Memories in Ann Arbor

Day 35 | $31,450 paid | $59,267 till freedom

As I type up this post on the plane after a third and final consecutive night of collegiate-level partying, I’m still clearing the cobwebs out of my brain (and trying to deal with the mouth-watering smells coming from the Reuben sandwich being consumed by the woman sitting next time to me, but we’ll get to that in a minute). I’m returning from a trip to Ann Arbor where I met up with 20+ former teammates from the University of Michigan Rowing team for a reunion. It had been six years since I had seen these guys that I spent two to three hours of every day with for four years, and the past four days were fun, exhausting, and emotional.

I knew going into it that I would exceed my monthly entertainment budget of $50 with this single trip, and that it would simply come down to an order of magnitude in terms of the impending budget obliteration. I ended up spending $103. As a benchmark, this is far, far better than the four-day bachelor party/trip to Montreal in June where I spent about $800, not including the flight.

Ann Arbor Trip Expenses

Thursday  Night

  • $10 – dinner
  • $4 – cover @ Skeeps
  • $10 – drinks

Friday

  • $10 – lunch
  • $5 – cover @ Rick’s
  • $10 – drinks
  • $10 – dinner
  • $8 – cab

Saturday

  • $12 – lunch
  • $0 – dinner (paid for $100 banquet pre-NMHD)

Sunday

  • $24 – airport parking

Total: $103

Although I obviously would have preferred to not have spent any money at all, I’m definitely okay with this level of spending. And despite the small expenses, I still managed to have a ridiculously good time–between Skeeps, Brown Jug, Rick’s, Dominick’s, and the keg party at the crew house on South Fifth, there was never a dull moment, and a whole host of stories and memories have been added to the already existing stockpile.

I managed to have a great time and not completely destroy my budget for two reasons: 1) the generosity of my friends, and 2) sacrifice.

I won’t go into the details, but I paid for three drinks all weekend but consumed several more than that, so I owe a big thanks to all of my friends who took care of me over the weekend. I will repay you sometime, somehow. A special shout-out and thank you goes to one JS, who recently moved down to New Orleans and is studying law at Tulane. He bought me a couple of drinks and we agreed that it seemed very ironic that he was paying for my drinks with his student loans. Love ya, buddy!

Thanks to the generosity of my best friend Drew, my lodging was completely free. I ended up sleeping on a couch in the living room of the house where he rents a room with his girlfriend and three other housemates. It wasn’t  the most ideal situation for sleeping in since I was regularly going to bed at 3 AM and the roommates, who weren’t on vacation, were unintentionally making noise when they started their days around 7 or 8 AM,  but that was an extremely minor inconvenience given the cost of zero dollars.

I also made some sacrifices to save some coin. Drew lives about two miles outside of Ann Arbor proper where all the festivities were taking place,  and since he was working for most of the time I was there and he shares a car with his girlfriend, I ended up having to find my own way into town and back without paying for a cab. His girlfriend hooked me up with a ride, but I walked all the other times, with the exception of one cab ride.

Another sacrifice I made was in the nursing of my massive hangover this morning. I woke up with a splitting headache, so I chugged some water and ate my last protein bar for breakfast. I was still hungry, and it took all of my willpower to walk past Wendy’s at the airport on my way to the gate. I also refused to buy water at the airport for hydration, and decided instead to hold out for the free drinks on the flight. I didn’t see the point in spending money to fix a problem I had caused, and the abstinence was basically a form of self-punishment. I’ll eat something when I get home to save money. I’ll have to go about six hours before I finally get some real food in me.

The Juggle
Since Drew was at work on Friday afternoon and none of the alumni had shown up yet, I took the opportunity to stroll down memory lane before things got crazy. I got my undergrad in Business at Michigan, so I walked over to the b-school campus where I spent most of my academic life. I found one of my old classrooms and sat down in my old seat, and my first thought was, “Wow, this feels so cool! I was last sitting in this exact seat six entire years ago.” My next immediate thought was, “Where the hell have those six years gone?”, and my final and lingering thought was, “What have I done with my life?”

