Scenario Planning: MBA Relationships

I often get questions about my MBA experience from admitted students and others considering the degree. One topic that many are afraid or too polite to ask about life in MBA – one I do not have a straight answer to – is about managing significant others and dating within MBA.

MBA is notorious for divorces and breakups. Some joke that MBA stands for “Married but Available.” Recently, a friend asked me, “Do you think MBAs cause breakups, or a  relationship fated to end will end with or without an MBA?”

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Milk and Honey

Summers are lovely.

As June, July rolls around, I am plunged into a mandated reflection exercise as part of my MBA capstone, the final assignment before we receive our degree certificate.   I am also one year older, a June baby. Continue reading

Design, Intentional Serendipity, Heartbreak, and Kate Spade

Designer Kate Spade passed two days ago.  This news maybe just one of the many headlines for several of you reading this note, but I find this loss personally sad, as if a very distant aunt has passed.  First of all, I adore the brand.  To many Kate Spade regulars out there, the brand’s aesthetics stands for a bold, optimistic “can-do” attitude towards life and adventures, with a touch of social graces and glamour.  This is why the circumstances surrounding her death came to me as so shocking and tragic, to realize that Kate was only human, too, and she could not be fun and cheerful all the time, the way the brand she represented was supposed to.  I feel for her, and her family.

I agree at a personal level what this New Yorker writer pointed out about many young women who love Kate Spade:

Owning a Kate Spade bag was drinking champagne out of a chipped teacup, or pairing your grandmother’s pearls with a frothy lime-green party dress.  A woman who carried Kate Spade was expressing a kind of madcap determination to make it in the big city, even if she was living in a small town and had no intention to leave.

Carrying a Kate Spade bag, or wearing one of her accessories – be it a polka dot coffee mug, or crisp stationery with sassy quotes – always made me happy.  But more importantly, I admire Kate for fusing creativity and business so well, something I myself aspire to do.  I love that Kate gave out Emily Post’s “Etiquette” books to her employees, saying the book is “the essential bible for any ambitious woman in a professional space.”  Her designs were so thoughtful, and the little gestures resonate/d well with me.  Like me, Kate loved thanking someone with a handwritten letter.  She loved her Japanese aesthetics, from Mikomoto pearls to Rei Kawakubo.  She loved colors, and she loved life.

KateSpade

Kate’s passing made me want to write this post, but I have been thinking a ton about design lately, as I am finishing my MBA, figuring out my career, and coming out of a 3-year relationship.

My first job back in Myanmar was at a design social enterprise, called Proximity Designs, which designed such farming gadgets as solar pumps, foot treadle pumps, and durable, portable water tanks, tailored to the needs of smallholder rural farmers.  The design lab and manufacturing facilities in Yangon were headed by Stanford engineers, heavily linked to its Design for Extreme Affordability course.

I noticed there that the designers I knew in my life were insistent on the fact that art and designs are distinct disciplines.  This distinction has two profound insights for my love life and my career.

(1) Love Life 

Sometimes, relationships fail without any grand betrayal or blame, even if love still lingers.  To me, love and a relationship are like art and design; only the latter has any noteworthy functional purpose.  Several beautiful objects around us are perhaps qualified to be called a work of art, but not all artistic objects have design merit because design is supposed to be functional and solve a specific problem tailored to a specific need.  In romance, the nice, raw energy called love is a good thing to experience, and makes me feel human and grounded, but love lacks discipline, and therefore on its own, is simply unfulfilling.

Massimo Vignelli, who passed in 2014, said that design has three core aspects: semantic, syntactic and pragmatic.  He argues that design is characterized by function, discipline, and responsibility, and I view relationships exactly the same.  Regarding responsibility in designers, Vignelli broke it down into the following components.

As designers, we have three levels of responsibility: 

One – to ourselves, the integrity of the project and all its components.

Two – to the Client, to solve the problem in a way that is economically sound and efficient.

Three – to the public at large, the consumer, the user of the final design. 

On each one of these levels, we should be ready to commit ourselves to reach the most appropriate solution, the one that solves the problem without compromises for the benefit of everyone. 

In the end, a design should stand by itself, without excuses, explanations, apologies. It should represent the fulfillment of a successful process in all its beauty.  A responsible solution.

In a successful relationship, we are responsible to ourselves, our partners, and even the public at large.  Depending on your context, the “public” could be the children, respective families, or whoever you care about enough to consider into the equation.  A relationship that does not have these considerations is design without discipline, which in Vignelli’s opinion, is anarchy and a mere exercise of irresponsibility.  A relationship, therefore, results in a certain consistency of output, whereas love alone is instantaneous, flimsy, and inconsistent…unreliable.

