“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.”

Overcoming Obstacles at Oxford

Throughout the year, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is how to motivate myself, stay motivated, and when faced with obstacles, overcome them. I’ve seen this lesson in almost every book I’ve read and I’ve seen it play over and over again throughout my lessons in and out of the MBA program. When I graduate from the Oxford MBA program I’ll have learned about Finance, Leadership, Responsible Business, Marketing Analytics, and so many more core academic lessons. I’ll have spent a year working as an elected representative of my class pushing for various changes and improvements to the school. I’ll have met amazing people who have become some of my best friends and one of my most influential networks moving forward in life. And I’ll have explored the magical place that is Oxford. I’m sad to see it go. However, the greatest lesson I’ll have learned has been the practice and ability to look at my challenge and know that there is a way around, through, over, or under it.

To that effect, here are 9 books I’ve read this year and the top-line quotes or lessons about using the obstacles life gives you to propel yourself forward. (10-min read time)

The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday (90 Seconds)
Watching the English by Kate Fox (30 Seconds)
Drive by Daniel Pink (50 Seconds)
Give and Take by Adam M. Grant (60 Seconds)
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder By Nicholas Taleb (40 Seconds)
Autumn Lightning: The Education of an American Samurai by Dave Lowry (40 Seconds)
Shadow of the Giant by Orson Scott Card (30 Seconds)
Children of the Mind by Orson Scott Card (10 Seconds)
The Road to Character by David Brooks (130 Seconds)

The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday (90 Seconds)
This book is the Number 1 book I read this year as it has had a profound impact on how I examined the world and challenges I faced. I encourage you to read the entire thing, but if you only have time for a few nuggets, here they are”

– “As it turns out, this is one thing all great men and women of history have in common. Like oxygen to a fire, obstacles became fuel for the blaze that was their ambition. Nothing could stop them, they were (and continue to be) impossible to discourage or contain. Every impediment only served to make the inferno within them burn with greater ferocity.”

– “Psychologists call it adversarial growth and post-traumatic growth. ‘That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’ is not a cliché but fact.
The struggle against an obstacle inevitably propels the fighter to a new level of functioning. The extent of the struggle determines the extent of the growth. The obstacle is an advantage, not adversity. The enemy is any perception that prevents us from seeing this.”

– “No one is saying you can’t take a minute to think, Dammit, this sucks. By all means, vent. Exhale. Take stock. Just don’t take too long. Because you have to get back to work. Because each obstacle we overcome makes us stronger for the next one.”

Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior by Kate Fox (30 Seconds)
Kate Fox’s comprehensive guide is a critical read for anyone moving to the UK. The life lessons here have been instrumental in helping me remove my foot from my mouth on several occasions. This conversational point is especially poignant to remember:

“Participants in moaning rituals [people complaining about things] do not want to be given reasonable advice on how to solve their problems: they want to enjoy moaning about them. Reasonable advice is therefore, quite reasonably, forbidden.”

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink (50 Seconds)
Dan Pink’s book about self-motivation is a great read for those who need a swift kick in the butt to motivate you to preserver, to learn how to have grit and find your purpose. This bit from Part 3 was especially helpful as I prepared for my Oxford MBA.

– “As you contemplate your purpose, begin with the big question: What’s your sentence? … then keep asking a small question.”

– “Here’s something you can do to keep yourself motivated. At the end of each day, ask yourself whether you were better today than you were yesterday. Did you do more? Did you do it well? … Reminding yourself that you don’t need to be a master by day three is the best way of ensuring you will be one by day three thousand. So before you go to sleep each night, ask yourself the small question: Was I a little better today than yesterday?


Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam M. Grant (60 Seconds)
Adam Grant’s book was a good read as I tried to focus on managing my energy. This section in Chapter 6 resonated with work my managers had done at Google.

“Seeing impact can reduce the burnout of givers and motivate others to give, some organizations have designed initiatives to connect employees to the impact of their products and services. … At Medtronic, employees across the company— from engineers to salespeople— pay visits to hospitals to see their medical technologies benefiting patients. “When they’re exhausted,” former Medtronic CEO Bill George told me, “it’s very important that they get out there and see procedures. They can see their impact on patients, which reminds them that they’re here to restore people to full life and health.” Medtronic also holds an annual party for the entire company, more than thirty thousand employees, at which six patients are invited to share their stories about how the company’s products have changed their lives. When they see for the first time how much their work can matter, many employees break down into tears.”