I mean, a lot has definitely happened in the past six years, or at least that seems like the right thing to write. I graduated from Ross and worked in one of the top manufacturing environments in the world for two years, then I got my MBA at Harvard, and now I’m at a Fortune 50 tech firm where I’m learning a lot in marketing and product line management and have a great deal of responsibility for someone my age; I’ve made some good friends in Austin; I’ve worked out religiously since I stopped rowing, I’ve maintained my health, and I even have a bit more muscle than I did when I was a collegiate D1 athlete.

But long after having gotten up from that seat, I keep coming back to the same question: What have I done with my life since I graduated from college?

HBS’s mission is to “educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” I can say with complete honesty that I haven’t done anything of the sort–not yet, anyway.

As I sat in that seat and looked out over the classroom, trying to picture my former classmates in their seats, trying to put myself back in my 22-year-old mind, I took a brief deep-dive into the past six years of my life, searching for anything of great meaning or significant value that I had done since graduation. I came up empty-handed. I don’t know exactly what I was looking for during that search. Something humanitarian that I had done? A hugely innovative contribution I had made to society? A major athletic competition that I had won? Starting my own successful business? Getting married? Having kids? I just wanted something to stick out, something that I could be really proud of, but nothing did.

All I know is that as I sat in that seat, I was struck by the realization that I simply cannot go another six years living the status quo. I’ve had a great and wonderful run since undergrad, but something has to change.

A part of me wants to blame the lack of vision the 22-year-old me had when he sat in that seat six years ago. All I did back then was think about getting a decent job upon graduating. I didn’t have visions of greatness–far from it. My entire post-school focus was on securing a stable income. I didn’t even consider how the girl whom I was very much involved with at the time, the girl who was my first love, factored into my post-college life. She still had two years of school at Michigan left, and instead of sticking around the area until she finished up, I ended up leaving her and taking a job in Texas because it was the highest-paying job I could find.

Sigmund Freud would probably agree: I think my single-track (and some might say underwhelming and very narrow) focus on landing a decent job after graduation goes back to my childhood. I moved six times in my life before I was 14 years old, each move due to my dad’s (non-military) career. I think that shaped my perception of what having a career means and why I was so focused on landing a good job out of undergrad.

I was born in Boulder, Colorado, and when I was six months old, I moved to Portland, Oregon. We lived there for five years until we moved to Amherst, New Hampshire. Two years later, in the middle of the third grade, we moved to Hornell, New York. Two years later, in the middle of the fifth grade, we moved to Farmington Hills, Michigan. Two years later, in the middle of the seventh grade, we moved to Turin, Italy. A year and a half later, at the end of the eighth grade, we moved to Rochester, Michigan where we ultimately stayed. Each move was  due to my dad’s career–either a company change, a job change, a promotion, or a transfer.

I think the moving around might have impacted me more than I’ll ever realize. On the one hand, I met a lot people and experienced different cultures not only across the country, but across the globe. On the other hand, I really struggled to build long-term friendships during my formative years. It seemed like every time I finally made a best friend, I had to move away. I still remember the deep depression I experienced when I was torn away from my tight group of friends I had finally made in Farmington Hills at the age of 13 and plopped down in Italy, thousands of miles away.

I detested the transiency of my life, and I came to view corporations–the big companies that moved my dad around –as evil. My perception was that my dad was simply doing his best to provide for his family, and The Man was making this impossible to do in a sustainable manner. Perhaps ironic coming from an HBS grad, but I grew to be wary of companies in general, and it created within me feelings of insecurity towards corporations. So when I was in school, when I was sitting in that seat, my entire goal in life was to focus on doing well in college so I could get an awesome job out of the gate and move up the corporate ladder to the position of The Man as quickly as possible–or start my own company–so that I would never have to be subjected to such a hardship ever again. To me, nothing else mattered. At all.

