Black Swan Surprise

Black swans are outliers.

At least that is what everyone thought in Europe, when all swans were assumed to be “snow white.”

By the 18th century, Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh landed in Australia, discovered black swans and altered the science of zoology. After the fact it seemed obvious to armchair scientists that black swans had to exist. Making the impossible, possible.  But even the other furry genetic mutations (boxing kangaroos, duck billed platypus and teddy-bear koalas) that were discovered had to roll their eyes at such ludic fallacy.

black swan 2According to Wall Street derivatives legend, Nassim Taleb, “black swans” are wildly unpredictable human events that occur when we least expect them. Like 9/11 and the rise of the PC, internet and Google, they cannot be predicted based on what we know no matter how much we rewrite our ignorance in the past to suit a predictable future.

For example, in the “hood”, black swans are quite common.  Ask the homeless.

They are the albino pigeons that leave exploding surprises on windshields and pedestrian heads.  They fight for bread scraps outside restaurants and pose with statues for picture-taking tourists.

They are also the iPads and cellphones the homeless use as vital links to friends, employment opportunities and housing to build a light-tunnel out of isolation and despair.  Who would have thought the new wave of digital technologies – cloud, Big Data, social, mobile, 3D printing, the Internet Of Things – intended for commercial enterprises and paying consumers, could launch a flock of black swans to help the poor?

As bizarre a juxtaposition as it seems, access to digital technology from smart watches to Wifi is like drinking water for the disenfranchised in poor communities.  Technology allows them to defy the physics and social stigma of an address or zip code. Less status symbol and more survival apparatus, these cheap communication technologies are like feet kicking down the fourth wall to the theater of their lives; where they can fully engage and contribute to the conversation on Facebook and Snapchat.

When technology is used to solve real world problems, a cyclone of black swans circle to raise the roofs of our assumptions. For example, Leo Grand, a homeless man in New York City, was given the Matrix-like choice ( blue pill/red pill) to take a one time $100 gift or coding lessons for an hour a day with mentor tech programmer Patrick McConlogue. Leo chose the red pill and learned to write javascript. After three months, he developed a mobile carpooling app,called Trees for Cars (, that connects drivers and riders in an effort to reduce CO2 emissions from cars.

Other attempts have been made to tackle the challenges of education, computer literacy and speedy Internet access, unleashing potential black swan surprises.  Bill Gates issued the Reinvent the Toilet challenge to bring sanitation solutions to 2.5 billion people in the world.  The contest engendered ideas like solar-powered electronic toilets to a prototype that helps recharge mobile phones from urine.

Google launched Google Fiber to cover the last mile into the “hood” and stimulate more high speed broadband adoption and innovation across the digital divide.  Additionally, they devised Project Loon, bringing internet access to rural and remote geographies with floating balloons in the sky (inspiring the imaginations of UFO conspiracy theorists,

1b7e670In all these use-cases, when we concentrate on things we already know and fail to take into consideration what we don’t know, a black swan surprise hits us with its wing, beak or tail.   We tend to put on rose-tinted blinders to the impact of randomness and fail to appreciate the imperfection in our perception of events. Yet reality is not linear math; it is a complex bending mosaic of ones and zeroes swiped with the pads of our fingers, whose rising and falling patterns find comfort in the cumulative effect of a handful of shocks.

Count the game-changing events, the technological advances and inventions that you have witnessed in your lifetime; and compare them to what was there before. How many of them came on the schedule of a toaster?

The mother of invention is need and there is greatest need in poor U.S. inner city communities.  Although we like to simplify, narrate, and categorize, and remain cynical about rewarding those who can imagine the “impossible, I predict the next black swan technology will come from these communities.  It is already there, waiting to be discovered.

Gratitude Lists over Bucket Lists

Three years ago, I was a man in a tortoise shell, seeking validation by accomplishing the impossible.

I had a bucket list which included running a marathon, jumping 20,000 feet out of an airplane and getting an MBA from a top business school. Now a month after graduation, having checked off all those items on my bucket list, I cannot help but cringe at my past self-importance. For I am privileged to even have had a bucket list.

