A Message To Graduating MBA’s

I gave a talk yesterday to a class of soon-to-graduate MBA students at CU Boulder yesterday. It was their last class in the course that had been filled with a bunch of interesting VC and entrepreneurial guest lecturers. We did Q&A for several hours, covered a lot of ground, and had plenty of fun (or at least I did.) At the end, the professor asked if I had any final words of advice to the room full of MBA’s who were about to graduate. I thought for a moment and then said an abbreviated version of the following.

Imagine that you are 45 and are looking back on your last 15-20 years. Is your work, and life, full of meaning?

Don’t worry about money right now. You can always get a job that pays you plenty of money. Don’t worry about your resume. Don’t worry about “am I positioning myself the right way for something five years from now.” I know way too many 45 year olds who have plenty of money, have done all the right career things, yet are unhappy with where they are in life, where they live, and what they do. Don’t be that guy or gal.

Start by choosing the place you want to make a life. If it’s Boulder, figure out how to stay here. If it’s New York, there’s an easy United flight that gets you there in under four hours – take it the day after you graduate. San Francisco? That flight is only two hours long. Just go and figure it out when you get there. Don’t talk about “I’m going to live there some day” – go get in the middle of wherever it is that you want to build a life. Oh, and Boise is a pretty cool place, as is Austin, Seattle, Miami, DC, and at least 95 other cities in the United States.

Next, choose a domain that you want to dedicate your life to. If you’ve dreamed of being an investment banker or consultant to Fortune 1000 companies since you were 10, then Goldman Sachs or McKinsey is looking for you. If you want to be an entrepreneur, working at an investment bank or consulting firm for a while is pointless. Be an entrepreneur starting now. Pick that domain that turns you on the most – start at a high level (e.g. software, Internet, clean tech) but then pick a thing that you really care about and a set of problems you want to solve. If you aren’t technical, go find a technical co-founder right now – there are hundreds of them on this campus. Get your ass out of your chair and just get started.

Finally, make sure you are living your life. You are young and hopefully have plenty of time on this planet. But don’t wait because you never know when the lights are going to go out.

Ok – that’s more cogent than what I probably said in real time, but it’s what I meant. And I think it applies to anyone about to graduate with an MBA. When I graduated from MIT Sloan with an SM (they didn’t have MBA’s back in 1988) I was already following three of these – I hadn’t focused on where I wanted to live until 1995 when Amy and I moved to Boulder. But when I look back, I didn’t care about money (and subsequently made plenty of it), I focused all of my energy on building a software company (which evolved into helping create software / Internet companies), and I lived my life every single moment – the ups, the downs, the dark depressed days, and the euphoric moments.

Go do something important right now, whatever that is for you. The world needs it and your chances of living a meaningful, happy, and fulfilling life will increase dramatically.

  • To me place is a variable and not a constant, and certainly not limited to the US. You could well say “history is being written in Shanghai and I want to be there”. Once you’ve done it once it becomes a non-item. You can project yourself anywhere across the globe.

  • Great advice. I would just add that you don’t have to pick one choice and it either makes you happy or not. To me, life is a series of phases; make the most of each. When I graduated Cal back in 1987, I immersed myself in the software industry and it was great, fun, interesting and exciting working for companies like Sun and Adobe and traveling around the world. After almost a decade of that, some of the shine wore off and we pined for the ‘backpack around Europe’ type experience that we hadn’t done right out of college, so we took 15 months and drove around North America in a 19′ motorhome. A bit more work after that and then kids and we moved to the Rocky mountains for yet another phase of our satisfying life. Two years ago, I went back to school for my MBA (Penn State Online – so great to have options) and now as I approach graduation, we are jumping in with both feet to create a startup company. Each phase has been appropriate at the time. Don’t be afraid of change.

  • This is good advice for anyone at any age. You know I didn’t [productively] act on my entrepreneurial tendencies unti I was 30. I toyed w/ them unwittingly a few times (i.e. the motorcycle stuff, an ’80s PC repair business), but had no real clarity until I was laid off from a big corporate job + was forced to reevaluate everything.

