“Travelers, there is no path, paths are made by walking.”
A couple weeks ago, I wrote how forming a book club in Chicago changed my life, and my belief that something similar could change yours too.
As I tapped into the events and emotions leading up to that grand trip to Iceland, I realized there was another story embedded in the bramble.
That story, of course, has to do with another book. In fact, it was the second book Mike and I read together, before we invited a whole cast of characters to join us, and before we had realized the danger in our underground undertaking.
I had randomly plucked it from a discount shelf while wandering around a bookstore after work one day. When I plopped it down in our apartment common space later that weekend, my friend Mike spotted it and perked up. It turns out he had read it a couple years earlier. So by some kind of divine intervention, it became the second book in our two-man book club.
Ahead of the Curve is the account of British journalist Philip Delves Broughton’s two year enrollment at Harvard Business School. In it, Broughton reveals the nuances, secrets, and inside stories of his experience inside the prestigious MBA program. Mike and I both took to the story because an MBA seemed like the next logical step in each of our careers. The undercurrent of the book discussion predictably veered away from the book itself and focused inwardly on a more pressing question: Is an MBA necessary along our career paths?
To the casual observer, Mike’s and my career paths looked similar. Maybe one of us was on the highway and the other on the byway, but we were certainly on parallel journeys. We both studied engineering in university. We both moved to Chicago for personal and career reasons. I was consulting for IBM, working more in high tech and business strategy, while Mike was in a tried and true engineering position for an industrial company, but we were both doing analytical work for corporations.
Both of us also longed to ‘do something different.’ Ultimately we wanted to do work that mattered, believed we had creative potential buried deep inside us, and had an interest in business. For both of us, obtaining an MBA was a possible and realistic narrative in our career tales.
A Tale of Two Career Path Wanderers
Two years after reading and discussing Ahead of the Curve, we had finally settled the MBA debate individually, yet we each came out on opposite ends of it.
Mike had chosen to go down the MBA path, committing to Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business in the Fall. It would give him some time and space to think about his life direction, while giving him new skills, professional tools, fresh connections, and powerful credentials.
I, on the other hand, chose not go the MBA route. I didn’t bother with the GMATs, campus visits, and introductory sit-ins that come with an inkling to attend business school. But like Mike, I also had lingering questions about my life direction, wanted to learn, grow my skills, and make new connections. I decided on the “personal MBA” route with self-directed learning, application, dabbling, tinkering, and exploration. I wanted my credentials to come from things I created and built.
We both felt the need to wander a bit, professionally and physically. Mike gave himself a month and a half to travel before beginning the full-time graduate education; I decided I needed seven months of travel to kick off my new chapter.
And for the next six weeks, we traveled together. We encircled the entirety of Iceland. We rambled Westward across Ireland. We explored the United Kingdom, from the South of England, through Wales, and upward to the North of Scotland.
Mike’s six weeks came and went. On his final afternoon, while wandering around Galway, Ireland, we found ourselves inside Galway’s massive cathedral. We quietly settled into a pew and stared into the airy and empty space before us. We sat silently for an eternity.
“What a ride, huh?” I whispered, cutting the silence.
“Yeah, man,” Mike breathed. “Can’t believe it’s over.”
Of course, nothing was really over. Later that night, Mike would be on a bus back to Dublin, and soon after on a flight back to the U.S. to begin his MBA. I’d stay another few nights in Galway before heading to Achill Island in Ireland’s Northwest County Mayo, and continuing onward to Eastern Europe over the next several months, exploring, writing, reading, and building my website. Eventually I’d be quitting my consulting job to start a boutique publishing business, but no one, including myself, knew that at the time.
Sitting side-by-side in the pew in Galway, it finally hit me: our paths were about to skid off into complete opposite directions over the next two years.
How did we decide on such different routes?
A Few Ways to Escape the MBA Debate
Mike and I both contributed to an Escape Guide released a few weeks ago, 8 Ways to Escape the MBA Debate, written by Escape’s own Adele. It’s a guide that aims help one answer the question “Should I Get an MBA?”
Adele reveals something out the gate that should be obvious, but could use restating: The decision to get an MBA (or not) is an extremely personal one.
She describes that the secret sauce to figuring out your stance in the MBA debate is remembering that it’s just a fraction of a much bigger and broader debate. It’s not just about deciding whether or not an MBA is important in your career — it’s figuring out whether an MBA fits within what’s important to you and what you want to get out of life.
Although we didn’t realize it at the time, Mike and I had been internalizing and practicing the lessons in Adele’s book. By asking tough questions. By exploring our values. By crafting up a weird concept like the Chicago Business Book Club. By discovering and studying our heroes. By creating the time and space to talk philosophically about work and life. By taking a break from working in our lives to work on our lives. By physically stepping off the beaten road for a bit. By trying to strip away everyone else’s expectations of us and discover at its core, the things we wanted to get out of life individually. And getting back on the road with that core in mind.
It’s a lesson that Mike and I learned firsthand, through our own wandering. It’s the reason Mike decided an MBA was necessary along his career path, and I decided it wasn’t along mine. Yet it doesn’t stop me from wondering if we each made the right decision, and if we’ve each ended up on the right road.