During my final year at business school, I had the opportunity to do a few life-changing things that righted the ship of my perspective. The first was a service project which focused on mentoring incarcerated youth. Every week I went into a maximum security state prison to teach teenage felons about fatherhood and life skills. I had to go through a metal detector. I had to be escorted everywhere by prison guards. All openings had tightly bolted doors that required multiple keys. When I finally got to my destination to teach, I could not help but think 1) “Statistically speaking some of these young men were meant to be here” and 2) “Wow, one of these youth could have been me?” If my immigrant parents did not drill in me the importance of higher education and provide the psychological skills to cope with crisis, I could have been a similar statistic to these young men behind bars. This experience reminded me that there are some who want success just as badly as the rest of us but are not as lucky.

The next set of life-changing events were my amazing trips overseas to China and Israel. I recommend to anyone to spend some time overseas. It is a sobering reminder of the rights we take for granted socially politically and economically in the United States. In the States, our technology devices are always on. We are wired 24/7 to opine and blog and YouTube video publish on anything we want, from our pet cat using the bathroom like a human to irate protestors occupying Wall Street. So imagine when I tried web browsing in China, which notoriously practices internet censorship. To have certain websites blocked like Google was excruciating. I felt an acute kinship to freedom and democracy and my Americanism, despite the awe of China’s history and culture and the great friends I made there. I recognized how everyone in the world is not as lucky to have concepts like alienable human rights to instigate social change.

Finally when I visited Israel I learned about the complexity of religion and living in a military state. Not everything is what it seems on the 6’o clock evening news. There was a rich vitality and authenticity to Jerusalem and the people that was breathless. I floated in the Dead Sea, climbed the Masada at the break of dawn, rode a camel across the desert, and lay on my back in the cave that Jesus had laid. However to see young men and women in military fatigues carrying Uzis across their shoulders as commonly as a purse was shocking. When I was at that age I was reading Descartes and Shakespeare rhetorically spouting “To be or not to be.” This experience taught me that not everything is philosophical and can be mended with words. The line between life and death is tenuous. Therefore, we must live each day to the fullest, because nothing is guaranteed tomorrow.

There is much we take for granted in pursuing bucket lists. And that is the privilege that we have to make them. When I walked the stage and got my MBA diploma, I could not help but remember all the people that supported my dream. From my wife and son – to the Johnson Graduate School of Management community – to past teachers and mentors and old friends and my ancestry – all these people are the broad shoulders upon which I stand to make any of my bucket lists and dreams possible. And for that I am eternally grateful.

So how does completing an item on a bucket list compare to expressing profound gratitude to those who have been important in my life? Not even close. Gratitude lists are eternal even if you kick the bucket.

Does your leadership scale?

In economics, there is a term, “economies of scale.”

Its the idea that as you increase factors of production (factories, capital, labor, technology, etc), output increases at a rate that outstrips those factor increases, and as a result the cost to produce a service per unit drastically diminishes.

Its a very powerful concept. The more produced, the cheaper the cost. At companies like Google, “at scale” is the acid test for new products. Can it be made at scale? Can we meet market growth requirements with this product in a way that becomes cheaper to us with time and larger investment so we can make a lot of it? If not, scrap it. Commercialization is best accomplished at scale.

If we think about it, scale is a dimension of leadership we should look for in ourselves as we continue to develop our leadership capabilities. Its funny how easy it is to tell one person what to do, or three or ten? But can you tell 20 people what to do or a 100? Can you scale up without losing impact or thinning your brand message or position statement. And more important can you do this whilst the audience will follow.

There are many of us that are good with one to one connections, building rapport and intimacy. There are many of us that are good on stage in front of hundreds. But few of us are good at both and dancing across the spectrum in between. For example, I did a woods retreat with classmates, where throughout the day we did team building exercises. In the morning, there was a team building exercise that required 3 people, in the afternoon, 10 and in the evening up to 50. I tend to love making connections within smaller environments. At each exercise point in the day, my ability to communicate with credibility was strained as the numbers grew. It was shocking how my articulation had to change to capture the “will” of a larger audience.

