Post-MBA, “Potential” is a 4 letter word

“In the professional world of leadership, ambition and potential are the most excessive commodities.” 
― Unknown

Post-undergrad, ‘potential’ and ‘work ethic’ took you places. Post-MBA, it’s a 4 letter word that kiiinda means you’re just not that good at any one thing – but you could be! (but you’re not yet).

Most MBAs leave school bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to face the world head on as a newly minted officially ‘prepared for business’ and ‘ready to change the game’ (in whatever form that takes for each individual) alumnus.

Doing a full time MBA is a lot like going back to college. Except, you’re older, you’re less insecure, you’ve got actual money to spend, you know how to hold your liquor (hopefully), and after the first semester or so, you’ve realized that (shhhhh) grades really don’t matter – the experience does. So when you’re done with your two years, you’ve had some sleep (clutch if you’ve been banking pre Bschool), you’ve taken a break from being an adult and you’re re-energized to go back out there and move up, move fast and use everything you learned to have that dream job/life/passionate (or big money) career you went there to cultivate.

But unless you’re very lucky, or super focused, eventually you discover that outside of school, life becomes…well, normal life again. No matter how excited you are about your new career/role/opportunity/chance to show em what you got…at some point, – no matter how great the job is, the monotony of real life work settles in and Friday afternoons become a cherished moment in time once again.

And you begin to understand that you’re not going to move a whole lot quicker up the ladder than other folks. Fast-tracked maybe, but the Zuckerberg/Jobs/(insert-nerd-to-riches, fame-and-status-in-5-years-or-less name here) story will most likely not be your own.

surprised much?

Yes, you’re smart, you’ve got potential, you’re a hard worker, etc. But experience is what companies begin to pay up for post-MBA. And experience takes time. And you can’t leapfrog experience by being smart, capable, a quick learner, etc. You simply have to DO, be exposed to multiple different instances, situations, political circumstances, changing industry landscapes to gain experience.

That takes time. No matter how fancy your B-school degree is, you’ve got to put in the time, in whatever industry you choose. And your first job out can be a trial, even the next one or two – you’ve got leeway to discover that mix of your passion/skills/value add. But eventually, you have to be an expert in SOMEthing. Potential is only cute until you’re asking to be hired as an expert in something (which starts to happen about 3+ years out). Then people want results. Past experience. A focus. A tangible skill.

For a generation without job security, hopping from job to job is normal, and being anywhere longer than 2-3 years feels like an eternity. But eventually, you have to pick a lane and get good at something. Deciding where to put your stake in the ground is scary (at least for me) – what if you can’t pull it back up again and you’re stuck along one path afterwards?

Am I a marketer? A strategist? A financial analyst? A mix of one, two or all three? Can one be a marketer if they don’t live and breathe digital and social media platforms? Or a strategist who doesn’t churn out waterfall charts and harvey ball-laden decks with my eyes closed? Or a financial analyst without relishing the thought of building LBO models from scratch (like any banker today builds any models from a blank sheet anymore anyways. Ha!)

If I pick one and double down, do I pigeon hole myself? If I try to be all three, do I appear too broad and inexperienced in anything? What if I want to learn something else? At what point does it become too late to say…become an ‘operations’ person? When is the cutoff for the ability to ‘career-switch’?


It’s been a while since I last posted here (I can’t believe it’s been almost a year!), mostly because at some point, while trying to figure out the answer to the above question, I decided to leave it all and remove myself from those (at the time, seemingly unsolvable massive) decisions and travel for a bit.

Maybe…this trip was indeed an escape. From the gravity of every day life decisions.

I’d like to think it wasn’t. I’d like to think it was a leap into the unknown, to discover which aspects of my life decisions truly matter most to me. A deliberate stepping off the hamster wheel of self-expectations and cultural mores or…a nimble sidestep off the path of self-imposed constraints I’ve woven for myself given the networks and career circumstances I’ve been fortunate enough to have over the years.

Only time will tell – I’m hoping I’ll have a better handle on how to best answer those questions when it’s all said and done. If nothing else, hopefully I’ll have learned something by the time I return! 


14 thoughts on “Post-MBA, “Potential” is a 4 letter word

  1. Aperryman, thank you for creating this site. Beyond it listing a post MBA perspective, you also provide so much insight into how many of us are feeling. There is such a tremendous push for success these days and for what? I am brimming with potential at this very moment. I have applied to a ‘good’ MBA (120K) program and am waiting to hear back so I was excited to read your list of things that you wish you had known about getting an MBA. I guess that you could say that i am an operations person. I was fortunate to have had much success in my late 20s to where I had a position that was great in title and money, but horrible in culture to where driving to work felt miserable. So, I quit (or as I say ‘resigned’ with almost a month of notice). In looking for my next role, I find that GIF of confusion illustrating how I have felt many times. In my months of wondering why I was so miserable even though I had everything that I thought I wanted, I have realized that the focus should have been on happiness, not what everyone tells you will make you happy. Sometimes, doing what you want to do or even taking the journey to discover what you want to do is so deeply frowned upon that most people don’t dare ask the question. Anyway, I’m still figuring things out too. I hope that you had a good trip and thanks for your insight.