You Take the High Road, I’ll Take the Low Road
Weeks after we parted in Galway, Mike was moving into his Pittsburgh apartment, meeting bright and intelligent minds, and kicking off his Intro to Finance classes. Meanwhile, I was hitching a ride to an annual European hitchhiker’s gathering in the Lithuanian countryside, sitting around a drum circle with professional vagabonds and enlightened wanderers, and learning how to make Šaltibarščiai.
Months later, Mike was beginning his second term, diving into courses like Brand Strategy and Managerial Accounting, working through challenging case studies, and vying for an internship with the most admired companies in the world. On the flip side, I was learning about social media marketing in Gary Vaynerchuk’s Thank You Economy, tweeting with Paulo Coelho, and filming strangers on the streets of Zadar, Croatia.
Clearly we had entered two different worlds. As we stayed in touch over email, there were obvious undertones of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) as we imagined the other’s world. Perhaps one of us was on the high road, while the other was on the low road. But which was which? Who was where? Depending on your perspective and the lens through which you viewed our paths, I suppose you could argue it either way.
In some instances, it felt like we were both on the high road, as our paths began to weave and overlap in odd ways. A major highlight in Mike’s journey was his internship at Amazon.com in Seattle, where he spent a summer navigating one of the most exciting and innovative companies in the world. At the exact same time, a huge milestone in mine was learning how to publish books with Stephen Markley’s Tales of Iceland, the travelogue of our trip to Iceland, which I drove to become a #1 category best-seller on Amazon.com.
Other times, it felt like we were both stuck along the low road, trudging through the mud and the muck in our paths simultaneously. Just weeks ago, Mike and I exchanged emails that revealed some of these lows:
Mike: Life’s been stressful, man. I’ve been meaning to sit down and write you a long email, but I haven’t had the time or motivation. School has been really busy this semester… I think I’m just getting tired of the irregular schedule of school, or the fact that I don’t have as much control over my schedule as I would like, particularly the fact that I haven’t had a single day to myself since this semester started. I’ve honestly been pretty depressed lately, but I’m starting to feel better.
Me: Honestly, I’ve kinda been going through a bit of a depression myself. I mean nothing gripping or crippling, but just a general anxiety and confusion about the future. I’ve also, in the past week, pulled out of it though. I was just experiencing a whole lot of uncertainty and anxiety about what I’m doing, and if I’m on the right track…
Now that Mike is close to completing his MBA, the big questions of the high road and the low road have been resurrected and are ringing louder than ever.
Were Mike’s past two years earning a Masters in Business Administration, graduating himself into the accomplished elite with masters degrees, and becoming heavily connected with other high achievers more adequately spent than my past two years? Or were my past two years spent physically wandering, writing, publishing, speaking, attempting to build businesses to fuel my ideal lifestyle in a bohemian fashion under the banner of “finding work that matters” a better use of time?
Is Mike traveling an outdated path leading to somewhere he’ll regret? Or am I traversing a hopelessly romantic path to nowhere?
Who’s really on the high road, and who’s on the low road?
The Moral of the Story
It’s hard to believe that almost two years have passed since Icelandair 612. Like most things, it feels like eons in the past; it also feels like only yesterday. But realistically, much has happened. A higher education was earned. A street education was gained. Money was spent. Not so much money was regained (yet). Stress and euphoria, anxiety and resolve, loneliness and belonging, confusion and clarity — all of it happened, in both tales, on opposite sides of the world. Looking back, it’s clear that we’ve both accomplished things to be proud of, and the horizon looks just as exciting.
Come April, Mike will be taking his final exams, likely accepting a graciously paying position at an admirable organization, and gearing up for his graduation from Carnegie Mellon. Around the same time, on the opposite side of Pennsylvania, I’ll be delivering a TEDx talk at Lafayette College, gearing up for the release of a second book, Tales of Ecuador, and continuing to build The Escape School.
But if our stories play out like the countless stories of those before us, we may be able to imagine what the moral will be.
Maybe the moral will be that career paths (and more broadly, life paths) come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, lengths, and trajectories, and that there isn’t a silver bullet, a blue pill or a red pill, that can be prescribed or passed down to tell us the right one to traverse.
Possibly the moral will be that there is no right path, just as there is no wrong path. There are only paths that feel truer to the taker of them, and paths that feel less true. And that no tale is more grand than the next, so long as that tale is true to the teller of it.
Hopefully the moral is that there’s only your path. And so the challenge then becomes finding the courage to travel that unique road that only you know.
Or the moral could be that the concept of following a path is just a fallacy, a farce. Maybe talking about paths is a waste of valuable breath. Maybe there’s no such thing as a well-trodden path. Maybe there’s no such thing as a high road and a low road.
Perhaps paths are imaginations of the mind, a phantom comfort to make us feel less anxious in how absolutely uncertain the future will forever be.
Perhaps paths only begin to exist the moment we choose to pave them.
Perhaps paths are made by walking.
This post originally appeared as “Am I On the Right Career Path, or Are My Friends?” at The Escape School.