“Where are you from?”

On July 6th 2014, I stepped off a train and into a new world that would change my life and eventually become my home. I was on a trip to Ireland with friends and had decided to stop in London for a few days because I was already over here so I might as well. While in London I decided to wake up early and take a Sunday morning train up to Oxford, the home of Hogwarts, Narnia, Middle Earth, and Wonderland. The home of the stories that had enthralled me as a child and provided my escape from the realities of growing up gay and Mormon in a family that took 4 long years to divorce.

I had previously applied and been rejected from Oxford for a program studying politics and the internet and so I felt an added need to see this place that had told me I wasn’t quite good enough yet. I walked past the old colleges that looked like castles and saw the meadows that inspired Lewis Carrol to write about Alice; I had a pint at the pub where C.S. Lewis and Tolkien discussed their writings for 39 years; I saw the dining hall that inspired J.K. Rowling’s Great Hall; I stopped by the office of the program that had rejected me; and after 6 hours in this quaint town I headed back down over the bridge towards the train station where I passed a large glass building emblazoned with “Said Business School”.

In my London hotel room that night I couldn’t fall asleep until I researched this “Said Business School”. I added it to my list of MBA programs I was looking at and 6 months later submitted my application and this time around I was admitted to join the University of Oxford. I was overjoyed but still had doubts. Was it the right program for me? Was it a good enough program? Was I good enough? Should I go to a UK school to study business? Why not Duke (my other option)?

As doubt filled my mind I was blessed to have a great friend who has known me for 7 years tell me that if I didn’t go to Oxford he’d personally fly out to meet me wherever I was and slap me in the face. That this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and if I didn’t take it I was stupid and didn’t deserve to have gotten in in the first place. I will always be thankful to this friend because Oxford has changed my life in a dozen ways.

I experienced true history in a way that you almost can’t in America (especially the West). I had my eyes truly opened to philosophy and the great expanse of time that humanity has been trying to solve The Big Questions. I met some of the most amazing and brilliant people of my generation. I debated in a debating society that has existed for longer than my religion. I sat under a tree planted before the war of 1812. I learned about finance and to look at more than the niche areas of business I’d been trained to. I met friends for life whom I know I can call when things turn to shit or with whom I will celebrate alongside when they achieve something amazing without feeling jealous of their accomplishments. I met future politicians and researchers who will help usher in the next era of technological advancement.

Yesterday I formally graduated from an institution that has been teaching students since 1231. That is 300 years before the Aztec empire was founded; 200 years before the printing press was created. I’m graduating as a member of Lincoln College founded 1427, 65 years before Christopher Columbus discovered the New World for a newly united Spain and almost 350 years before America declared herself free making my college walls almost 2.5 times older than my country and 21 times older than I am.

As I sat inside the Sheldonian theater – a theater that became an architectural model for over a century – listening to a service in Latin that has been given for almost 800 years I feel the ties of humanity binding me to the past. I hear a whisper of an echo of a plea urging me to “Carpe” to “Carpe Diem” to use the great gift of an Oxford education and all the privilege that comes with it to do good in the world. All of us have been born into an unfair world. Some have it unfair at the worst end of the spectrum. I have been blessed to ascend above my station in life and reach an even more unfair position and I have a duty to use that to help others. To pay it forward to those who cannot yet reach the heights I have seen.

I don’t yet know what form that payment will take but I know that it is my Northstar guiding my actions. For I cannot sit here as one who was given a chance to be a student at Oxford and not pay in all I can to help others.

Today I am on the bus back to Heathrow marking the official “end” of my Oxford Journey that began in July 2014 when I first stepped off that train and visited this town of “dreaming spires” for the first time. Today also marks the beginning of a life touched by her ancient walls and guided by her timeless wisdom. Today is when I can truly say “I’m from Oxford.”

The Magic of Italy

Two years ago I was trying to figure out what was next in my life. Do I start my own firm, work at a different company, or go back to school.

I was facing a rough patch but a few months earlier had booked a flight to Italy to stay with someone who I’d met only once before at an airport lounge on New Years. It was an incredibly crazy thing to do and I am so glad I did it.

I spent the week before Christmas experiencing the European lifestyle and just decompressing from the stress of it all. It was in Italy, just after leaving the colosseum that I got a job offer and also decided to apply to get my MBA. That trip helped inspire me to choose Oxford when the time came.