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder By Nicholas Taleb (40 Seconds)
This book by Nicholas Taleb works off the principle that there are three classifications of things. Fragile (things that break when pressure is applied), Resilient (Things that survive and adapt to pressure), Antifragile (Things that, when pressure is applied, grow). He uses the myth of the Hydra to explain AntiFragile because when a Hydra’s head is cut off – two grow back. Humans have the ability to be AntiFragile and this book relates back to The Obstacle is the Way discussed earlier. In a snippet, here is a key point.

“Consider how people train in weightlifting: the body overshoots in response to exposures and overprepares (up to the point of biological limit, of course). This is how bodies get stronger.”

Autumn Lightning: The Education of an American Samurai by Dave Lowry (40 Seconds)
This book by Sensei Dave Lowry details his training as a Samurai starting as an American kid in the 70’s while explaining the warrior culture of feudal Japan. One main theme throughout the book is that a true warrior dedicates himself to both taking live and giving life.

“The transformation of the sword in the bugeisha’s hands from a weapon that takes life to one that grants it is a long and arduous process. The process cannot even be attempted without an immersion into the fundamentals of swordsmanship that force an exponent to come face to face with an opponent often enough so that eventually, it is hoped by his sensei, he will come to face himself.”

Shadow of the Giant by Orson Scott Card (30 Seconds)
Great lessons can be learned from fiction and this lesson on leadership from the main character Bean is key to high-level management of teams.

“If you give orders and explain nothing, you might get obedience, but you’ll get no creativity. If you tell them your purpose, then when your original plan is shown to be faulty, they’ll find another way to achieve your goal. Explaining to your men doesn’t weaken their respect for you, it proves your respect for them.”

Children of the Mind by Orson Scott Card (10 Seconds)
Another great fiction example from Orson Scott Card that lends itself well to the philosophy of Stoicism learned from The Obstacle is the Way.

“Obstacles? Men like you don’t have obstacles. Just stepping stones.”

The Road to Character by David Brooks (130 Seconds)
David Brook’s book is a profound anthologies of moral character that is worth a much deeper dive and is probably the number two book I’d recommend. The book ends with the final passage here which is a constant reminder to be better each day.

“The good news of this book is that it is okay to be flawed, since everyone is. Sin and limitation are woven through our lives. We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling— in recognizing the stumbling and trying to become more graceful as the years go by.

The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance here and there, sometimes lurching, sometimes falling to her knees. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature, her mistakes and weaknesses, with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness. She is sometimes ashamed of the perversities in her nature— the selfishness, the self-deceit, the occasional desire to put lower loves above higher ones.

But humility offers self-understanding. When we acknowledge that we screw up, and feel the gravity of our limitations, we find ourselves challenged and stretched with a serious foe to overcome and transcend.

The stumbler is made whole by this struggle. Each weakness becomes a chance to wage a campaign that organizes and gives meaning to life and makes you a better person. We lean on each other as we struggle against sin. We depend on each other for the forgiveness of sin. The stumbler has an outstretched arm, ready to receive and offer care. He is vulnerable enough to need affection and is generous enough to give affection at full volume. If we were without sin, we could be solitary Atlases, but the stumbler requires a community. His friends are there with conversation and advice. His ancestors have left him diverse models that he can emulate and measure himself by.

From the smallness of her own life, the stumbler commits herself to ideas and faiths that are nobler than any individual ever could be. She doesn’t always live up to her convictions or follow her resolutions. But she repents and is redeemed and tries again, a process that gives dignity to her failing. The victories follow the same arc: from defeat to recognition to redemption. Down into the valley of vision and then up into the highlands of attachment. The humble path to the beautiful life.

Each struggle leaves a residue. A person who has gone through these struggles seems more substantial and deep. And by a magic alchemy these victories turn weakness into joy. The stumbler doesn’t aim for joy. Joy is a byproduct experienced by people who are aiming for something else. But it comes.”