    Folks – Brad’s right. Stop (or don’t start) saying ‘Someday [x]’. Make today that day & just f’ing do it.

  • Brad, sensible words indeed.
    I was an avid reader of your blog a couple of years ago, drifted away, but I’m back.

    Perhaps you have heard of him, but if not, try and read or better listen to Alain De Botton.
    I’m beginning to think he is the most insightful thinker of our generation on work,status, happiness…

  • Great advice, Brad.

    Unfortunately, I grew up without a mother. I lost her in a car accident when I was extremely young. My dad passed away in 2006, when I was 23.

    Needless to say, both were extremely hard to deal with, but it’s taught me to never waste another second doing something you don’t love. Life’s too short to do anything else.

  • A good post.

    I would also bring up Randy Pausch (http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~pausch/) and the advice he has on living life. Worth any graduating MBA’s time. You spoke of his Last Lecture book back in 2008 in this post: http://www.feld.com/archives/2008/07/a-very-good-string-of-books.html but something you didn’t cover then was his time management lecture, which is just as important.

    Check out the Time Management Lecture here: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-5784740380335567758#

    • Yes to both – his time management lecture is particularly useful for
      anyone who struggles with being overwhelmed by “stuff”.

  • This is such great advice.

    In the end, life will throw you curveballs in your career as well as in your personal life. Try to make sure the fundamental things are in place and are solid — relationships, attitudes, values, friendships. This will put a peace in your life that will propel you forward.

  • Alex

    I graduated with my mba last year. I hopped a flight to SF, lived on couches, got a gig at a startup, and haven’t looked back. Friend who stayed in chicago to work at a consulting firm already hit me up for a job.


    • Anonymous

      So they’ve basically let you take all the risk? Not that it’s a bad thing, but if you have a disproportionately higher amount invested in your company than your immediate deputies do…

  • I wholeheartedly agree!!!

    You say that these points apply “to anyone about to graduate with an MBA”. Would you make the same points to graduating undergraduates and high school students?

    The reason why I am asking is to see what assumptions you are making about the audience and fellow man in general. For example, are you making the assumption that the person has a certain level of knowledge, respect for others, intrinsic motivation (per Daniel Pink), etc?

    • If offer this to anyone graduating from college.

      My advice for high school graduates is “go to college and have an
      awesome four years exploring everything you can.”

  • Joyful post, Brad – thanks for the inspiration!

  • Nice article Brad. Another book liked on the same subject – “What Should I Do With My Life?” by Po Bronson – http://amzn.to/eJz7Q9

  • Beautiful post, Brad.

  • Hi Brad… No two thoughts about the message, nevertheless I have time and again observed the following issues – 1) Most of the time its very difficult for people to figure out what they really desire. 2) Most of the individuals who have some idea of their aspirations don’t take the risk fearing failure and due to peer pressure. Will be great to hear your thoughts on how to overcome these problems.

    Though I changed my course realizing this at the age of 24 and am extremely happy that I did, I see close friends failing to cross the line due to fear.

    • I’ve written about fear in the past. My favorite fear post is from Dune:
      “Fear is the mindkiller.” While I understand that for many people fear of
      failure is a huge inhibitor of action, we have an incredible culture in the
      US that is accepting of failure. As a result, in many cases, fear is merely
      an internal inhibitor – granted one that is hard to overcome – yet one that
      is worthy to explore and work through. There is no magic here – it’s a real
      barrier, but there is meaning to the cliche “be brave!”

  • Hrm, what if you are about to graduate with an MBA at 37yr old with a wife and 3 kids? #2 is covered, #3 is being dealt with but #1…not so easy. Not easy at all.

    • Tony’s foil

      stop being a twat.

    • Well, as Meatloaf once said, “two out of three ain’t bad.”

      • Jo

        Loved this article, Brad. But must butt in and say to anyone with family (wife and children typically, but heck it’s sometimes husband and children too!), sometimes having those extra people in your life give you the extra kick to be successful. They are the reason to give it a go – not a stumbling block. Don’t presume they won’t support you all the way.