(It also explains why I bought a house when I was only 27–I was anxious to put roots down.)

I also think that the example my dad set by moving our family around influenced, to a large extent, my perception of what it means to build a career. While my sister and I were growing up, he demonstrated that building a career involves sacrifice and making hard, unpopular decisions. When the local economy tanked, being the head of household to my dad meant moving the family to areas where jobs existed to maintain a certain lifestyle; it also meant doing things like that international transfer to grow with the company. Who knows how the family would have fared if my dad had refused to move us out of Boulder to Portland or beyond. There’s no way to know, but Machiavelli said that the ends justify the means, and since my parents are still together and happy and financially fine, maybe that statement applies. Maybe my excessively narrow focus at the age of 22 was a small price to pay.

Either way, I think that getting my MBA from HBS has allayed a lot of the insecurity I initially felt regarding my career. The prep assignment for a reflective session of the Lead class at HBS was to read autobiographical updates of alumni’s lives who had graduated from HBS five, ten, 15, and 20 years ago. The reading illustrated that some HBS grads end up leading very happy and successful lives in the areas of health, family, career, friends, and spirit, some do so only in certain areas, others don’t at all, and that the definitions of happiness and success vary from person to person.

The reading spurred a classroom discussion focused on what had led us students to HBS and what we wanted to get out of the program. After a lot of back-and-forth between the students that could best be summarized as a fairly deep and emotional existential conversation that moistened more than a few pairs of eyes in the classroom, the instructor took an opportunity to summarize what role HBS typically plays in one’s life.

Everybody juggles five fragile balls throughout their lives–health, family, career, friends, and spirit–and the goal, she said, is to not drop and break any of those balls. Because of the training HBS provides its students, the career ball of somebody with a Harvard MBA–all else being equal–is a little bit tougher than the other four balls, and it even has some bounce to it. These properties of the ball allow the juggler to shift some of his/her focus to the other balls more so than one otherwise might have been able to without the MBA. The logic is that if s/he accidentally drops the career ball, the recovery would probably be easier than if one were to drop a different ball.

So thanks to the Harvard MBA, I don’t think I’m the same insecure 22-year-old who sat in that seat six years ago and wondered how he was going to find a career that doesn’t involve a move every two years. Or if I still am, at least I should start to wrap my head around the fact that I no longer have to be. I should get a bit more confidence in my career ball, and I should start focusing on things besides my career.

I honestly have no idea what that exactly means, but I’m hopeful that knocking out the debt might start to answer some questions.

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “Memories in Ann Arbor

  1. I got caught up on your blog last week after a friend of mine passed it along, and I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your stories and reflections. I really look forward to new posts showing up in my inbox. When I remember that what you’re doing is happening right now and that I know what I did on the days that you made some of these tough decisions in pursuit of a difficult goal, it’s just inspiring. You’re on the precipice of something big, and it’s obvious.

    This past July, I rode my bicycle from Boston, MA to Tampa, FL through a record-breaking heatwave with only 10 days of planning and having ridden my first century only six weeks before. I traveled 1600 miles in 18 days (riding 1135 of it), illegally camped in a little league dug out, was chased by dogs, avoided a bar fight, met some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met, and hitched rides from strangers so I could make it time to see a friend who has cancer before he moved to the other side of the country. I’ve never done anything even remotely like this on a bicycle in my life. Yet, I can’t seem to just sit down and write it down like you’re doing. My experience changed me too, but the second (and equally important) part of having a big plan and an important life experience is passing it along to others. What you’re doing is awesome, and if I ever end up in Austin, I’d like to buy you several beers.

    I just wanted to tell you that.

