Like many of my Columbia Business School classmates, the School had a profound, transformative impact on my career. As we disperse professionally each year, having started out as consultants and bankers and now flowering into entrepreneurs, politicians, professors, public servants, and even early-retiring millionaires, I’ve found it fascinating to ask people where it all began.
How did your time at Columbia plant the seed that grew into your unique career today?
Ask someone to trace back the causes and effects, and you are likely to find the critical moment, the spark, the inspiration that at first seemed mundane. For me, the moment was a passing comment by my strategy professor, Kathryn Harrigan, who whispered five words to me: “You are writing a book.”
I had been working for a few years on a research project, a hobby actually, and was now advancing the work as an independent study under her guidance. When she suggested the work could become a book, I laughed and discounted the idea. But her comment kept gnawing at me. I had signed up as a journalist for the Bottom Line because I wanted to learn to write and was coming to really enjoy the craft. From my cluster mate, Andrew Kaplan ’99, I was learning to incorporate words like “salutary” into business plans. I thought: maybe I could write a book.
But I was not yet ready to step off the obvious career path. I had returned to business school with a career transition plan: to switch from banking to consulting, specifically to work for McKinsey & Co. And with an offer from “The Firm” in hand, there was no way I was going to change course now.
It took me five years to fulfill the job Dr. Harrigan suggested for me. In 2004 I quit McKinsey and published my first book, The Art of the Advantage. That step slowly opened up a career path I never knew existed. To promote the book and feed myself, I began conducting workshops and speeches. I studied the business models of successful writers and speakers and realized that the “guru” business is just business: books lead to speaking, which then leads to revenue, which leads to time to write more books.
I still cannot explain my “job” in 30 seconds over cocktails but I love it. I interview interesting people, write about them, give speeches, and collect royalty checks. My work in a typical year takes me to China, Australia, India, throughout Latin America, Europe, and the United States. I visit a former business school classmate at every stop. And I still spend half my afternoons at home, playing with my three young kids. Last month I published my fourth book, Outthink the Competition. I guess Dr. Harrigan knew what she was talking about.
This is not to say that my job is better than others. I know business school alumni who are doing much cooler things, making more money, and who would hate my hectic life. Each of us has our own career dream, whether it’s working for ourselves or in a more traditional position.
Over the years I’ve interviewed hundreds of executives and entrepreneurs, many business school grads, who are doing what they love. Their collective experiences reveal certain principles that, if followed, could help us all more fully realize our professional dreams.
1. Rediscover the seed. We tend to think our opportunities come from looking into the future, but more often they come from the past. You notice a problem, and it bothers you. It is a personal pain, one you care about because it reminds you of something from your past. In my case, I had always known myself to be good at math but bad at writing. I think I started writing because I wanted to prove myself wrong.
2. Make the commitment. You decide to take on this personal challenge and turn away from the career paths of others. Whereas before we may have aspired to emulate the achievements of people we admired, we are now driven by a more personal goal whose uniqueness requires us to diverge. It feels a bit like disengaging from the matrix. We resist the inherent uncertainty of trying something unproven, but once we experience its reality, we never want to go back.
3. Believe. I love the audacity of the entrepreneurs and executives I have interviewed. There is no reason for them to scream, “We can do it!” because they just know they will. You cannot create what you cannot imagine so dissect, analyze, and throw out whatever is stopping you from believing.
4. Do the work. People who achieve great things seem not to do it just for the money or to reach an end. They do it because they love the pursuit. Because they get intrinsic value from doing the work, they persist longer than others, and so they win.
If you love what you do today, you may recognize these four principles in your journey. If you are not yet sure, then think back to your time at Columbia Business School and look for a seed that you may have overlooked. The School may not have planted it in a classroom or during a late-night study session. It may have been something someone said in passing that excited you, for moment — a possibility that flickered to life and that your training and analysis and “big brain” told you did not make sense to pursue. Rediscover that seed now, make a commitment, believe, and start doing the work.
Kaihan Krippendorff ’99 lives in Greenwich, CT, and is the author of four business books, most recently Outthink the Competition. Meet him on February 1 at an event hosted by the Columbia Business School Alumni Club of Boston. Learn more about Krippendorff at www.kaihan.net.