  2. Thanks very much for this post – it absolutely describes my current chaos!:)) I just finished my MBA (awaiting my P&D results) and am a 43 year old ‘experienced professional’ – but experienced in exactly the same things I was pre-MBA, only with a supposedly career-defining degree to legitimise it all…… Or not…..

    I look forward to future posts on your progression and in the meantime, I’ll try and figure out whether I’ll see any ROI on this not insignificant investment in my working lifetime, or whether I just use it as a brilliant learning experience…..

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  4. I read this a few times today. Nice to know someone else feels the same.

    I have one week to go on the MBA before being officially unemployed! Really not feeling good about that. Building students up about being “future leaders” is actually pretty irresponsible by schools

  5. Great post. I’m a current student at Indian School of Business(ranked#1 in India) and I can relate to your posts quite well.
    Sometimes it’s scary to realize that I simply don’t know where I am heading. I don’t want to do consulting, investment banking or PE. The only thing that I’d like to do or be is an entrepreneur but it’s so much of responsibility and constant pressure(been there pre MBA) that sometimes I just want a 9-5 job without having to worry about my company’s growth…An MBA from a top school is a little crazy place to be- it opens so many paths for you that you end up being frustrated not knowing which path to go on.

    One request. Can you please blog a little more often ? Trust me if you maintain this blog well, something really good might happen through this..What you say resonates with a lot of folks.

  6. I completed the MBA program in 2010. I began the program with the purpose of reviewing and analyzing a business project that I designed.

    Combining your MBA/education with something you are passionate about may be the best decision you make. Find something you love to do, then use your MBA knowledge to monetize your passion.

    Let your degree serve your interests. Find your passion and you will find your fulfillment. It is working for me.

  7. Thanks for sharing your experience as an MBA alumnus. After reading so many promotional articles about MBA programs urging prospective students to fork up $100k+ for the “life-changing” experience, I find your point of view genuinely refreshing.

    A little about myself: I am a few days short of 31, got my BS in Chemical Engineering 8 years ago, and have since been working as an engineer for an US oil major.

    I have only recently started contemplating pursuing an MBA — some may say it’s a bit late. To be honest, I never really saw the appeal of going through an MBA before now. Firstly because I’d known a lot of people who had gotten an MBA and struggled to find jobs post-graduation. Secondly I think a lot of the book knowledge they teach is trivial enough that anyone semi-talented with a real interest can obtain through self-learning. Thirdly (and not to sound sour-grape) I think a lot of the “prestigious” institutions are essentially social clubs for the privileged and ambitious, and I don’t think I would ever fit in; on the other hand, the 2nd tier schools are generally flooded with inexperienced Asian students who bring little to the table (no offense, and for the record I myself am Asian too).

    So why am I looking to do an MBA now? Same old story: sick and tired of my boring engineering job and want a way out. Yes, I want a life-changing experience.

    My case is not quite the same as yours, but I suppose I’ll likely face the same challenges and dilemma post-MBA (if I do decide to do one). I have already been asking myself some of the same questions: should I be a subject matter expert or jack-of-all-trades? Have I pigeon-holed myself by spending so many years on the technical track? Is this where my passion lies?

    And what exactly is my passion? Does everyone have to have a passion? What if I am just not passionate about anything… and by this I mean anything that leads to a successful career and makes good money?

    That’s only one part of the puzzle. There’s also the question of opportunity cost: am I ready to give up my $120k base salary + 10% bonus + 50% tax-free location premium, and a lucrative pension plan? And for what?

    In all honesty I do not need an MBA to open doors for me to a successful career. I have a successful career, and I think I am making too much money as it is for a woman my age that it’s actually hindering my chance of landing a husband. I am not ambitious. I think I’d be perfectly content being a housewife.

    But then there’s the thing about expectations. I am not a genius, but I was not born without talents, and I feel like I owe it to the society and myself to utilize those talents. And there’s also the lure of “potential” — you want to know what you’re capable of, what you can ultimately achieve. If you’re more talented than most of your peers, there’s no reason why you should achieve any less. Success is relative, and everything is a competition. I find it hard not to get caught up in the rat race if you see yourself as a capable person, even if you don’t have the ambition.