From Texas to London

When I was in 8th grade I moved from Utah to Texas mid-year and in my class (English) I walked into the class taking a test. My teacher handed me the book The Outsiders and told me to read it rather than take the test with the class. I love reading and when everyone had finished I was still reading along lost in the book. I was brought back to reality by my teacher’s voice saying “David, put your book up.”

I raised my book in the air.

David, put your book up!” she said again more forcefully

I raised my book higher in the air, stretching my arm all the way up.

David, don’t be a smart alec, put your book under your chair, now!

I out my book underneath my chair and (stupidly) asked “Why didn’t you ask that in the first place?” As it turns out, in the South “put it up” means “put it away.”

At 13 years old, I had moved to basically a foreign country. I faced my first frustrations with new dialects and over the next 4 years would come to learn an entirely new culture which included; playing High School Football, southern dating, abstinence-only education, and Baptist Rock concerts. This was my first taste at a new culture outside of my Utah bubble and it took me this long to realize that despite my embarrassment that day, I have been hooked on experiencing new cultures.

I moved to DC and dove into a city with Southern efficiency and Northern hospitality. I lived in San Francisco and had my mind changed forever by my first visit to the Castro. I moved to Ann Arbor and got a feel for Big 10 college football in the Big House. Finally when choosing my MBA program I picked Oxford because it would be an amazing experience in a new culture. Both British culture and Oxford prestigious culture and it has been amazing.

That’s why I’m not surprised when I visited the States again recently that I felt the need to keep moving forward and keep pushing to explore other cultures. This is one of the biggest reasons why I am looking forward to working in London this summer and possibly ending up working in London and travelling across Europe when I am able.

Being able to experience new customs, new cultures, to try new street food, see new sights, hear new stories, make new embarrassing mistakes, and see more earth is a key goal of mine. Its why I’m focusing my job search on London and really shifting my goals in life to be able to take advantage of travel whenever I can.

Digital Empire State of Mind – The NYC Elective

This week I had an elective in NYC getting an incredible look into the entire digital media landscape. From brands like L’Oreal, The Met, and New York City Hall to publishers like Mashable and the New York Times to agencies like WPP and FCB. Having worked ont he technology side at Google I knew some of this but listening to how each company and each segment of the industry is looking at the future of marketing I had a couple of insights and several great quotes. While you can’t distill an experience like this into a blog post, for those who couldn’t make it on the trip or those who may look to do it in the future (I highly recommend it btw) here are the top 10 things I learned about the Future of Marketing.13002356_10154186155059090_2422219657355659803_o

1. “Big Data is like sex in High School. Everyone is talking about it but no one is really doing it. Those that are doing it, definitely aren’t good at it.” – We have moved past the era of “big data” and into the era of insight, however not everyone is there yet.

2. Customer data is infinitely more valuable than the product you are selling them that grants you this data. An insurance company is looking at giving away free insurance in order to get customer data they can sell instead because quality consumer data commands that much value.

3. Mashable (the tech publisher) is on the verge of a massive shift into a data company. They have a new product called Velocity that crawls the web and can predict the lifespan of a newscycle, how many people would share a piece of content, and what themes are reflected in the data zeitgeist. They are automatically helping provide insight not into customer data but into the media we all consume.

4. Native advertising is on the rise, even at the last bastion of journalism, the New York Times. It looks and feels like a news article with only a small disclaimer letting you know its been bought and paid for. While it feels slimy, native advertising is helping fund the work of 11,000 journalists and letting them do good work that needs to be done. While I have many issues with native advertising, it may be worth looking at early soap operas as a comparison point. After all, soap operas were content funded by soap companies.

5. “Advertising is made by creative people who hate business … approved by business people who hate creativity … and watched by ordinary people who hate advertising.” – No single quote has summed up the difficulty and friction in marketing and advertising better.

6. In order for great ad campaigns to happen the people in the room have to be empowered to say YES, not just be able to say no, because the greatest risk of all is taking no risk at all. Far too many brand managers focus on small incremental wins which are mediocre but safe. They treat these wins like buying an IBM – No body every got fired for buying an IBM after all. Brand managers need to be empowered by CMOs to say yes if the CMO isn’t making the call herself.

7. Ads can no longer simply sell their product, in today’s fragmented media landscape ads have to sell themselves as well by adding value. Ads add value by enlightening, entertaining, educating, engaging, or simply giving. Ads like “Like a Girl“, “Shadow Wifi“, “Get Rid of Cable” and “Colorblind“.