    Best,
    Joe

    • Joe–your words were extremely touching. Thank you for sharing that. I’m sorry to hear about your friend. Your gesture was completely out of this world, and above and beyond what anybody could ask of anybody. Your recount would be an extremely rich one in terms of funny stories and insane emotions and thoughts regarding your friend and your mission. Maybe you can have somebody ghost-write it for you? I’m already moved and all I read were your two paragraphs 🙂

  2. Jim B

    you have a lot of deep existential reflections that seem to be going on but i am sure you will be the wiser for it. Sounds corny but life really is incredibly short and rather than basking in the glory of your HBS degree you really seem to be modest enough to realize that to get a lot out of life you really have to hustle. I think the state of the economies around the world provides a level set for many of us but what makes you different is that you are smart, mature and most importantly humble enough to realize only you can create a fulfilling path for yourself.

    The debt really is an albatross around the neck so keep pushing forward and inspiring everyone around you.

    Best

    Jim B

  3. “HBS’s mission is to ‘educate leaders who make a difference in the world.’ I can say with complete honesty that I have not done anything of the sort–not yet, anyway.”

    False. I guarantee this blog is changing/inspiring people. It inspires ME to do something about my goals.

    Just thought you might want some perspective on your life’s impact.

  4. Colby

    I have over 25+ blogs in my RSS feed, and your blog is now at the top. You feel and write about everything that most of us late 20’s are feeling. You are just facing it, and doing something about it. More Power To You!

  5. risewiththesun

    I’ve been reading your blog since the beginning (I apologize for not saying anything sooner as I’ve wanted to!) and this post is by far one of the most inspiring accounts of your experience! Not only do you explain the emotional struggles of lessening your debt but you also reflect on the difficulty of challenging status quo. The path of least resistance is rarely the road to any sort of success and you make that very clear in this post.
    This year is indeed the year of the “hustle” and your blog is one of the most inspiring ones for others to keep hustling too!

  6. Zeona

    To me it sounds like you need to find some rewarding work. You previously mentioned selling your house and backpacking Europe once the debt is paid, but have you thought of volunteering? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge advocate of traveling as a means of growth and exploring oneself, but if you are searching for something more I can give you a few ideas. A close friend of mine is working with EGBOK mission in Cambodia, who educates older orphans in constructing resumes and general job skills so they can build a career for themselves. It’s hugely rewarding and Southeast Asia is a beautiful and cheap place to live/travel. Email me if you want some contacts or more information. If you looking for more of a party scene but also a life-changing travel experience, I would highly recommend working on Semester
    At Sea. It’s a study abroad program on a small cruise ship that goes around the world. They would love your strong academic background. I’ve traveled extensively and know a lot of great ways to bum around the world if you decide to go that route :). It’s a shame you left Boulder so young, it’s a beautiful, outdoorsy town, with a strong tech industry. If you ever make it out this way I’d also be happy to buy you some drinks. Keep on writing!

  7. YJ

    oh wow, I had no idea you went to umich. Go Blue!

  8. Bill . Mihalic

    Congratulations Joe! You make me and Grandma proud.
    Grandpa Mihalic

  9. Lindsey

    I just discovered your blog through an article my mom sent (sorry, there was no reference to the publication) and am enjoying each read. I realize this is an old post and you are now debt free (with perhaps a different perspective on things). I’m not usually a “comment person” but you had posted this in your reflection above:

    “HBS’s mission is to ‘educate leaders who make a difference in the world.’ I can say with complete honesty that I have not done anything of the sort–not yet, anyway.”

    I would have to echo what Sarah L said; you HAVE made a difference by inspiring others through your example in this blog. Your reflections, struggles, all touch a chord with me in particular, mom to a baby girl and wife to a great guy. We’re both doing a college debt snowball right now (in our late 20’s). You made a difference, right here. Hope that inspires you to make more differences as you grow! Cheers!

  10. Sweta

    “I was still hungry, and it took all of my willpower to walk past Wendy’s at the airport on my way to the gate.”

    I just wanted to let you know that everytime I think about making a frivolous purchase, I picture how strong you were walking past that Wendy’s and the urge goes away.

    Also, I bet in a few short years your bio will be required reading in that class at HBS.

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