On design and output:

Design is a discipline, a creative process with its own rules, controlling the consistency of its output toward its objective in the most direct and expressive way.

On design and clarity:

We design things which we think are semantically correct and syntactically consistent but if, at the point of fruition, no one understands the result, or the meaning of all that effort, the entire work is useless.  Sometimes it may need some explanation but it is better when not necessary.  Any artifact should stand by itself in all its clarity. Otherwise, something really important has been missed.

This is how I find myself judging the quality of a relationship, and how I aspire to behave in one.  I have inadvertently been reading love advice from these designers I have never met in person, and Kate and Vignelli will both be missed by me.

(2) Hacking my career 

I hear this word at many VC events these days: serendipity.  Many successful product solutions or great businesses came out because you are simply at the right place at the right time.  The last person I heard it from was Lars Fjeldsoe-Nielsen at Multiple:X Conference back in April.

Yet, I am often not at the right place.  I have often had to work to put myself at the right place.  I was born and raised in this little corner of the earth called Myanmar, closed off from the world for five decades, with all its charm, nostalgia, and dysfunction.  What comes off as a serendipitous event to a Silicon Valley investor or a London-based entrepreneur (who are probably a white male in most cases) is often a product of sacrifices and trade-offs for someone from Myanmar living abroad.

I have gotten too comfortable in my mid-twenties with my career, and if I wanted to, I was being groomed into a country Chief Marketing Officer job for a global brand.  Yet, I did not want to be there.  I wanted to be someplace else, and came to a bigger city, away from family, friends, and all things familiar, to do my MBA.  If I had not brought more intentionality to my education and work, if I had shied away from pursuing a series of personal challenges, I think I would be very frustrated with my life by now, and would not even know it, like those who remain in Plato’s Cave.  For this reason, I have always been heavier on intentionality and lighter on serendipity.

This often-cited TED talk is from the MD of Matter Ventures, Corey Ford, who said that his career trajectory has been marked by intentional serendipity, where he never planned more than two years down the line in this increasingly disruptive world, where lexicon for this livelihood today did not exist when he was younger, where he went through a series of “flare” and “focus” episodes.  I do not completely buy Lars’ conviction in serendipity; I am more of a believer in Ford’s intentional serendipity.

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Corey Ford

With these two thoughts, I leave you here.

In Praise of Difficult Women

One of the increasingly popular courses among business schools is about managing interpersonal relationships, usually run by Organizational Behavior departments.  Think Adam Grant, one of the most well-known academics in that discipline.

In my class, we discussed a managerial grid based on the spectrum of focus on tasks vs relationships.  I certainly identify getting this balance right as one of my critical developmental needs at work and in life, and want to practice a mix that rings true to me, just as anyone aspires to live an authentic life.

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From London Business School class lecture.

Growing up in a male-dominated society, where I am often the lone Burmese / female member in a team, I have had to push boundaries.  I am attracted to disciplines and fields with a handful of strong women and many men.  At my conservative and traditional workplace, as a young female associate, I often have to balance being liked and being respected.  I do not always get it right, but I try to be a decent human being.

When you are trying to get things done, sometimes you cannot be too agreeable.  Most CEOs you know have to be low on agreeableness.  Last year, I had to publicly disagree with a male writer on how gender is an irrelevant topic in Myanmar’s development discourse.  Recently, I co-chaired a Conference team with mostly male members in a field notorious for a lack of female workers.  Sometimes, I can be too harsh to myself and my subordinates (again a developmental need).  Advertising agencies for which I was a client say that they are still scared of me, but invite me to their wedding anyway.  I do not think I am unreasonable, but I am often told difficult and demanding.  That I push boundaries.  With vendors, at work, and in romantic relationships, too.

This can be a painful reputation to follow around a professional woman beyond her professional life.

But you know what?  Coco Chanel was one heck of an imperious woman.  You cannot change centuries-old ways of dressing without a little push from a disagreeable woman like Chanel.  She loved being thought difficult.  And Karen Karbo said, so should we!  Celebrate being difficult.  Own it.  Live one’s life authentically.

So this is what I am doing these days.  On top of school work, and spring activities in London, I have been reading Warsan Shire, listening to Beyonce (who used Warsan Shire’s poetry in her songs), and contemplating on Karen Karbo’s 29 women who did/do not fit perfectly into their time, who were difficult, imperious, and overbearing, but are remembered anyway today for both good and bad reasons.

All of us owe it to ourselves to live authentically.  Have a nice life!

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“A difficult woman, as I define her, is a person who believes her needs, passions, and goals are at least as important as those of everyone around her.  In many cases, she doesn’t even believe they’re more important – many women in this book were devoted, loving wives and mothers – but simply as important.  A difficult woman is also a woman who doesn’t believe the expectations of the culture in which she lives are more important than what she knows to be true about herself.  She is a woman who accepts that sometimes the cost of being fully human is upsetting people.