8. Great ads provide value because they tell a story. We heard two great quotes on storytelling that are worth sharing and keeping close to your heart as you present, work in marketing, or even as you communicate in your daily life.
“If history was taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
“Storytelling will die when the world is perfect.”

9. There are 3 questions all ad-men should make: 1. Would the idea move you? 2. Would it make a difference in the world (on any scale)? 3. Would it change people’s behavior? – If an ad can do these three things then fund it because it can be a great ad. If it doesn’t, go back to the whiteboard and keep trying.

10. “You can’t Science your way to Magic” – There is a struggle between the use of massive data to improve performance one optimization at a time vs using powerful creative that resonates with everyone. When you see Dove’s Inner Beauty campaign that wasn’t a result of “Science” but because of great storytelling and powerful, even magical creative. Its not something you can perfect in a lab, but something that takes a bit of time and appetite for risk to pull off. You can start on a smaller scale and work up to something that big to hedge your risk, but at the end of the day you can’t science your way to magic no mater how hard you try.

This trip was a wonderful experience as not only did we visit these companies we met with Alumni, spent time with MBAs, and had the chance to go to the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race dinner where we heard from New York Times columnist and Oxonian Nicholas Cristoff. He gave a stirring speech with a handful of gems, but the biggest take away was that no-matter where we go as Oxonians we will inevitably hear someone say “me too, what college are you from?” As Oxonians we have won the educational and alumni network lottery and with that comes a great responsibility. We get to have amazing experiences like this trip that almost no-one else can get to do and that is worth reflecting on.

Rankings Rundown

So sorry that I’ve been absent for the past few weeks – its been a busy term! – A few things have happened that I want to touch on that my readers may find relevant. The biggest one is that (as many of you know) the FT posted its MBA rankings and SBS fell a few slots. Now I could get into a long rant about the methodology; how 47% is based on Salary 3-years out while only 4% is based on “Aims Achieved.” Or how INSEAD helped to develop the FT rankings in the first place and they happen to be #1 this year. But that doesn’t help anyone. Instead I’ve taken the past few weeks to look at and think about the accuracy of the ranking, its relevance, and what changes can (and are) being made to improve the school itself (regardless of rankings) in the long-term.

First of all, I think that the rankings are more-or-less accurate if you are an MBA recruiter looking to slot Management Consulting or Finance candidates. We should probably be in the late-teens, but there is a lot to be said about our 1-year program (which starts late) and its ability to prepare our students for in those fields in the short-time frame that we have. This is a problem which can be fixed and in looking at the program for the next 2-3 years it will be addressed very quickly with a handful of initiatives designed to give students who know they want to do Finance or Consulting the tools they need to network, recruit, interview, and get placed at top firms. We already started this shift with our year, the first to offer a summer internship for credit which allows partnerships with Deloitte and Accenture (and many finance roles I know little about) which can parlay into jobs following the MBA.

Second, as you may have guessed from the first part, I think that rankings are largely irrelevant. Really only Finance and Consulting recruiters care about MBA rankings. Tech, the next biggest recruiter, doesn’t really and the one that does (Amazon) just hired like 10-15 people from SBS. For all fields, when you move to your second job (typically within 2-3 years post-MBA) the recruiter doesn’t care about your MBA ranking but the brand recognition of your institution. In our case Oxford University carries significant weight. In the long-run, it shouldn’t have to; SBS should be able to stand on its own, but it is an undeniable fact that the school and students enrolled or incoming should lean into. We are a part of the broader University of Oxford – an institution 220 years older than the founding of the Aztec empire, 350 years older than the Gutenberg printing press, and only 42 years younger than the Greek Orthodox church which split from the Roman Catholic church in 1054. We are backed by amazing colleges rich with history, scholarships, and alumni networks that other business schools can only dream about – incoming students lean into your college network.

