. I was on my way to becoming a scientist and an expert in yeast genetics. I’d chosen something, out of the realm of anything, and I was on my way.

After a couple of years with my yeast, I had to face an ugly truth about myself. I was no better suited to do scientific research than to ride in a rocket to the moon. I didn’t get physically sick in the lab, but I was miserable nonetheless. I had made the wrong choice, and I had no idea what else I could do. My vision of the possibilities had narrowed to a pinpoint.

Intent on changing my life, I mounted what we refer to as a networked job search. It began as an act of desperation. Please, please, please tell me what else I can do and how to get that job. It became a wedge that pried open my perspective and gave me a glimpse of what “anything” could be at that point in my life. There’s a lot to do out there that I never knew about. I went into consulting in part to continue learning about the possibilities.

Now I’m here. I was excited about HBS because alumni told me that it’s a transformational experience, and that I could do anything after being here. I wasn’t sure how that would work, because it’s just an MBA, but it sounded like a good investment. I guessed it had something to do with the fantastic network and all the neat new concepts I’d learn.

I know now that there’s something else, more fundamental, going on: the complete redefinition of what “anything” can be for me. It was a subtle shift last year, and accelerated as I heard my EC classmates’ summer stories. “Anything” is not everything (I’ll never be an astronaut), but between my classmates and case protagonists, I’m awash in possibilities.

Although I’ll pursue only a limited number of opportunities in my lifetime, seeing the grand spectrum has, indeed, transformed how I look at the future. I feel like a child again, with a universe of possibilities in front of me, fueled by the fact that I don’t have to wait to grow up. I can begin to become anything I want right now.

September 15, 2003
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