Blast Off! First (Intense) Week Back At School
Almost 40 Years After my MBA
OK, a handful of days and I’ve already changed. I will never make toast unconsciously again. After watching Tom Wujec’s TED talk on drawing how you make toast to solve ‘wicked’ problems, I’ll always have this metaphor of a systems analysis in my head. A visual mapping of a process, the ingredients and the outcome. And the reminder that this is where change begins. In an analysis of the existing reality. And the importance of putting it down on paper. To get things out of your head onto some visual form of modelling. So that you can step back and look at what you are experiencing from a distance, to get a perspective of the whole. And, most importantly, that you can invite others to gaze with you, compare their analyses, understanding and dreams of change.
Like everything else this week, it’s both simple and powerful.
First we got the faculty, I described some of them in a FORBES article. Accessible, welcoming and unexpectedly humble. Everyone is so nice. It’s perhaps shocking that it’s shocking. But given what we are reading about America and its stresses, and the reputation and bios of the faculty we’re engaging with (one of whom was off on Friday, meeting with Bill Gates), many of us expected a bit more… ego. But everyone is bending over backwards to be accessible, friendly and open. It’s powerful role modelling for an unusual program they obviously love and believe in. The invitation not only to do good but to be good is constantly if implicitly underlined. The opportunity to share their passions and work with admiring and avid older learners must be a nice change.
Then you get the participants. Husband Tim was freaking out when he read all those bios. Impostor syndrome came roaring to the fore (even I admit to suffering more than a twinge). Turns out we were not alone. Many confessed to feeling stretched way out of their comfort zones. But given the frame, the faculty and the focus of this save-the-world programme, the culture being created is one of mutual kindness and care. It’s a special group – simply by virtue of its pushing to do this sort of thing at this sort of age and stage. There aren’t a million 60ish-year-olds ready to lean in this hard to design their next chapters and do some good in the world. Or, as Jim’s daughter described us “old people that don’t want to quit.” The atmosphere reflects the motives - people are open, unpretentious and unexpectedly vulnerable. Some are alight with a well-defined project and purpose. Others are lost and looking for a path. But all are ready to help and contribute to everyone else’s journey – with whatever they’ve got to give (a lot!). It’s both a relief and an inspiration.
We’ve had the 3Ps, the 5 Tips, the 4 components. So many models of this and that. As well as access to the entire Harvard course catalogue across 13 different schools. And the right to audit anything we want, network our way to intellectual nirvana, or hire a willing student to help us with our research. It’s a bit overwhelming. So many things to see and do. So many new ideas, new people and suggestions of roads and courses to follow. Most people are admitting to a degree of exhaustion, coupled with a renewed sense of excitement. It’s palpable. I slept 12 hours last night. Focus will be my challenge. I could happily just do this sort of thing (learn, exchange, learn, write) for years. Some try. One couple is back for a second dip. Husband did it first, with his wife as partner, now they’ve swapped. Their earlier cohort friends are envious.
Reassuringly, there is also a lot of guidance on how to embark, pace and structure our year. We are coached and supported by a team (also very nice!) that has now seen 13 prior cohorts go by. They are pros, and you can feel it in the design and scheduling of the whole. Including a lecture by the ever-wonderful Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, who’s book, The Third Chapter, I recommended in an earlier blog. She is celebrating her 50th year as a Harvard professor and shared a wonderful overview of all she’s learned about this Third Quarter phase and its challenges, risks and opportunities.
(Sadly, I’ve already been told I’m not allowed to share unpublished content with you. I’ll try and get an interview with her separately. Harvard’s intellectual property regulations are fairly draconian. Interesting, since when you publish on the HBR platform, they make you sign over all your rights…) But as Rosabeth Moss Kanter wisely recommended in her introduction to us, don’t bother trying to take Harvard on as a project needing change. So I will need to dance a dance of sharing without revealing.
I end the week in profound gratitude. I’ve invited a few new acquaintances over for dinner, to explore their impressions and takeaways. Making deep new and lasting friendships is one of the takeaways ALI alumni cite most often. I want to capture our early sense of excitement and renewal, and measure how it evolves over the coming months and year. What transformations will we witness? What challenges and frustrations will we overcome? Who will succumb to overload or paralysis? What initiatives will we watch emerge?
This laboratory of 48 wonderful humans evolving through their Third Quarters is a made-to-measure, live experiment. How do experienced leaders grow and give?