The Biggest Benefit of Business School Isn’t the Degree 

Everyday I return to the unforgettable lessons I learned at Wharton

This week I kicked off the Startups and Downs: The Secrets of Resilient Entrepreneurs book tour at my alma mater, Wharton, and it was a great reminder of the value of business school. 

These days business school applications at many top tier schools are significantly down, which is common when the job market is hot. After all, why would you want to spend $150,000 on an M.B.A. program if work is easy to come by? 

However, I don’t think the opportunity cost is so easy to quantify. Like any experience, business school is what you make of it and how you process everything that you absorb. For me, it was about learning how to prioritize, realizing that we can only do one or two things well and most importantly making life-long friends. Ultimately, it was worth the time and money.

Here’s a little more about each of these takeaways:

The Kanban Way Constantly Saves Me

During a class on supply chain and operations, I learned an unforgettable lesson about prioritization. It comes from the book, The Goal, and anyone I’ve ever worked with will tell you that I reference it a lot. The book describes the Japanese manufacturing technique that Toyota pioneered, which is known as the Kanban method. Simply put it’s a strategy of completing the shortest tasks first, identifying bottlenecks, and figuring out how to get work done in spite of constraints. That proved to be critical knowledge during the years I ran a software company where we constantly had to prioritize and ship product.

Even today, whenever I look at my to do list, I get the shortest tasks out of the way as soon as I can. This prevents me from getting bottlenecked or stuck on bigger projects and feeling as if nothing is moving forward.

Life Isn’t About More, It’s About Less

I remember on the first day at Wharton, my Leadership Fellow told me that it’s really only possible to do two of the following things well during school: find a job in a new industry, network and forge strong relationships make friends, or have get perfect grades. I chose the first two. Years later, I’m still applying that idea to aspects of my life. Although my priorities shift, ebb and flow, I really only make significant progress on two areas at a time.  Right now, it’s career and family. Last year it was health and wealth.  

Accepting that we can’t be great at everything all of the time alleviates some of the pressure that we put on ourselves in an era of constant multi-tasking. 

Having a Network with Purpose and Passion is Inspiring

You don’t always reap the fruits of your efforts right away. Fifteen years ago, I chose to focus on making as many friends as I could while at Wharton and now I see the benefits. This week I facilitated a panel with four Wharton grads who are also founders. They reminded me of the value and strength of my network. And when I needed a co-host for a dinner for Wharton students, I emailed a classmate (Michael Kopelman) who I haven’t seen in over 10 years to ask him to join me. He answered right away, and said yes. There’s an implicit understanding that when a classmate contacts you—you respond back.

It’s so important to fill your life with people who are committed to keeping their relationships strong. Learn how to spot them (they are intelligent, giving, and passionate) and put yourself in places, schools, jobs, clubs—where they exist. Be open to helping them, and more than that, be willing to reciprocate when they ask for help. I’ll be honest, when it comes to many of my business school friends, I still need to be better about keeping in touch. I still need to do more giving than receiving. And I still need to be a better connecter. But I’m committed to doing it.

Going back to Wharton was a reminder that the biggest benefit of business school is the network of people and professors that you meet—provided that you utilize the network. The lessons we learn in classes can give us practical skills, but having classmates who can actually help, make things happen faster, or make things easier means no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I’ll never be alone.