Third, other schools are focused on building huge alumni bases and top salaries in a play for the rankings and to make up for what Oxford has and they lack. They recruit students who are sponsored by their consulting firms in large numbers and often they lack the ethnic, cultural, or gender diversity let alone the diversity of industry we have at SBS. In my section we have your standard 3Ms of an MBA (Mormon/Military, Male, McKinsey) but we also have leaders from Teach For America (a huge feeder into Google and other large Tech firms), master’s students in Data & Analytics, Mechanical Engineers, high-fashion experts, social entrepreneurs who built schools in Africa, and quite possibly a handful future Heads of State. SBS chooses to (potentially) sacrifice the rankings in favor of a more diverse student population and I feel that the discussion, and our global network is far superior to other schools because of it.

Lastly, we are in the process of rapidly changing things but that takes time. We are going to on-board students differently, we have tapped a new careers director (announcement forthcoming) and are now looking at a replacement for the MBA director role that was vacated this past week. We have quadrupled the number of marketing electives this year and are poised to propel a new generation of digital-first marketers into Brand Manager roles at major firms. We hired a new careers lead for Social Impact and are looking at hiring another for Technology as well.

Each day as class Rep I sit in one meeting or another with faculty or administration; day-in day-out I see how the sausage is made. Has the school messed up in a few areas? Definitely although they may not admit it. Do the operations and communications need tuning and improvement? Absolutely, which is just one reason why Dina Dommett was hired 9 months ago and you can see the improvement she has been. Does the school know where their challenges lay and how they are going to address them? Mostly (and where they aren’t its more because of bandwidth, not institutional inertia). Is this a perfect school? No. Is HBS? Wharton? Kellogg? LBS? – In talking with my friends at those schools they have similar complaints across the board. Can we be a much better school? Yes, and I have complete confidence in the long-term value of an Oxford MBA from SBS. This degree is going to be immensely valuable – despite what the FT rankings might lead you to believe.

 

As always if you want to talk about any of this reach out to me (a few incoming students already have) – email: blog@davidbbaker.com and I’ll get to you as soon as I finish a couple of assignments!

Exams, or don’t sweat the small stuff

So sorry for the hiatus, term was finished but now I’m back. To all those who are reading this while applying or trying to decide on accepting or not feel free to reach out. I’ve chatted with about a dozen admits or prospective students and I’m always happy to chat. – Now to the blog post itself!

Oxford is richly filled with history, I have no reason to doubt its veracity except that legend grows here faster than moss. One such legend states that a student wore a suit of armor to an exam and was promptly escorted out of the exam schools with a distinction (highest grade) and a fine. A distinction because instead of wearing sub-fusc the typical Oxonian dress he had worn full-fusc the suit of armor; a fine because he failed to wear the traditional broadsword at his hip. We love our legends and I’d like to think that they are true but if not they at least can inspire future generations.

Oxford,_Examination_Schools_02Two weeks ago we had our first set of Exams inside the exam school. We had two over 3 days and the amount of time put in at the library in preparation was absurd (for my tastes). The concern that people had with getting a distinction was so palatable that I had to bring a plate of cookies to get the taste out of my mouth! At Oxford individual class grades are not reported, in fact the only thing that is reported is a simple Fail / Pass / Distinction mark.

Now I have parents who would love me just a smidgen more if I got a distinction, however I looked out at all the stress of the exam prep and realized that all I needed to do was simply pass the exams which wasn’t too difficult. Instead I spent the rest of my time trying to help de-stress the rest of our class. This is because one lesson I learned in the past year is to Not Sweat The Small Stuff (and it’s all small stuff). So I made cookies, provided some comic relief, and most importantly listened to the legend of the brave knight who pushed the boundaries of sub-fusc.

Kilt FuscAt this point in the story I have to tell you that after a decade of fencing I have a hate/hate relationship with trousers. My booty tends to push beyond the barriers of the physics of pants causing a rip in the fabric of space-time … or just my trousers. During Michaelmas term my tuxedo trousers ripped completely beyond repair … twice.

Facing this lack of supportive sub-fusc; the legend of full-fusc; and the stress on our class for the final exams, I had an idea. While I didn’t have access to a full suit of armor (you were really hoping this was going there … me too!) I did have access to the rule-book for sub-fusc and an Amazon Prime account. So on the day of the exam I strode into the noble halls where generations of Oxonians have quivered in fear of poor performance in full Scottish kilt-fusc!

b_examhallYep, As a man with quite hairy legs I skipped in a skirt down the aisles of desks, passed the invigilators who keep a watchful eye on us to prevent cheating and took my seat. Everyone I talked to before and those who saw me walk by the invigilator (and her shocked reaction) relaxed and had a chuckle.