This past Easter I was invited back down and as I started to prep for a handful of exams it was exactly what I needed. A rooftop with sunlight, a view of the harbor, and some prosecco with friends. It reaffirmed the decisions I’d made and helped me start to see ways of living that I want to incorporate into my life in the future. From being truly a local in the community to being the life and host of a party.

Having finished up my MBA this weekend I have felt a bitter-sweetness as the amazing year comes to an end. And so to combat this I booked a flight down to Italy again and am just a few hours from landing in Napoli where I’ll have amazing food, great friends, and a chance to decompress from it all.

Something about these people, this place, and the pasta is truly amazing. I am looking forward to a weekend of rest & relaxation that will recharge me for whatever comes next, be it a job in the UK or back in the states. Italy has become my happy place and I’m so happy to be back.

The Change of a Year.

1 year ago today I landed in the UK. I’d spent my flight flirting with the flight attendant who I eventually went on a few dates with. I cleared customs and hopped into a cab I’d had waiting for me to take me to Oxford.

I walked up to Lincoln college, grabbed my keys and dropped my bags while I made 3 trips to collect all of my stuff because the street was closed for a fair and the cab couldn’t make it through.

Exhausted I unpacked my things and went out in search of carbs. I’d seen a place called Mission Burrito a shop that promised San Francisco-style burritos. FALSE!

These tasted nothing like even the lowest of Tex-Mex in the states known as Chipotle. It was terrible. I moved into my flat and settled in for a year of classes, new people, and (although I didn’t know it yet) absurdity.

The past year has been one of the best I’ve had as I’v enforced the time to grow individually as I discover myself. I’ve also spent the time I needed learning the previously foreign language of Business that seemed to be all around me at my old job.

I spent today showing my parents inside colleges and various bits of life in Oxford. We met the children of great men, saw the colleges that inspire literary generations, and experienced the Oxford I’d lived in for the past year.

I am so grateful for the year I’ve had and hope that I am able to keep the lessons I learned (both in and out of class) in my heart as we bid farewell to the town we will always call home, Oxford.

Gratitude?

“David, don’t feign modesty – you are an American, it doesn’t look on you.”

Last night an amazing friend (who may be reading this) sad this to me as I tried to downplay a compliment she was giving me. It’s a force of habit that I have to downplay compliments and praise about me. It’s also something that I’ve had bosses tell me I need to work on in the past but I still haven’t found the way to just accept it.

It is really hard for me to not feel like an ego-driven jerk when I just say “thank you” to praise. To me it sounds very much like I am taking praise that is unworthy or that is for things that I don’t deserve. It’s hard for me to accept that there are things I’m good at without letting my ego get in the way.

I don’t have the answer yet but I think I need to work on being sincerely grateful in the cases when it happens. Usually a trite “thank you” is just that, trite. It is disingenuous and petty and is something I don’t want to be a part of. But true gratitude is something worth aspiring to.

Does anyone have any good ways to start expressing gratitude on a daily basis that I can add to my morning or evening ritual?

Mellowed

Reflection is a helpful thing even though it hurts.

As I’ve traveled and lived in Europe for the past year I have, at times, been a typical American asshole. Demanding things be a certain way, getting frustrated that people don’t think through problems the same way I do, and in general wasted a lot of my life yelling at things that really aren’t worth losing sleep over.

Lets put it this way, I’ve lost a lot of sleep.

In dealing with the bureaucracies of the trifecta of an Academic Institution, in the committee driven United Kingdom, that has 800 years of precedent to uphold I have lost a lot of sleep trying to make things ‘better’. I put better in air quotes because I want to make it better for me (and I assume other consumers) but recognize that I am not the only stakeholder or arbiter of what ‘better’ is.

I have been frustrated that the housing officer has taken vacation the week all the new students are meant to move into their housing. That my college hasn’t been aware of the longer schedule of the MBA vs. other degrees (despite having had MBAs for over a decade now). I’ve been frustrated at the lack of feedback for essays and the arbitrary grading system that takes months to get back. I’ve been frustrated by service staff who don’t bring me my check fast enough because they could turn another table if they were snappier about it.

