As 2011 finally drew to a close and the New Year now beginning, I am looking forward to finishing my last module of the TRIUM Executive MBA program in New York, starting in a few days time. 2011 was quite an undertaking, combining full-time work with studies, and in the last two months, courtesy of a massive organisational change; finishing an old job, starting a new one AND studying at the same time.

It has been as much a test of grit and perseverance as a test of my ability to plan, prioritise and stay calm in the face of excessive demands and challenges. It does raise the question though why do it? Surely work is demanding enough, why cut away an extra 15-20 hours a week to devote to studies on top? I have spent much of this year trying to explain it to people, and reading this article helps put this further into context.

Back in the day I did an International Baccalaureate. While well renown, the effect it had on me, emerging after 12 years of solid schooling, was that I simply couldn’t face the prospect of going directly to university. Firstly, I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to study, let alone managing to muster up the motivation of sitting some more years at the school bench studying about what the world was like, instead of finding out for myself. So I went and got a job, working for a children’s charity sponsored by UNICEF and UNESCO, focusing on empowering young people to affect positive change in their local communities. This work got me acquainted with everything from the United Nations, international politics, sustainable development, project management, fundraising, communication, marketing, lobbying, team leadership and so on. Like many charities, the agenda and ambitions were huge, and the staffing level always below adequate so I got to try my hand at many things, learning by doing, being thrown into the deep end, and gaining a ton of valuable experience at the tender age of my early 20s. All the while also having a chance to travel to many countries all over the world – thus developing a wide frame of reference and point of view.

In amongst all this activity I also realised a very fundamental thing about how I learn. I need to have a reason for learning things, just being told it is ‘important to know or it’s part of the curriculum’ simply doesn’t do it for me, I need to know what I can use the information for. It means I have to stumble on a question, which triggers my insatiable curiosity, which then motivates me to go find the answer, applying both my creativity, perseverance and ingenuity in coming up with the answer (and learning).

Fast forward to some years back. At this point I had got my degree in product design and had been working at The LEGO Group for a few years, developing new toy lines from concept through to production and enjoying quite a bit of success. I was getting pretty efficient at it. Perfecting the process, skills, approaches, research, development… it was beginning to feel formulaic (read: I wasn’t learning enough new stuff every day). So I began thinking about the next step. Where does one go from here?

I realised that one of the greatest hurdles to innovation was old business models. Meaning, one can come up with the greatest idea in the world, embellish it with beautiful design and it still won’t work, unless the business model underneath is as well thought out as is the design. Designers are great at dreaming up the value propositions that consumers love, but we often lack the tools of business model engineering to craft the concept from ground up, including the financing to get it off the ground. These are the things we don’t get taught in design school, and it can become the wall we spend our life running into – unless we come up with a way to get around it.

I tried to think of the kind of ‘polar opposite’ to a design education and came up with the idea of an MBA. In the wake of the financial crisis this qualification appears to have got a lot of bad press. In some respects it’s hard not to agree – but going back to my earlier point, an MBA is only worth a quarter of its value if you undertake it without a significant amount of work experience in different fields as a basis. If you have wrestled with the innovators dilemma, you will be able to extract the learnings in a much deeper level. This is where executive MBA education can offer a far more rich learning environment than doing this qualification right after high school with only a few years under your belt.

Reading the article mentioned above, I realised that unwittingly the secret to my most successful learning throughout my life, and also when deciding to do an MBA, has been following the principles for continuously growing your mental and learning capacity:

1. Seek Novelty
2. Challenge Yourself
3. Think Creatively
4. Do Things The Hard Way
5. Network

Thinking about the MBA and choosing one for me was about seeking out the novelty, doing something as nigh on the polar opposite to what I had studied and worked on before. Also finding a program that embraced novelty was crucial – reflecting a forward looking point of view, having adjusted its learnings in the wake of the financial crisis rather than teaching redundant information, recognising the growing importance of emerging markets and reflecting that in the curriculum and so on. Not all MBA programs are created equal, and the best thing is to challenge your own biases. Pick one, where the majority of students are not the same nationality as you, don’t come from the same industry as you, and where the primary geographical area of study isn’t the one you come from.

And challenge yourself. Work on the really hard stuff, do the things you never thought you could. I didn’t have a clue about levered Betas before starting the program, but amazingly one of the smartest people on the planet on corporate finance and financial analysis, is also one of the most generous in sharing his knowledge and ideas so you can find a ton of it here (granted, he might need a designer to make the thing easier to navigate and visually more appealing :-)). And this professor of mine also blogs prolifically, so that’s probably the next best thing to Aswath Damodaran live.

Interestingly, as your frame of reference expands the true excitement for me came when starting to apply everything I have learned creatively both in my daily work and on the TRIUM term project, where the challenge is either to start a new business, do a turnaround or start a social enterprise. Designing a company around a business idea from the ground up and from scratch is just the most exciting thing ever. And yes, don’t cut corners – even if you won’t have to do it ever again. If nothing else, you will just have expanded your mental thinking muscle a little more than you thought was possible. And lastly, network. Preferably with people as dissimilar to you as possible.

Where will it all leave me at the end of the day? Some have warned me that after such an undertaking one can expect a touch of ‘MBA blues’ – in that the continuous challenge and stimulus becomes addictive in its own right. This is a valid point, as new topics, assignments and essay questions are served up with (annoying – when you are busy working on your day job) regularity – the upside is that the content is always top notch and well curated. Doing all that learning as efficiently on your own without the EMBA ‘machine’ powering away in the background is daunting. But not impossible. When you expose yourself to a challenge you barely think you can accomplish – you realise that the greatest limits to your own achievement is actually in your head. In the little statements you tell yourself about what you are capable of (or not). And whether we realise it or not, our own professional specialisms help permeate these perceptions of what different professions are supposed to be (or not be) able to do. The faster you drop that bias, the faster your progress in learning.

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