You see a simple black kilt is now acceptable dress for sub-fusc and I had decided to not sweat the small stuff. Now my story will not go down in the annals of history as a legend but I was able to bring smiles to suffering students and prove that I wasn’t going to sweat the small stuff.

As we start the next term in full-swing tomorrow I can’t help but keep that image in my mind and hope that whenever I come across something so inconsequential to the big picture that I can easily dismiss it with the mental image of that day.

Embracing my new culture

A few weeks ago I wrote about adapting to the English culture. In the past two weeks I’ve realized important lessons that are critical to success in the UK and likely useful back in the states as well. At their core, these lessons are to do with politeness and understanding the levels of politeness required to accomplish key tasks.

The first lesson took me a while to realize given my background in the Tech industry but should have been self-evident from my time in politics. If you want something done, don’t send an email talk to the person as directly as possible. If you can only give them a call then call them. If you can add video-chat like we had at the click of a button at Google, then do it. However if you really want to get something done, politely invade someone’s personal sense of space and time.

They cannot get upset with you as helping you is part of their job, but they also cannot ignore you because you are right there ready to have a polite, calm conversation with them. I re-iterate, have a polite conversation. You don’t deserve a solution, you are doing this in person to help speed up the process, eliminating back-and-forth that email creates. You being there in person is a gift to whomever you need something from as then they can quickly get it finished. Being there in person means they can’t ignore you but it also means they can complete the task and move on. In the past few weeks I’ve applied this dozens of times and in the UK especially it is critical. Relying on email slows things down, saying “Hiya, how’s your day going?” in person gets shit done.

The second lesson is to couch everything negative (and I mean EVERYTHING) in a polite shit-sandwich. Personally I prefer just the criticism straight-up so I know where to get better. Maybe its the East Coast blood in my veins (Mom & Granny were born in NYC) but this is the more effective way to couch things. A fantastic Brit articulate this to me in the clearest way possible with the following example. She told me, to deliver a critique simply say the following “The meal you cooked me was brilliant! … The-sex-was-shitI LOVE your kitchen.” Complete with saying the middle section fast and moving onto the 2nd compliment almost without taking a breath.

Since that moment I’ve begun to couch any criticism I have in a shit-sandwich only to see it eaten quite handily. Apparently this means I am becoming more british but I think that these lessons apply back in the states as well. Its an important lesson to learn and the Brits have definitely helped me internalize it!

Balance & Peace During the Oxford MBA

Any MBA is an intense program, you uproot your life & routines at your job & hometown and purposefully put yourself into uncomfortable environments with people who all have a different perspective. It is painful the way a deep-tissue massage is painful. It hurts so good.

Bath SpaHowever, just like any massage you need to take a break from the pressure. Weekends aren’t helpful unless you take-off and disconnect from the MBA program entirely and sometimes you need one of those weekends. At Oxford that might mean taking a trip to Bath to use their Roman Spas after your exams (Next week’s adventure!) or it might mean taking a cheap RyanAir flight to wherever is cheapest for a few days.

This term I have neglected this advice and it built up. I was getting homesick and stressed out and realized that I needed a mini-break. In looking at the options I found a cheap flight home to DC and realized that this weekend was my friend’s annual over-the-top christmas party and my old chorus’ holiday show. So I did what any crazy person would do, bought the ticket for 60 hours back in DC two nights before my flight.

I am so grateful that I did, even if it took away some time from my favorite class and time to study for my exam on Tuesday. I am already feeling more energized and invigorated for the week to come. You see I am the type of person to operate at 150% otherwise I’m start to get unhappy. I take on a lot of things that I make certain I get done but leave no time for anything else. A coach once told me that that’s how I’ll end up dying 50% early … I’ll work my heart to death.

This weekend was a practical & valuable lesson that I need to take care of myself if I as a leader am going to take care of others. It is up to me to discover the balance, slow down and in doing slow be better at the 150% of things I choose to do.