In all of these encounters – and many many many more – I’ve found myself at times asking for the impossible or unreasonable given the limitations of a system we are working in. Be it asking for something that the person I’m speaking to doesn’t have the power to grant me. Or requesting something be done right this second while I wait instead of giving someone time to accomplish the task.

Today there was an issue and I was taking the lead on getting it resolved using many of the lessons in getting things done vs. just ranting that I’ve learned over the past year. As I was approaching the end of the exchange with an action that we would be back shortly and expected a solution, I saw someone I know very well step in and start exuding some of the behaviors I’ve tried to curtail in myself this past year.

Who is to say which of us was right or wrong? Which of us would accomplish our goal of getting a solution to an all around admittedly shitty situation? In the end all was taken care of and we will never know whose methods were better, however as I saw who I once was it was very interesting to see the difference between that mindset and the more relaxed, peaceful, “this too shall pass” mindset that I’ve been working on.

Je t’aime Paris

When I was in first grade, my family visited Paris. The trip started off with me, as the youngest of 4, was given a bar of chocolate by my older brothers (7 & 9 years older). This was as we were boarding the flight and I eagerly ate the entire bar of chocolate probably before take-off. My parents were up in first class but not too long into the flight they were aware of my gluttony.

You see, my older brothers were not being nice, they were being older brothers. It was a bar of laxative chocolates, suggested dose for my age 1 brick. Actual dose I ate, 12 bricks. Chaos ensued on the flight over. So I arrived in Paris dehydrated and pooped out.

We played tourist to no-end on that trip with most of it spent in McDonald’s without play areas so that my dad could take work calls. We went to the Louvre and mocked the mimes. We went to Monet’s garden, ate cucumber sandwiches, and looked at the lillies. We went to Notre Dame and didn’t see a single hunchback or singing gargoyle. We went to the crown jewel of tourist traps to satiate a family of 6. The Hard Rock Cafe.

It wasn’t until getting into Paris last night and spending the day with Mom & step-dad walking and taking the hop-on hop-off bus around the city that I remembered a lot of these stories. It was today that I realized where my hatred of tourist traps comes from.

Like many strong emotions, this despise of all things tourist came from my childhood. From that long-ago trip with the family where all we did was stand in line, wait at McDonalds, and see old fuddy-duddy art that I’d learned about on Encarta.

I’ve been to Paris three times this year and am finally seeing what I missed all those years ago. I am seeing the Seine and the beauty that river cities hold. I am eating amazing food and watching the Parisians enjoy their city. I am watching the multiculturalism of Paris against the stark contrast of the drive to preserve the French way. I am falling in love with a city that for two decades I have mocked based on the worst travel of my life. I am so glad I’ve had the open mind to start this lovely journey.

As I learned from one of my mates at BYU as he tried to teach himself French … Paris, je t’aime.

Weddings

It was a wedding to aspire to. Set against a European backdrop that was “home” and surrounded by family, friends, and loved ones the bride and groom were beautiful. The ceremony included groomsmen in full morning coats – tails and top-hats – and bridesmaids from multiple countries as their courtship spanned great distances.

This wedding was my first full taste of what Oxford SBS looked like as it was one of my best friends, her father calls us brother and sister, who was marrying a graduate of Oxford SBS class of 2012. I attended their wedding and was blown away by the experience. For context, the wedding was literally featured in Brides magazine a few months later.

But what blew me away were the people. The SBS classmates who had come from all over the globe to see their friend get married and to party and celebrate with him. I met a dozen students that October evening and chatted with them about the program and their experience. It was at that wedding that I bumped Oxford from low on my list of schools to the top.

The inclusiveness and camaraderie that the class exuded was on full display and I was smitten by it. More so than from any other MBA program.

A wedding helped me make up my mind in favor of Oxford and as we head into graduation week I got the chance to participate in a wedding for two of my best friends in the program who got married yesterday inside the great cathedral of Christ Church College.

I’ve had the pleasure of attending services with them there for most of the year. Saving each other seats when one or all of us are running late and brunching afterwards as we discuss the sermon. The church helped bind our friendship together more than the committees we sat on or the classes we had together. It allowed us to spend time and space away from school without leaving it and that helped us grow closer.

