My dad grew up in poverty in rural India, but he overcame the obstacles set before him through hard work, and felt a responsibility, once he came to America, to assist others from his ancestral village in escaping the trap they had been born into. His story is a classic immigrant tale, and these days when I retell it, I feel an appropriate level of awe and wonder for the amount of hard work and perseverance his triumph required. Growing up, however, whenever he’d tell me about his past in order to motivate me to achieve my best, I’d get annoyed. I’d bring home a report card with A’s and A minuses, and he’d furrow his brow and ask what more I could do to get my teachers to give me A pluses. Then he’d tell me some interminably long story about how he’d swum across a river to reach a hidden library in some mystical forest to find a magical book and had read it by candlelight in a corner of a temple while a monsoon raged and his classmates lazily slept in their homes on a weekend night. He believed that I too should forsake inefficiencies in my life, such as frivolous friendships, video games, and more than four hours of sleep a night.
He never understood my “rebellion,” and I never understood why he couldn’t relax and be “normal.” When I was barely able to financially scrape by in grad school, I annoyed him further by getting Claude, a rambunctious Brittany Spaniel, as a pet. Why I would want to take on another “useless” mouth to feed? What was the value in this dog? He couldn’t understand it, and I couldn’t explain it.
In the years that followed, there were many other things I couldn’t explain to him, such as how I felt trying to make a living when the real world didn’t seem to value the education I’d received, or how it felt when my first wife left me, or what it was like to lose a quarter of my body weight in chemo and confront my own mortality. Through it all, though, I had my dog Claude, and I would tell my father how my simple love for my dog was matched by unconditional love in return, and that this, somehow, enabled me to tap unknown strengths that enabled me to handle each day. Just as my dad’s experiences growing up were unimaginable to me, the challenges I faced as an adult were incomprehensible to him. Yet they were equally real, and our methods of overcoming were equally valid and powerful.
Earlier this week, I was working with my fellow MBA students on a critical component of our education: developing our “personal brand.” I’ve discovered that the MBA program isn’t just about taking classes, but encompasses developing the soft skills as well that are essential to finding and landing the employment we want. Though these “personal brand” activities are essential skills, I was having a tough time believing what I was saying about myself. It all felt like empty fluff, full of self-promotion and bluster, without the meat that the kind of experiences my dad had gone through could provide. Wasn’t his brand more impressive than mine? Wasn’t his story the kind that would matter to employers? He pulled himself up through sheer effort, and took on every challenge and succeeded. My successes as a math prodigy, then award-winning author, then as an entrepreneur, seemed less due to hard work than they were due to talents that I’d had the good fortune to be blessed with. I had trouble appreciating my own accomplishments, and though I’d never thought I needed help crafting my resume or developing my interview skills, it became clear, as my fellow students and the career development staff participated in group critiques, that the MBA program was going to teach me something far more important than the book knowledge necessary for evaluating a company or quantifying the value of product or idea. Perhaps the most important skill I was going to learn was how to properly communicate my own value, and how to deliver that value to a company.
As I listened to the “personal brand” pitches around me, I could feel the excitement in the room mirrored within myself. Across from me sat an Olympic level gymnast who had started an innovative stationary products company in Brazil and who was making the transition to the corporate world in America. To my right sat a mother of two who had started an IT design firm, but was now looking to transition into new leadership opportunities. To my left sat a talented Texan who had traveled the world, could speak Chinese, French, and Thai, and who had sold everything from scrap metal to dreams. Their stories were like the stories of the select group of other students in the MBA program—I was surrounded by an amazing collection of abilities, an astounding group of people willing and able to transform and build value in the business world. And just as my father took his own skills for granted and viewed his own accomplishments with humility, so too did those around me. Each of us seemed more impressed with what other people at the table had accomplished than we were with our own personal narratives. We were taking our first steps on a journey together, each one of us helping the other to understand and explain the values within ourselves that we took for granted but that, in these volatile economic times, the world needed of its leaders.
I called my dad last night in tears because my dog Claude had just died. He died in my arms, at home, after a long and loved life, his body finally succumbing to old age. My dad and I talked a long time, with an honesty and a depth that we never could have had when I was playing the role of rebellious adolescent. As we talked, I realized that my dad no longer referred to Claude as “the dog,” but actually spoke of him by name. I pointed this out to him and asked him why.
He said, “You loved him the way I love my own son. I can see this now. And I can see, too, that he did more for you when you needed help than any of us were able to do. He wasn’t just a dog. Claude was a part of you, a part of our family.”
And I’ve come to realize that the transformation, from nameless unimportant dog to loved part of the family, is so very similar to the transformation I, and my fellow MBA students, are trying to make in the business world. We are not just job-seekers, one of the anonymous hungry horde in search of another paycheck. We are no longer one of the nameless. We are Tippie MBAs in search of family.