MBA Mastery: The Art Of Balancing Focus and Exploration

Area Four tchotchkes

I was standing in line at Area Four, one of the best cafes near MIT, when I noticed a shelf of tchotchkes above the register area, full of what seemed to be randomly acquired memories and keepsakes. A rough wooden carving of New Hampshire, with the state motto written, all-caps in Sharpie: “LIVE FREE OR DIE.” A collection of colorful origami cranes. A Brainy Smurf figurine. A playing card with a picture of a fluffy kitten on it. A patriotic Nashville coffee mug. A silk flower. A flowerless vase. An unaddressed greeting card… My mind wandered as my eyes bounced from item to item: “What does it all meaaaannn?” I thought to myself when the piercing voice of the barista called, “Iced mocha.” Two little words had snapped me back to reality, but I wasn’t over my thoughts…

I grabbed my chocolate fix — yeah, I’m not that into coffee, but when you put chocolate in it, I’m sold — and walked away confused about what had just happened. It was probably just an ordinary day to everyone else at the register; and the shelf probably posed no existential threat to the average Area Four customer. But for me, my amazement at the shelf and inability to interpret its purpose represented the larger issue playing out in my life: Should I continue to dabble in a bit of everything, as I had done during my first year at Sloan, or should I start to hunker down and dig deep in an area that interests me while I still had time in year two?

As I stood there at the register, I realized that my inability to focus on one item on the shelf was an outward expression of my lack of inner direction. I had entered Sloan with set goals — to understand the Boston and MIT tech ecosystem, to better connect the disconnected tech bubbles within Boston, and to experiment with entrepreneurship via my now-defunct startup Deliverish. All of these activities were supposed to enlighten me as to what I wanted to do with my life.

Taking advantage of so many opportunities left me thoroughly excited and inspired, but somewhat directionless. Now, I’m not one to fret about my future, but I was really hoping that I’d understand what career path I wanted to take by the time year one ended and summer rolled around. While that wasn’t the case, I’m happy to report that I successfully stepped outside of my comfort zones as a tech journalist and startup marketer in year one, and made exploration my priority. Interning in venture capital was a path many didn’t see as an “Erica” move, given my entrepreneurial bent, but I dipped my toes in the industry as a student partner at Rough Draft Ventures during year one, loved the experience, and took it further over the summer, serving as an associate focused on early-stage tech deals. While I’m inconclusive as to whether VC is the industry for me, I’m certain that there’s a place for me in the conversation, at least in the short-term, solving some of the gender bias I witnessed and experienced while interning in the industry.

I had a lot of great mentors during year one, and saw all the best sides of Sloan — all through exploration.

Year two, I’ve determined is all about focus for me. The entire MBA experience has been about learning to balance focused intent and exploration. Joining new clubs, taking on leadership roles, joining an international trek, being a performer at a school-wide event, staying in to study, taking the extra hour to perfect a take-home final… All of these choices entail trade-offs. If you take the extra hour on the take-home final, you may marginally improve your grade, but miss out on a dinner with classmates. If you perform in the school-wide event, you may have a blast and get a workout through a new dance routine, but you’ll miss a number of social gatherings for dance practices. If you do the international trek, you’ll learn about a new culture and get to know your classmates better, but you’ll also likely put yourself in a financially reckless position if, like me, you’re financing your own studies.

Trade-offs are everywhere. So, instead of trying everything this year, I’m going to focus on what I really care about: Building my friendships and spending year two doing things I could only do while at MIT Sloan. Career-wise, I’m going to continue to explore the gender gap in venture capital, as I feel the divide is too wide for justification. I hope my fellow classmates are starting to find their own balance between focus and exploration.

The MBA Program is a magnified version of life: Full of options, opportunities, and yes, distractions. Your goal — and mine — as an MBA candidate is to find the balance between exploring and zeroing in on what you love. It’s an art. Good luck on your journey!

Erica Swallow

Erica Swallow is a technology writer, startup entrepreneur, and status quo wrecker. She is currently an MBA candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management and her thoughts have been published in a number of esteemed outlets, including Forbes, Entrepreneur, The Wall Street Journal, and The Huffington Post, among others.

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