“Difficult women tend not to be ladies-in-waiting.  Waiting for love, waiting for someone to notice their excellent job performance, waiting for the kids to go to bed, or off to school, waiting until they lose weight and fit into their skinny jeans.  Instead, they are driven by their internal engines. They make other people wait. It’s immaterial whether these others worry about her, grow impatient with her, find her frustrating, or call her names.  Difficult women may not enjoy causing a stir (though most seem to), and sometimes their feelings get hurt, but the bumps along the way fail to deter them from their mission.

“I love these women because they encourage me to own my true nature.  They teach me that it’s perfectly okay not to go along to get along. They show by example that we shouldn’t shy away from stating our opinions.  Their lives were and are imperfect. They suffered. They made mistakes. But they rarely betrayed their essential natures to keep the peace. They saw (and see) no margin in making sure no one around them is inconvenienced.  

“These difficult women give us permission to occupy space in our worlds, to say what we think, and to stand our ground.  They give us permission to be ambitious, passionate, curmudgeonly, outspoken, persistent, sassy, and angry. They tell us, by their words and deeds, that it’s all right to occupy our humanity.  

I hope you will come to revere them – and be inspired by them – as I have.”

Karen Karbo

Just Parks

In my Real Estate Finance lecture today, the professor brought up a study on how a city’s externalities such as space, cultural institutions, and pollution impact the overall happiness and well-being of residents.  After extreme income gaps are controlled for, the largest factor that impacts someone’s happiness is the quality and length of commuting.

I never knew.

In my 627 days as a resident of London, I have held at least four addresses, and lived near beautiful parks, rowdy bars, and lovely waterways.  None, so far, has made me happier than the graceful vastness of Regent’s Park, along with its quiet, contemplative nooks, exciting variety of activities and sporting pitches.  I have loved my morning commute from St. John’s Wood, across little bridges in the park, to go to my 8:00 am classes on Park Road.  I love playing with bubbles on the green, amusing passerby dogs.  I love the challenge of running across the park, and getting to see the zoo animals from my trail.  I have had lovely lunches and picnics in the rose garden, by the boating lake, at the open air theatre … this park fills my heart with a sense of calmness and positive energy.

Therefore, I learned to like the gloomier Clissold Park when I moved to Stoke Newington.  Yet, the park’s somewhat cheerful attempt at keeping deer and birds in wired cages did little to me to counter the patchy grass, a fairly sparse landscaping, and the ominous dead tree trunks of Clissold Park.  The artificially blue public swimming pool remained eerily empty all through the winter I was there.  In the darkness of 6:00 pm winter evenings, I dreaded walking along Clissold Park after 393 bus, the last leg of my long commute, spit a few other passengers and me out onto the emptiness of the church street.

The only time I got a glimpse of how graceful Clissold Park could get in sunshine happened to be the day I moved myself out of the neighborhood, the day I collected my things and said farewell to the Park.  The lawn was populated with picnics and dogs, while my peace lily plant had turned brown and pretty much withered.  The empty branches of tree seen from my former bedroom window – the branches I used to stare out all day paralyzed and inarticulate – now bore spring buds and young leaves.  An ice-cream truck stood next to a local gym.  I found myself wearing my summer dress on my winter legs.

When refugees are forced to leave, the grieving process for what psychologists call place attachment is said to resemble that of grieving for the loss of loved ones.  As the title of this blog “A Yangon Woman” goes, I am a sucker for bonding with places, and parks, and touching trees, greeting neighborhood pets.  Places mean something to me.

In my appropriately mobile life, I have been fairly good at making a home out of cities and neighborhoods, from Singapore to Arequipa, from Exit 30, North Carolina, to Jackson-Heights, Queens, from Yangon to London.  Yet I cannot make home here.  Despite all the excellent amenities, despite all the celebrity spotting and refillable wine, and the quirky but dying vinyl and used book shops on the high street, and despite perfect little pastries overlooking Instagram-worthy windows, I do not feel belong.  How do you call the opposite of place attachment?  This chest pain and the intensity I felt climbing up the perfectly polished wooden stairs.  I have lived through the cold, dreaded wintry days and cloudy skies of the Park and its dead tree trunks.  So much longing for sunshine.  Yet, such alienation I felt in the sun that afternoon.  What a strange sensation for a tropics girl.  Such grief.  Such irony.  Such a shame.

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MBA is not a China shop.  We were told at our orientation event.  We were also told to forego sunk costs in calculating net present value.  Take chances.  Don’t be so risk averse.  Don’t you worry too much about breaking things.  This is a safe environment.  Two years of my life I bought for myself.  This is not a China shop.