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One Final Note on My Time at Stern11 min read

I never learned to use Excel.

In my previous life I was a sportswriter who became a sports web producer who became a sports content strategist who became a sports digital jack of all trades. Well, not all trades because, you see, I never learned to use Excel.

For the first 12 years of my post-college life, spreadsheets, or for that matter business school, were never on my radar. I didn’t see the point of leaving the career in sports media I had always dreamed of, and, in any event, I never considered myself much of a businessman. With hindsight I now understand that I was lying to myself to some degree. I knew I was not in a positive situation and had occasionally considered next steps. Still, I had convinced myself that lower earning power and overwhelming stress were acceptable tradeoffs for unique access and professional experiences. If the time came, I would be able to change careers on my own terms.

Then, in 2019, four months before my wedding, I unexpectedly lost a job in the only line of work I had ever known.

These have been the most challenging years of my life. In the midst of a global shutdown, I juggled graduate school and job interviews while my wife and I struggled to start a family and spent months caring for her ailing father. My father-in-law gave me my share of headaches, but he was one of my biggest champions when I decided to pursue an MBA. He was a staunch believer in education – by his mid-20s he had a master’s and a PhD – and over his life he developed a keen interest in navigating corporate environments and learning how to invest and secure your future. The day before he passed away, I helped him descend a staircase in his home, eased him into a seat on his couch and then laughed in bemusement as he looked at me and asked, “What did Tesla close at yesterday?”

As I wrapped up my first year at Stern, my life revolved around supporting my wife and helping her manage his care. Two days after Christmas, and exactly one year after I submitted my deposit to NYU, my wife and I sat vigil at her father’s bedside and held his hands through his final hours. We then spent the next six months, and the start of my second year of business school, cleaning, preparing, and selling his home. All the while, we continued the relentless pursuit of parenthood and, for reasons that remain inexplicable, decided to buy a house. Meanwhile, I was still interviewing for jobs and trying to focus on Behavioral Economics and Global Strategy. By the grace of Simon Bowmaker and Sinziana Dorobantu, I passed each of them.

I assume that in a graduate program designed for professional advancement, most students try to separate their personal trials from the educational experience. I simply cannot do that. My time at Stern will always be painted by the global struggles we all endured and the personal challenges my family and I faced as I navigated an existence that was professionally unmoored.

At times I genuinely thought I might never work again. Not really knowing what to do and fearing there was no landing spot for me, business school became my refuge. Looking back, it was not a calculated decision so much as one made out of desperation. While I recognized I would open up options, I was plenty self-conscious knowing I would be older than most of my classmates and yet drifting aimlessly. I knew most of them had good jobs, income, and, most importantly, a plan.

How was I going to fit into that milieu? Before I ever took classes, my first engagement with business school was responding to an email for those interested in writing for The Oppy. “Journalism!” I thought. My grasp of basic accounting was tenuous, but this, at the very least, I could do. Even in that relative comfort zone I still had uncertainty to navigate. It was clear early on that I was far more intense about editing than I needed to be, demanding clear ledes and nutgrafs. Sources, even.

Fortunately, Deirdre, the editor-in-chief, has preternatural diplomatic skills, and she walked me back from the edge. Even in that relationship, and those with my fellow board members, I was still learning if they were classmates, friends, colleagues or some amalgamation of the three. I wanted to forge connections and build a network, but constantly told myself to rein in my admittedly strong personality, lest I turn off these strangers who did not yet have a sense of me.

I blame the anxiety of unemployment for this. Few things will shake you, disrupt your life, and make you question your own self worth like job loss. It undermines your confidence in ways you cannot understand until you experience them and diminishes the sense of personal dignity we each deserve. In the wake of that disruption, you will insist you have every skill or behave as vanilla as possible in hopes that someone, anyone, will find you talented and inoffensive enough to pay you to do something.

“Yes,” you’ll say. “Of course I have experience with that thing I’ve never done.”

Even before the pandemic, as I desperately sought work, it became clear I was less a person than a widget, a square peg that may or may not fit into the hole a company needed to fill. Suddenly, I was interchangeable. My time had no value. Twice I reached the fourth and final round of interviews at the same company and invested several days in preparation, only to twice be told in a one-line email that I was no longer a candidate for the position. Multiple firms and recruiters had as many as five interviews with me before disappearing or no longer responding to my emails without explanation.

In one particularly memorable phone interview, I was describing my professional experience to an EVP at a significant industry brand when I was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of a toilet flushing. I sat there and took it, continuing the conversation as if this was a normal way to treat a human being. If this is the best way we, as a society, have decided to interact with those seeking work, then shame on all of us.