Think about where your scale ends in both directions, with large and small groups and practice your articulate of a vision. With smaller groups, it might be necessary to demonstrate openness and authenticity. With larger groups, it might be necessary to be more of a figure head that is sartorial, and charismatic. Whatever you choose, the basic recipe has to work in both environments, hence that’s what gives it scale.

Applying is like Dating

The most grave error that MBA hopefuls make is to allow themselves to get sucked into the ranking order of top business school programs. Their eyes glaze over from the sheen and big bling of MBA brand, not substance of choice. What invariably happens is that everyone ends up applying to the same top three schools: Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton or the Top 10, which fluctuates yearly. Most applicants never fully understand that like dating is about finding the right person, applying is about finding the right school for you. Fit is the key, or the key won’t fit.

I made this mistake. Because my story was that of a creative and non-traditional I erred in thinking that the only way to offset the “perceived” holes in my brand was to buy a School Brand that could cover those holes up because it was so highly ranked. Employers would be so distracted by the height of my accomplishment of getting admitted to a highly ranked school, that they wouldn’t ask the tough questions which could poke holes into my credibility and substance, at least so I thought. I spent a few years forcing fit, agonizing and getting waitlisted and denied from these so-called “Super-Tiers”, the whole time, ignoring other great schools, where I could more effectively develop my leadership and accumulate skills necessary for professional growth. The process of reapplying dragged me through a few hits on the chin, and deep self-introspection to eventually realize that I had to accept and love myself for who I was today, not tomorrow (i.e. not if I retook the GMAT, or took more quant classes or did more volunteer work). And the school that could also accept and love me for who I was today, was probably the right school, the right fit.

I recently met some amazing applicants who got into Cornell’s Johnson School of Business, a great school in rural Ithaca, but were on the fence about committing because they were wait-listed at a top 10 program like Northwestern’s Kelloggs. Apparently, the school they were waitlisted at asked them to take a course in Statistics in order to possibly bump up consideration by the decision committee to accept them. Now I’m not saying that you should give up on your dream, your number one. If you would die on the sword before giving up on your number one, then by all means push yourself and take the steps asked to make that happen. But having gone through this personally, I have to say that this set up feels very much like the girl you’re dating who says she will commit to a long term relationship only if you make more money or lose weight or something. In other words, there is writing on the wall, that she does not want to tell you because it might hurt your feelings: She’s Just Not that Into You.

The point is, is the school you want to go the school that would only accept you if your GMAT was higher, even after you had given your all to make it the highest score? Is the person you want to date the person who only dates you because you make a certain amount of money or look a certain way? I get it…we must have standards and that’s where we derive self-worth to a degree. But there comes a point when your efforts may be delusional and are a reflection of how you feel about yourself as was the case with me. You are expending exorbitant amounts of energy to be accepted by an institution when what you really need to do is to accept yourself for who you are.

When applying to business school, think of the analogy of dating, because it is appropriate and will help you trace your motivations more accurately. Find the right “fit” for you…Because remember, after getting in there still lots of work to stay in and be successful there and beyond. You don’t want to let the process beat you up so much and go through some much damage that by the time you do get into your program, you’ve got nothing left to truly enjoy it.

10 Resume Commandments

1. Thou shall keep the resume to one page, no matter how much experience you have.

2. Thou shall keep all fonts uniform. Times Roman is solid.

3. Thou shall not use jargon…Don’t “-ize” anything. Don’t productize, don’t monetize, don’t supersize, etc.

4. Thou shall not have an objectives sentence. That’s what cover letters are for.

5. Thou shall only use action verbs after bullet points. No nouns, adjectives or participles.

6. Thou shall use the STAR Method to uncover your professional value. Describe every bullet as Situation, Task, Action, Result.

7. Thou shall not describe what your team did, but what YOU did. What was your personal contribution to the project?

8. Thou shall have accurate titles and employment history dates. Some schools hire investigators to verify your background.

9. Thou shall have others review the resume. Your peers and colleagues are good sounding boards for an effective resume.

10. Thou shall rinse and repeat commandments one through nine.

Network, Network, Network

Like most things in life, its not who you know; its who knows you.