  • This is such a great article. I’ve found myself saying for the last 4 years about one particular city, “I’m going to be there one day”, and then getting stuck in my current city – which, admittedly, I really love, but isn’t in the domain I want to be in. This past week I’ve taken all the risks I can to get myself there. It’s scary, but I’m super excited.

  • One of your best posts ever.

  • Jim B

    Brad – wonderful heartfelt post.

    I’m almost 45 and have spent too long grinding away at ‘the job” instead of choosing the place to make a life.

    Life is indeed not a dress rehearsal. Thanks for the motivation.

  • I turned 40 last year – and decided to imagine a conversation between 40-year-old me and 20-year-old me. I did it for myself – to try and answer the question you pose in this post. It really was only for me – but it was a great exercise. What would 20-year-old me think about himself 20 years down the track?


    Shows this is a relevant post worldwide – I am based down here in New Zealand.

  • Pratik

    Excellent post Brad. One of the best i have read from you ! Although I could ask you a question in case i was in the audience – Would you consider being a venture capitalist role helps you make the transition into entrepreneurial role much better given the experience of seeing many opportunities and then choosing the right one for you ?

    • No. I think it’s really hard for VCs to transition back to operating
      roles. There’s a cliche that once you’ve been a VC you are pretty
      useless if you have a real job and have to run anything.

  • This is very useful information. I need to say I really like encountering this a lot. It will help me to become better knowledge of on the subject. It is very well published. I’ll definitely search for this kind of material very interesting. I really hope you could provide more sooner or later.


  • i get asked how i got into entrepreneurship by other newbie founders a lot. i think they expect a resume like “i worked at some big company and went for my MBA and then found a gap in the market and executed…”

    instead, i finished undergrad, worked for a couple months while packing my bags for an around-the-world trip in which i would end up in Australia and live there for as long as i could. i got through Europe and SE Asia before i got a job offer to work on a Hollywood movie.

    it was too good of an opportunity, so i headed back to the US. had offers to stay in Hollywood and work on cool projects (Tropic Thunder!), but also had the chance to tryout for a pro lacrosse team. i had to do it! and no, it wasn’t for the money – pro lacrosse doesn’t pay for shit.

    it was then that i realized the idea i had for our first business hadn’t been executed upon yet, and we (my cofounders and i) decided to start a company to scratch our own itch.

    there’s no rhyme or reason to it. there’s no pattern. you can only connect the dots looking backward. for me, i pursued what i’m passionate about and looked at each step as an opportunity.

    as one of my favorite teachers once said, “Life is the interruptions, not the space inbetween.”

    • Yeah man, bless the raw but beautiful middle.

  • Anonymous

    Beautifully said, Brad. And to the folks listening to you yesterday I’d add: “I know it can be scary when someone sends you this message. But it’s far less frightening than the prospect of a life unlived.”

  • Zpenrod

    I am a graduating MBA and love this post…

    Spent a whole lot of time looking for the right job for the right money irrespective of the place. Wife and I finally looked around and realized that anywhere we go, we will be successful. Decided to stop looking for jobs and plan a move to Boston (job is already taking care of itself). In the meantime, decided to enjoy one of our last chances to be irresponsible by living in Paris for the summer…

    What amazes me is the amount of people who hear our plan and say; “I wish I could do that”…stop wishing, start doing. It immediately changes anxiety into excitement and apprehension into confidence.

    Great advice, Brad!

  • Good advice Brad. The measure of success isn’t the size of our bank accounts or what other people think of us. How many celebrities have killed themselves when they apparently had the world by the balls? Finding happiness is hard to do when we let “what we ought to do” get in the way.

  • Anonymous

    This is great advice. Hopefully I’m living a bit of it.

    I’ve found that there are two related things I often encourage people to do:

    1. Think about the activities you enjoy, and try to find a life where you do that as much as possible. More people think about jobs and roles and industries. But activities drive happiness. Do you like selling? Do you like designing? Do you like meeting in small groups or 1:1 to hash our problems? Do you like being outdoors? No one thinks about this, but I think it’s so important.

