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Recognizing the Opportunity Within

yes_no_dice.jpg“Should I take the job or go for my MBA?”

Few undergraduates make the effort to meet instructors outside of class, so clearly the earnest young man sitting across my desk—one of my best students—was wrestling with a big decision.

John had reentered school after working for a couple of years, and now had the opportunity to take a marketing position with a local company. More mature and experienced than his classmates, he was also more focused: someone clearly headed for management. Still, he only had a few years of full-time work experience.

“Take the job,” I said.

The occasional opportunity to offer uncompromising career advice (that actually might be followed!) is one of teaching’s great pleasures. Mine was an easy recommendation to make, because getting the most out of business school requires more than a couple of years of prior work experience.

But we all face decisions less easily made, and often without an adviser who’s trod the same path before us. How to best weigh the pros and cons?

I pondered this late last year after my blogging mentor, J.D. of Get Rich Slowly, asked his readers whether education is always a good investment. My thoughts ended up as a guest post, re-presented here in modified form.learn_earn_keys.jpg

Get Rich Slowly readers Lisa and Jethro had shared their thoughts about returning to school for a graduate degree. They were looking at the decision primarily from a cost/benefit viewpoint: An advanced degree would cost x dollars and require borrowing, but their salaries would likely rise to x dollars when their new credentials allow them to secure better jobs. Was it worth taking on debt?

Lisa and Jethro might benefit from a different approach to the issue, one based on Clark’s Option on Opportunities Theory (COOTTM).

In finance jargon, an option is the right to buy or sell a security at a specified price within a set time. But COOT takes a more general “lifeview” of options—a perspective that any of us, even the financially disinclined, can find useful.

COOT says that “option” is simply another word for “opportunity” and that all action can be seen as creating new opportunities. The key point is that the value of a new opportunity is not precisely quantifiable, but is likely to be great—and more importantly, unavailable without “exercising the option.”

Here are a couple of examples:

commonsensical_book.jpgLet’s say you want to write a book. From a moneymaking standpoint, that’s a terrible idea for most people; it’s like moving to Australia so you can date Elle McPherson, or starting a rock band because you want to become famous—sweet thoughts, but dreadfully naïve. (Mark, Soul Shelter’s Director of Fulfillment, will back me up on this point).

But writing a book creates opportunities that might not arise any other way—opportunities to teach, become a consultant, or develop authoritative knowledge in some field (or in Mark’s case, to create a lasting work of beauty and truth).

The same goes for starting a business. When you start a new business, suddenly you’re an entrepreneur, not just a worker. Calling on customers or prospects, you’re likely to meet with other owners and managers, and enter into a whole new world of business. Even if your venture doesn’t ultimately succeed, the experience of going out on your own will have created opportunities (options) unattainable any other way.

Likewise for education. Eighteen years ago I entered a part-time MBA program. It took me seven years to finish—the longest period allowed without getting booted out! Many times I came close to quitting, wondering whether the time, money, and effort were worth it.

question_marks.jpgToday, I’m grateful to have stuck with it, not just for the knowledge and career advances it enabled, but because it allowed me to become a teacher—an unexpected but welcome career change. Now I’m pursuing a doctoral degree—something inconceivable to me even five years ago—but something that wouldn’t have been a viable option without the MBA. Pursuing an advanced degree was creating brand new options for me, though I didn’t know it at the time.

So is education always a good investment? No. But if you have serious thoughts about going back to school, that’s a powerful sign that it’s a very good idea for you.

Heed your intuition. It’s trying to create new options for you.

P.S. As always, remember that COOTTM—and all of Clark’s Rules—are empirically unproven, based solely on the experience of Clark, and may be completely wrong :)

5 Comments to Recognizing the Opportunity Within

On Feb 14, 2008, Dwight commented:

You have explained a great paradox.

If a grocery clerk were willing and able to work the same hours as a medical student he would earn a significant amount of money while the student is going into debt. If he lives as frugally as a medical student, the grocery clerk could retire when the doctor starts his career. If the doctor goes into family practice and the grocery clerk keeps working the same hours, the doctor will never earn enough to catch up to the grocery clerk who has money invested and earning interest.

Does this mean that education is a bad investment? No, the opportunities it can create will make education a worthwhile investment for some people. Just be sure to make the decision with your eyes wide open. Is this what you really want? Really?

On Feb 14, 2008, by Tim commented:

Right on, Dwight.

I’m convinced that the central challenge in life is knowing what you want–in other words, having a goal. Once a clear goal is in place, it’s pretty straightforward to plot the steps toward achieving it.

BTW, my JulStro device and DVD arrived yesterday. Many thanks for the recommendation. Your participation has made a difference in my life.


On Feb 14, 2008, Dwight commented:

I’m sitting in my Nadachair as I write this. Thanks for the tip. It helped.

On Feb 15, 2008, by Tim commented:

You’re most welcome. I’m sitting in mine as I write this, too. I’ve got three: one for the office, one for the dining room, and one that stays in my bag for use at the library, school, coffee shops, etc.

On Mar 18, 2008, Why I’m not back in college (yet), and why I don’t mind a little debt (for now) commented:

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