The same principle holds true in the world of the MBA application process. Every year there are tens of thousands of MBA hopefuls applying to the top 50 business schools and the percentage admitted represents only a handful from that pool of hopefuls. More often than not, these applicants are a cut above Joe Six Pack. They have the high GMAT, strong GPA, good work history, recommendations et cetera.

So what separates the candidates that are marginal from those with a phone call of admittance: face time with Admission reps, alumni and students. The more advocates at the school that can put a face to your application, the better chances you have at getting in, especially if you are competing head to head with someone else. Human nature wins out. People trust people they know and no statistic can overturn that fact.

To be clear, I am not talking about schmoozing at every MBA road show. The last impression you want to make is that of a cheesy salesman. What I am describing is the stage at which you have narrowed down your school selection and you have exhausted every other facet of your application: your story, GMAT score, etc. Your application needs someone to bring your story to life, to give it three-dimensionality. For example, if someone wanted $10000 from you, would you give it to them over a phone call or an email? No. The same is true of your application. These schools are investing tremendous resources to hear your story. The interview is their best attempt to hear that story but all things considered every instance you can sell yourself more is the edge that puts you in the incoming class.

Here are some tips:

1. Go to MBA tradeshows and visit booths with schools you are interested in. Introduce yourself in 30-45 seconds, stating Why an MBA?, Short and Long term? and why this school?, then ask questions. Afterward, get the representatives business card and tell them you will follow up. IMPORTANT: Follow up!. This sends a strong signal that you are serious, have done your homework and will make an impact.
2. Visit the school. This is crucial. Not only will you be able to determine whether the school is a true fit, but you will leave a DNA trail, with the students, faculty, and admission officers in the Admission offices. Most MBA campuses are small and everyone talks. The more favorable opinions and vouchers you can get from various people the more credible you become as a bonafide student of consideration.
3. Meet the decision makers, if you can. Some programs make it hard for you to do that. Their process is not very transparent. HBS, for instance, is hard to crack from an admissions perspective. But regardless, try your best to meet the Dean of Admissions or Assistant Dean of Admissions. Ultimately if they can speak on your behalf at the decision committee meetings, your chances are drastically improved.
4. Go to dinners that programs throw in your area. Many times local alumni will throw a meet and greet on behalf of a program. This is a great opportunity to learn about the program and network and leave a favorable impression with someone connected with the school. Often times you would be surprised, either the host of these events knows someone or can directly say something positive in writing, etc about you to the main admissions office. Its a long shot but depending on how acute your methods are, something good could happen from it.

Like I said, face time is crucial. If you do not put the work in network, it won’t work. You have to be comfortable with yourself, know your story and not be afraid to make an impression. Try it you might surprise yourself with an admittance!

Dancing with the Elelphant in the Room: Low GPA

There is no greater mood killer after deciding to quit your job, start the MBA application process and drink bubbly champagne all night to celebrate than bringing up a low GPA (anything under 3.0) to an Admissions representative. A low GPA is the elephant in the room that no Admission Officer will acknowledge as the dagger in your pinata of dreams, because they do not want to hurt your feelings; but oh, it is bad…. it is so bad. More than any other statistical indicator in your profile, a low GPA signals to Admission officers that either you did not care about school or worse if you did care you could not do the work successfully within a four year time span. Not four hours like the GMAT, but four years. That’s a long time to get it right. And few schools worth their salt and competing for higher rankings in US News and other major business magazines, are willing to take that bet on you and find out which was the case. Let’s face it, beyond the garden of knowledge that academic institutions paint in their brochures, schools are businesses first and where they place in the national rankings matters. Prospective students look at rankings in many cases to determine where they will apply. Thus, admitting any student to a program with a low GPA can drop the school’s ranking 3 to 5 places (depending on how it affects their overall student average) and damage the quantity and quality of their application pool.

So where does that leave the prospective MBA candidates with the low GPA? Should they give up and apply for a master’s in something else like Ultimate Frisbee or Laser Tag. No. Not necessarily. But I will be honest. Your chances at getting into a top MBA program are drastically cut, especially at the so-called top ten like Kellogg, Wharton, HBS, University of Chicago, Stanford, etc. Some of these schools, unfortunately, cannot get around a poor academic undergraduate performance. They see it as settling when there are so many exceptional, dynamic candidates to pick from in the party bag. If I were you I would cry now, get it out of your system and move on….unless you are well connected (like a former MBA US president) and can grease the wheels and pull some strings at the Dean level.