    So at this important juncture of my life, my heart is telling me to just quit my job, move somewhere nice, then at some point find a husband and start a family, be a housewife and a soccer mom. But I cannot reasonably justify giving up a promising career to be a bum to my responsible adult self. That’s where the MBA comes in. It justifies my quitting, although I know deep down my real intention is really not to better myself, but to take a break from my life.

    I suppose then any MBA should suffice to fit my purpose. But, if I am to do an MBA, I might as well go to a proper school. My expectation for myself does not allow mediocrity. So here I am, researching for the best option on something that I don’t really believe in.

    You see, the dilemma is, I seem to know what I want, but it’s just so completely irrational and uninspiring that I simply cannot allow myself to pursue it. It’s like, it’s bloody weekend and all you want to do is watch TV and veg for two full days, but your sensible self dictates that you should go to the gym, visit your mom, and attend the baby shower of a coworker that you don’t particularly care for. It’s all for your own good.

    I am afraid that if I choose to go with my heart’s desire, I’d be admitting to being a willful child that does things without thinking about responsibility and consequences, or a lazy ass / loser that has no aspiration or desire to self-improve (which may very well be true).

    Gees, I have no idea how it got so philosophical. Anyways, I actually started out wanting to ask if you would recommend doing an MBA for someone who wants a change of career from engineering. I am also contemplating doing a master’s in engineering management, which seems to be more technical and I think will allow me to build on my existing experience post-graduation (vs. having to start from scratch in the financial/consulting sector), but of course it does not have the same level of recognition or offer as many networking opportunities as an MBA. Any thoughts?

    • I looked into the MEM. For the longest, I couldn’t decide if I wanted that or the MBA. The MEM attracted me b/c it complemented my technical background. However, don’t underestimate the problem of having a degree that isn’t readily recognized. I talked to a number of people from the more established MEMs. Some met success, others did not (as is true for the MBA). Within five years, some students felt compelled to get the MBA! The MEM wasn’t taking them where they wanted/needed to be.
      I decided that, of the two, the MBA was better. I’m applying this season. If you choose to go this route, pick a less traditional MBA program (e.g. MIT, Stanford, Cornell Tech, CMU) so that you can stay true to your technical roots AND have a degree that is recognized. That’s what I hope to do.
      P.S. I’m sure that you’re somewhat ambitious. You wouldn’t have pursued engineering if you weren’t. But, being in STEM can be a little exhausting. I know that I’m ready to get off the treadmill. The prospect of being a housewife doesn’t seem so bad to me either (after I reach my full “potential” with an MBA, of course!)

  8. Pingback: multitasking to mediocrity | nicole & wlan

  9. The opening quote is actually from actually from my book “44 Days of Leadership” – Day 1 – Transforming the Intangible into Tangible

    I would greatly appreciate it if you would change it from unknown to Noel DeJesus. Thank you.

  10. Hi,

    I found your blog when I googled “post MBA career crisis” and “post MBA career confusion”. I’m in a similar situation. I graduated from Yale SOM in 2011 and became a management consultant. Last year, I switched to being a portfolio risk manager at a clearing house thinking that’s systemically important, and there would be growth potential for derivatives clearing in the US.

    There hasn’t been an iota of growth and I’m now told that I’m pretty much capped both in terms of comp and role/title. Fourteen months ago, I was brimming with excitement about the role and now I’m in a state where I’m wondering what the hell to do with my career.

    I think you’re spot on about newly minted MBAs feeling aggressive about their careers and thinking they will change things and grow rapidly within a few years. If anything, it’s been slow, and that slowness has been the cause for much frustration. Many times I consider my pre MBA life as a programmer and relish how I used enjoy my work. Now in my role as a risk manager, I’m always worrying about how something could go wrong, which I think is such a negative state of mind.

    I’d love to hear from you and connect if you’re in the New York area. Do drop me a note if you’ve got the time. Thanks for writing this blog.

  11. Dear Aperryman:

    Thank you for writing such a hearty post. As an MBA, I can relate to everything you’ve mentioned here and particularly the “Confusion” part over choosing one particular professional field. Three years after graduation, I’m still dealing with this confusing issue. Right now, I’m working as a Purchasing & Procurement specialist which, in all honesty, has very little to do with all those tough Finance courses I took at B-School, except for the Communication and a little bit of Organizational Behavior.

    I’ve decided to go back to school and do my Phd which again, I’m not sure to be a great idea, but because I really miss Academia , I’ve started contemplating such a decision.

    Sometimes, I wish I’d never gone to B-School and had never got an MBA degree. It seems to have made things more complicated rather than making them easier. My expectations of myself are too high and I’m too hard on myself for not living up to those expectations to the point that, sometimes I feel really depressed.

    My hope is things finally start to get better.

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