Some of you may be wondering why I’m bringing up these indignities. I’m sure this could easily come off as a list of personal grievances that ought to stay private, so it’s fair to ask the question, “Why am I writing about this? And why now?” I could just say goodbye with a tidy “It’s been great! Best of luck, everyone!” instead of delivering a sob story about how tough it can be out there.

We are graduating after all. This is the time to celebrate, no?

Well, first, I’m bringing this up because in a school centered around training you to maximize your professional satisfaction, it’s important to understand just how emotionally devastating losing your job can be. And second, I think it’s important for each of us to understand that, because the odds are that at some point it’s going to happen to you, too.

By now, many of you know, to some extent, the professional and personal struggles I have dealt with over the past 30 months. Some of you may not know me at all. Perhaps you are only aware of me as that guy who makes obnoxious jokes about his age on the Slack channel, or that person who TF’ed your Business Communication intensive, or, maybe, as the guy who rambles about politics in The Oppy each month.

If you don’t know me, or don’t know me well, I’m sure your first impression from all of the above might be that the past few years have been a drudgery. But the long, winding point I’m getting to is that, in fact, it has been entirely the opposite. I was in an emotionally dark place when business school began. I spent a significant chunk of each day wondering if I would ever receive another offer, ever be a father, or ever achieve the life I had always expected for myself or promised for my family. Against that backdrop, despite my eccentricities, I discovered a community that not only gave me a social outlet I needed, but an unquestioned support system without which I could not have grown or persevered.

From the start of orientation in February 2020, it was clear that my classmates were here for the unified purpose of helping each of us achieve success and to have a good time in the process. Even as Covid forced us into remote learning three weeks after my first class, you were stubborn in the face of social distancing and refused to let our nascent network be a casualty of the pandemic. Early on, you were always ready to hop on a Zoom to discuss concepts I struggled with, including, yes, Excel. You supported one another when real life jumped in the way of group projects, picking up my slack when needed and allowing me to do the same when the roles reversed.

Several of you passed along my resume or helped me prep for interviews. When it came to more personal issues, you provided catharsis with conversations about my father-in-law’s care or the burden of fertility struggles, a topic we simply do not talk about enough. After discovering that one fertility clinic charged for a very specific lab testing aid, I was able to joke with classmates that it was merely a value-maximizing firm attempting to monetize its full array of holistic services. When life was its most challenging, and my wife and I lost her father, the classmates I told sent flowers and insisted on buying us gift cards so we could spend time grappling with emotions and logistics rather than worrying about cooking dinner.

And they did it after so few in-person conversations with me that they could count them on one hand.

How were these bonds forged so quickly? And in such distant circumstances? As I’ve told many classmates and friends, there is a uniqueness about the students here. Many of you I now consider good friends. Some of you will, I’m sure, drift from my circles as life moves along. But the one consistency I’ve found among all of you is that there are, for lack of a better designation, no assholes. In a population of this size, that is no small feat.

This is a high quality group of people, and I feel a very real sense of pride in considering myself a part of it.

In addition to that sense of community, this experience has activated parts of my brain that laid dormant and exposed me to interests I never knew I had. I have been forced to think in new ways. I have worked as a Teaching Fellow in seven – yes, seven – courses and a grader for two more, and while I probably took too much on, I have built relationships with professors and minds most graduate programs just do not have access to.

I was also able to recognize how ill-prepared I was for all of it because, it may bear repeating, I never learned to use Excel.

I am now working once again in the field I love, excited for future possibilities. Since updating my LinkedIn profile, I have received multiple inquiries from recruiters each week. While that’s flattering, perhaps they should consider expanding their scope to those without a salary. The unemployed are not unemployable. Either way, I have regained much of the self-assurance that eluded me two and a half years ago. And, most importantly, any day now my wife and I expect to welcome a new daughter into our home. I cannot wait to see her put my achievements to shame.

The future, at last, is bright.

I am leaving this program with more than an expensive piece of paper or, as I’ve joked with some of you, a $140,000 tote bag. I actually have two tote bags. I am also leaving with a newfound value on advocating for yourself. The world is not a pure meritocracy, and I spent most of my early professional years expecting to be validated for hard work rather than proactively managing my career. You cannot just wait for success to happen to you.

I came to that lesson later in life than most of you, but all of us will leave here with the tools we came for. Not everyone reading this is graduating this month, but soon enough you will. I don’t know if I’m the best font of advice, but, as you may have gathered, I’m older than most of you, and giving unsolicited advice is what old people do. So as I wrap up this article – and along with it, my degree – here is mine:

Be brave. Go after the career you want and don’t hesitate to use people in this network, people like me, to help you do it. Lean into your intelligence, and don’t get spooked if you don’t know the answer to something. You have an MBA from Stern. You’ll figure it out. For god’s sake, make sure you can use Excel. And lastly, be ready to take on the world.

There is no one more qualified to do it.

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