Their wedding was again outstanding. Groomsman in morning coats and bridesmaids from multiple countries. Guests from 6 continents and more than a dozen languages spoken just int he wedding party alone. The ceremony was held in the cathedral and the reception in the gorgeous town hall just next door. With guest dancing until after 4 am I’d say it was an amazing way to start the end of my time at Oxford and a great matching bookend to the wedding that brought me here in the first place.

What struck me most about the wedding personally was how that same camaraderie existed between strangers united in the common purpose of supporting their union at both weddings. I have never been one to plan out my big day and think about color schemes and outfits, and the like. I may have protested outside the Supreme Court for my right to get married but the wedding itself hasn’t held a major interest to me.

But after last night, I know that beyond the venue, beyond the cake, beyond the outfits I will only care about bringing that same spirit of unity into my wedding. Everything else is negotiable but I want to have that feeling with me and I hope many of the guests from last night will be able to join me on that day.

Tourism

“Would you like to take this hop-on hop-off tour of Washington DC?”
“No I’m from New York!”
“So you’re visiting DC then, take this tour!”
“Didn’t you hear me? I’m from New York. We despise these tourist traps and know better!”

That exchange happened between a friend of mine in DC and a tour-bus sales guy. You know the ones who sell you over-priced tickets to sit on a double-decker bus and have a guide tell you mostly true things about the city while you can take it all in and get off at various local attractions. One of those attractions always being Madame Tussaud’s wax museum btw.

I enjoyed my friend’s conversation at the time and have tried to embody that same New Yorker attitude throughout my travels. In Italy I made it a rule to keep looking for food if I could hear someone selling a “selfie stick”. It has been a great rule because I’ve never felt concerned about pick-pockets, I’ve always found amazing tasting and well-priced food, and I’ve had an enjoyable day.

The closest I’ve gotten to something similar are the student-led walking tours. These I respect a lot as its typically history or art students giving a walking tour for free to a group of people. In Barcelona I found one half-way through and at the end made certain I tipped the guy because that is how he gets paid. Those walking tours have always been well done and give me a very different flair than the tourist traps.

Well today I learned that I travel very differently from my parents. Perhaps its age, perhaps funding, perhaps, attitude. But we got on one of those busses. And to be honest it wasn’t that terrible. It was over-priced. And it was generic. But for people who have limited mobility and are jet-lagged. It wasn’t completely terrible.

I’m still going to go on adventures and meet locals and avoid tourists like the plague, but I will try to do it with less judgement in he future. These things have a place, its just not for me. Like viking river cruises, maybe I’ll appreciate them when I’m old.

A Novel in a Year!

According to the Nebula Award categories, a novel must be over 40,000 words. In the past year I have written assignments for 22 classes totaling just under 65,000 words. A novel and a half.

Today I turned in the last 3,000 words in an essay all about the power of storytelling in business and how I learned to apply it over my summer internship. With that submission I am now finished with all assignments for my MBA and have just under 2 weeks until I have my first of two graduation ceremonies. Two you ask? Surely one is enough!?!

Nope, its Oxford and they are weird. I graduate with the MBA in September 2016 as a recognition for finishing the course and ending the 12 months of academics I’ve endured. We will have a commencement speaker, parents are flying into town, the whole works.

I also graduate as an Oxford University masters student with my college in March 2017 because the college waits until all 65,000 words have been fully graded by not one but two assessors and then have the results certified after an exam board meets to ensure no foul play has been afoot or to apply a curve if they feel the need to.

What this means in reality though is that I am done. My year in Oxford is essentially over and now all I have to focus on is securing a job, a home, a visa, a country, a life after school. This means applying to yet more and more jobs, prepping for interviews, having interviews if I’m so lucky and then waiting by the phone. Waiting, waiting, waiting.

I don’t know which is worse, the waiting or the writing? Either way it will all be over soon. I just finished the travels and moving my stuff back up to Oxford from London where it will stay for ~4 weeks. Not long before that I’ll have to make a call and find a home for my stuff while I figure out what’s next.

That being said, I am not worried. I have a degree from Oxford, a network I’ve spent a year building up in addition to the one I left back in the states. I have my past experience and new tools and skills to succeed. I could panic and freak out but if I’ve learned one thing over the year of writing 65,000 words its that panicking doesn’t solve the writing. It won’t solve the waiting either. Only getting to work will do that and that’s one thing I know how to do.