Another amazing part of this trip was that it served as a confirmation of what my old DC friends told me when I left and what I haven’t acknowledged as truth until now. When I needed a break and was feeling homesick I went to DC. I didn’t go to Utah where my Mom & Brothers are. I didn’t go to Dallas where my sister and one of my favorite nephews live. I didn’t go to some exotic location because I am an unrooted traveller on this planet. No, I went to DC to feel at home.

It might not be the first job after my MBA (it certainly might) but I now know that DC is home. That I have roots in DC. That when I am in DC I feel a little more at peace. Something about the insanity of that city resonates with my soul and I know that I’ll end up back in DC soon.

I have to catch my flight and actually do some studying for my exam on Tuesday so I’ll sign off and board my flight back to the UK where tomorrow I’ll be more rejuvenated and more centered at the Oxford MBA.

Sport at the Oxford MBA


When you think about an MBA program, usually the last thing you think of is professional collegiate sport. (Yes American’s I’m going to use the British Sport instead of the American Sports … Yes I do realize it makes me sound like Mitt Romney …. No, I don’t care … Cheerio!)

I don’t know how it is at US programs, but at Oxford, Sport is everywhere. Perhaps its because we are embedded within the wider university, but a large chunk of my classmates are representing Oxford as they fight against other schools.

In the US there is the NCAA, and in the UK its BUCS – British University & Colleges Sport. In our class of 340 students, easily 25% of the them are involved in a university sport. A lot of them row in teams of 8 for their college or for the wider university. If you remember the movie The Social Network really well you might recall that the Winklevoss twins ended up at a rowing regatta. They were rowing for Oxford and in fact were Oxford MBA students at the time.

We have 2 olympic swimmers, the head of the boathouse, half of the university hockey team, a university archer, a crew of table tennis players, and much much more. Myself? I fence Foil & Sabre for the University and this weekend had a “Quint” – a small tournament with 5 schools. It lets us pack most of our matches for a term into a single weekend instead of being on the road each week.

Fencing against CambridgeI fenced against Cambridge (Beat them!), Warwick (Their fencers were just as hot as their infamous rowing team), and Nottingham (like the Sheriff). I’ll have at least two more of these next term before the big varsity rivalry match against Cambridge again on 12 March. Getting back into Fencing after so many years off has been exhaustingly exhilarating. I hadn’t thought about getting back into collegiate sport for my MBA, and especially not in a 12-month compressed intensive program. However it has been an energizing experience.

Not only am I more active to help fight off those MBA 15-pounds, I have another network of friends, another tie to the wider university, and more generally, more energy (if less time). As we have been learning about managing for energy not time this is an important experiential learning exercise that hopefully I’ll find a way to continue after I leave Oxford.

If you are thinking about coming to the Oxford MBA and used to play a sport in college, reach out because I’m certain we have an MBA involved on some level you could talk to.

Adapting to New Cultures

In the week leading up to my move to England I read the book “Watching the English.” It is an anthropologists look at English culture filled with lessons on everything from drinking, eating, tea, gardens, trains, drinking, friends, work, and drinking.

It was a great read to help get me into the mindset of the English before I embedded myself within their culture. It is a phenomenal read that I recommend to any ExPats here in the UK. What has struck me is how true it is, and sadly how much I have ignored its advice at times (only to my detriment).

The biggest advice I’ve ignored is the level of effort the English will go to avoid being impolite or confrontational in-person. For quick context if you are having a conversation with an Englishman and at the end he says “Oh by the way” as an American I’d assume that what comes next is trivial. To the English, this is the most important thing they wanted to say. In emails their politeness can come across as passive-aggressive and as a brash American it can be an interesting clash, but I am learning.

As an American attending the Oxford MBA I am a cultural minority. Sure, we make up 20% of the class but we work within the realities, biases, and cultural traits of 56 countries. Sometimes its hard because political beliefs, ways of communicating, and respect to hierarchy differ drastically. However I couldn’t be happier that I am surrounded by this diverse group of students. It is first-hand, intensive, immersion learning on how to work on a global scale. Its a unique feature that you can’t get at almost any other top MBA program, especially any in the states.

In almost every interview or recruiter conversation with firms in the states I have been asked some variation of “Why not an American program?” Honestly I am grateful for this conversation because it allows me to talk about my classmates and the diversity they bring to the classroom.

While I am still not perfect at adapting to other culture’s methods of communication I am learning and grateful for each chance I get.