Ok…After you have finished crying, yet like me are still not shaken by the prospect of “NO” from the school of your dreams. It is time to roll up the jean sleeves and get your grind on…To pull off an acceptance letter from your number one is going to take hustle and flow, courage and heart, grit and wild-eyed determination. Be not dissuaded, my friend, it can be done….I have friends at some of the best programs in the world, who were working and dancing with the elephant of a low GPA and jumped over the word “impossible” like an Olympic hurdler to achieve brilliance.

Here are some dance steps to keep in mind:

1. If you have a low GPA from a top undergraduate school like West Point, Harvard, Brown, UCLA, etc. you are still in the running. However your story has to be strong. AO’s are going to wonder what went wrong.
2. If you have a low GPA, but had a tough major like engineering, physics, or computer science, schools will forgive you especially if you knock out the GMAT.
3. If you have a low GPA, but showed improvement with time and ended on a high note particularly in your major, that is a strong indicator of success that you can leverage in your story.
4. If you have a low GPA, but have a compelling reason such as working full time while attending school or family problems, etc., schools will show compassion by listening to your story but you have to be up front and address it in the “Any thing else you want to tell us?” essay. This might be the weakest reason for low GPA so you will have to work hard to offset it with a high GMAT, and good career development, because they will reason everyone has challenges.

Here are some dance moves that will wow AO’s and take away the focus from your low GPA:

1. High GMAT(690 and above). Of course the higher the better.
2. Amazing professional development and leadership quality. At the end of the day, if you graduated with a 2.0 but started a tech company and sold it for ten million, or served in the military in a leadership capacity, saving thousands of lives, schools will overlook your academic struggles.
3. Strong recommendation from an Alumnae that creates a vivid picture of what makes you unique and how you will provide additional value to the program.
4. Any other degrees like Masters or PHds.
5. Killer interview. Don’t talk about how great your interpersonal skills are, show it by persuading them why they have to have you. This is an art form not often seized.
6. Additional course work in business courses (you did not take or took but did bad in undergrad). These courses include statistics, accounting and calculus. You have to get As in all of them.

If in some way you fall under at least three of any of these categories I have listed then you have a good shot. There are no guarantees, obviously. But its the difference between getting on the ding pile out the gate vs. hanging in to the end in the Admissions Board room. And at that point, it truly is a crap shoot. There is no rhyme or reason to why some candidates get selected over others. All you can do is dance with that elephant. Try not to step on its toes or rather have its toes step on you. Just dance. You got this!

Your Story is Your Story

There is a great temptation to ignore our story.

We hype up grad school as some exclusive night club with high barricades and diesel bodyguards who will not let us through, until we have accomplished something of heroic proportions. Its almost like if we did not go to ‘Nam in a chopper and save a thousand soldiers or climb Mt. Kilamanjaro, with one working eye and a club foot, we get writer’s block; we feel we are not worthy to apply. Then we create this fiction in our heads that prolongs the application process and delays it for years. For example, we say things to ourselves like, “If I take some certification in XYZ, then I will be ready”, “If I get a promotion and get a certain title, the admissions people will think my profile is more competitive”, “If I do some community service, that will round out my application” and the list goes on. When does it stop? When do we accept ourselves for who we are and accept our stories for what they are?

Recently, I was consulting with a client about the MBA application process. He was a smart lad, working as a research assistant at a top historically black college. He was nine months out of college and he decided that he wanted to get an MBA in order to career switch from social research into management consulting in international markets. His GPA was a strong 3.5 and he was dead set on a state MBA program. All he had to do was take the GMAT. When I asked him, when he planned on applying he said he wanted to wait and take some pre-MBA business courses in the Fall and get a little more experience working in a different field that was more related to business, before applying. Now to his credit, his logic seems fair. He is a fresh graduate with little experience, so it seems reasonable that he take some business courses and get some more work experience. But here’s the thing: You can do that in business school!!! Part of the opportunity that an MBA provides is the ability to learn and take classes, network and from that experience get a job that suits your industry of interest, which for him, is management consulting. My basic point is that there’s no reason to create more steps when the real step is in front of you. Just take that step, which for him was taking the GMAT!