    2. Assume success. I was actually pretty worried about going into the venture business early on because I wasn’t sure if it’d be good (and the feedback loop is very long). But it lines up so well with the activities I love and the domain I care about. It was silly to think that I should be held back by uncertainty of success.

    Thanks for this post.

  • Very inspiring! My fiance is graduating next week and reading your post makes us smile and think we are doing the right thing…Thanks!

  • Brad,

    Such timely words for someone getting ready to exit the traditional ‘job path’ and begin creating my future as an entrepreneur. Thank you.

    Another key element is the friends you choose to surround yourself with. I have been blessed with friends who are supportive of my decisions and that provide the boost of confidence often needed. Conversely, they will also tell me when I am wrong…I’ve also found it helpful to have friends that wildly differ: different interests, different skills, different circles, etc. When I have a question or issue, this has often helped resolve things quickly and/or get different perspectives.

    Similarly, actively living your life and exposing yourself to wildly different and new things puts you in a better position to help your friends with the random issues that surface in their lives. It also makes you more interesting…!

  • Totally agree. Don’t wait two years to be an entrepreneur. You might be dead. (Well, we all might be, according to the Mayans, with 2012 and all…)

  • Just start making things happen! Screw it and just do it. Easier said than done of course. I am still learning.

  • Reidrhollander

    Thanks for the inspiration and validation Brad. I just finished a JD/MBA (literally just had my last class about 5 hours ago) and am moving to Boulder right after commencement. No job and not a lot for a plan other than get involved with as many groups as I can that are relative to my interest and hope for the best. Deep down I think we all know that what you are professing is the way to go about it, but it is nice to get the confirmation from someone else every once in a while.

    • Awesome. Holler when you get here.

      On Wednesday, April 20, 2011, Disqus

    • Reid, I’m a lot less useful a contact than Brad is, but I basically had the same plan and credentials (minus the MBA) when I moved to Boulder last August. I ended up with a job lined up before I arrived but would have moved here regardless. Met tons of people within the first few months and now I feel like I’ve been here for years. Happy to grab food and beverages when you roll into town and talk strategy, networking, etc., with you. Shoot me an email if you’re interested: daviddothealatgmail.

  • Like all of this, but would add three things:

    1) do your homework

    2) be “ready” to jump

    3) don’t quit

  • Great advice for sure Brad! Thanks for sharing them with all of us. Hope to see you around.

  • Great message, Brad…

    Reminds me of recent article by Scott Adams, where he laid out some great initiatives for the aspiring entrepreneur


    OpenView Venture Partners

  • In the same vain, a great video by Tyler Mayeno interviewing Richard Tait on entrepreneurship.

  • Vivek Chandrasekhar

    As always, super stuff Brad ! I must print this and stick it in my wall . Yeah, like someone here said, it applies to many of us, not only MBA grads. It also reminded me of the central theme in Randy Komisar’s ‘The Monk and The Riddle’.

  • The promise of living an exceptional life must start with taking these risks. Thank you for this post and the reminder!

    I graduated from Leeds last year and I’m currently finishing up a degree in Education Psychology. So… I took the plunge and started an education non-profit we-trust.org with George Morris from Imulus. This is the no fear kind of non-profit: it will never make us rich, but it is driven by lots of reading, research, and belief–that this could actually make a difference in our greater Colorado community. We built the website, got our EIN#, vetted 5 exceptional community non-profits, and gathered a board. I suppose my question is: what’s next? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • Brad, really great advice. One difference that I have in my pitch to young people is not to worry about your entire life, but rather what are you passionate about now. Their passions may change over time, but their passion will fire up their development and impact and much of that will be transfer to other things that they may be passionate about in the future.

    Scott Maxwell
    OpenView Venture Partners

  • Anonymous

    “You get plenty of time on life to earn money”..Absolutely. Do what you want today , If you cannot risk today , you never can.

  • Anonymous

     For all those MBA graduates who are seeking to start-up a company and need the funds to do it, I strongly recommend this article which provides information on how to meet investors: http://www.businessplanjournal.com/raising-funds-can-be-easy-with-the-suitable-information/!