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Shades of Gray: Fantasy to Reality

Last week I received an email from a friend who likes to send me funny things he finds on the web. There was a link to a T-shirt: “I do the things you’re afraid to fantasize about.” Once I got over the obvious sexual undertones of the slogan, I sort of liked it. In fact, I think they should hand them out with our diplomas on graduation day.

I have only to look in the mirror to find a protagonist for my case. Exhibit one: A Foundations classroom full of raised hands when the professor asks who wants to run their own business. My hand remains down as I say to myself, I like having the security of a big, established company wrapped around me. Exhibit two: RC Hell Week, a campus overflowing with suits and internship interviews. I’m not there. I have a perfectly good job waiting for me.

I turned down that perfectly good job last week so that I can start my own business instead. This is something I would never, ever have thought of a year ago. My soon-to-be-business isn’t a radical shift; it’s pretty much a continuation of my former work but on my own. Still, my conservative, satisfied soul would have rejected the notion. Even now I’m surprised at myself. It’s like one of those alien invasion movies where the man looks in horror at what appears to be his wife and says, “You’re not Susie! What have you done with my Susie?” And from what I hear of the choices my EC friends are making, I’m not alone.

When my fiance’s mother came to visit, I brought her to school for a day and gained a little insight. She loved the class she saw, but the chandeliers and leather couches in Spangler at least equally impressed her. “How can you not expect to do great things with you life after being here for a couple of years?” she said.

My cynical side interpreted that as a polite way of saying the environment inflates our egos. But she explained further that psychology experiments have shown over and over how much expectations influence outcome. For example, if a student’s teacher believes he or she is smart, the student will perform better. Echoing the point, the WSJ had an article four days later about the same thing. The example reached into our animal ancestry: even an average rat gains IQ points if the trainer believes the rat is a genius.

So my success depends on what other people think of me, and the environment here makes me think I’m great. Okay, maybe that’s why I believe I can succeed, but it doesn’t seem to explain the choice itself.

Even if others expect me to have an entrepreneurial bone in my body, it doesn’t matter unless I consider owning my own business. You might expect a rat can learn a maze, but if the rat doesn’t enter the maze in the first place, you never know.

I like that T-shirt because I think it hits on what else happened to me. “Afraid” wouldn’t be far off from the emotion behind my former refusal to consider my current choice. The perceived risks were too much for me, so it didn’t even enter my fantasies. My perception of risk has changed, replaced with an alien life form in the transformational process bought with my (now self-funded) tuition. Part of this shift is a better understanding of the specific risks I’ll take on – we fear most what we don’t understand – and how to manage them. And as my fear of those risks waned, the risk of missed opportunities, both personal and professional, came to the forefront. Previous experience has taught me not to take these opportunities lightly, and I’m glad to have recognized them now.

So I’m going to do something that before HBS I was afraid to even fantasize about. I hope I’ll succeed, like the well-thought-of rat in a maze.

I expect a lot of us could wear a T-shirt claiming a predilection for taking on more than others would dare dream of when we walk out of here.

November 17, 2003
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