Secondly, when I asked him to tell me the research that he had been doing in the past nine months, he described a project tracing the development of particular ethnic groups socially, politically and economically inside the education system from high school to college. Bingo! On the surface that might not seem like relevant work experience, but it it is if you know how to frame it as such. If you are able to re-conceive your reality and highlight its virtues and business relevance, then the admission people will care, because they are hungry for different types of stories. For example for his Why an MBA?, he could easily talk about how through his research he discovered a vicious pattern of institutional prejudice that blocked opportunities for certain groups he was studying and how by going to business school he could create a new cycle breaking that old pattern of prejudice.

Your story is your story and it already exists within you. You have to believe it. You have to spend the time to excavate it. Don’t short change or undersell yourself by prolonging the MBA process more than it needs to be. Start with what you have, the rest will take care of itself.

What they don’t tell you about the GMAT

The GMAT is not a unicorn; it is a beast.

It is designed to make you fail on purpose. Make no mistake it is one of the toughest standardized test you will ever take. First reason is that if you are like me, either you have not taken a math course in a while or you have not applied math much in your job. I was a marketing guy so algebra, geometry and number property were foggy, distant concepts that were challenging to master. Second reason, it is an adaptive test. You have to finish a question before going to the next question. You cannot skip around to questions that might boost your confidence. Also, in real time, the test is dumping you in a score range of 500, 600 and 700 before you even finish the test. Therefore if you miss the first 5 questions you will fall under the 400-500 range and no matter how well you do in later questions you cannot lift yourself up. That’s why so many test takers try their best to get the first 15 or so right.

Now for the engineers and computer science majors reading this blog, this is a non-issue. Students that had quantitative majors undergrad will fair well on the GMAT. Their minds are used to this type of adaptive format. They think linearly, clearly and logically. For poets, creatives folks and non-traditional applicants like myself, the test can present a tremendous challenge. Firstly, creative people’s mind work tangentially; it strays and builds context over time. So there are questions that creative people might not be able to do right away but will have answers for later, because things come to them gradually not instantly. However, again with the GMAT, there is no room for daydreaming, where ideas may develop. You have approximately 2 minutes per question to get it right the first time and move on or you will fall victim to not finishing the test on time, which usually prompts a lower score. Feelings and emotions will cloud judgment and deter a successful score. You have to be a cyborg with laser focus and mastery, executing flawlessly in your strengths and protecting your weaknesses.

Here are some suggestions:

1) Take the test early before you do anything else in your application. Your GMAT score will give you a sense of which schools are within reach. If you are in the 700s then the super-tiers (Harvard, Stanford, Wharton) are realistic and you can make a strong case for fit. If you are in the 500s and 600s then you will have to do extensive research and match your score with the schools that are appropriate based on what they list as the range and average GMAT score for their incoming classes.

2) Prepare and train at least 3 months in advance. I repeat “Train.” The GMAT is not a sprint it is a 3-4 hour Marathon. At its core, its testing not just if you can get questions right, but if you have the stamina to get questions right over a long period of time. Your training should include 3 hours of practice problems 5 out of 7 days a week and a full blown test one one day out of the week. So you may get a day off to recoup.

3) Don’t buy too many books, CDs, DVDs or take too many courses. SAVE YOUR MONEY!!!! You can get a lot of this stuff online for free. I recommend just getting the Official Guide to the GMAT, which has problems taken from the real test. Manhattan GMAT has a good series of books which focuses around certain competencies. And when you get good, register with, which is forum of test takers that post problems daily. These guys are hardcore and hungry…and will get you to have your A-game on.

That’s it. Its rather spartan, I know. No gimmicks no tricks. The truth is that if after doing these things, you are still not seeing improvement, then you may have to reevaluate how important returning to B-school is for you. It is very competitive out there. And if you have done that make sure you are picking the right schools for the right reasons. There are some schools that de-emphasize GMAT scores which might be right for you. Find those schools and I guarantee it will be worth the effort you have put into this process.