On a cold winter day about 10 years ago, I was waiting to board a flight to Philly. I was with my best friend and we were on our way to do a couple of MBA interviews, starting at Wharton.
To say that I was apprehensive would be an understatement.
It had been six years since I graduated from university. By the time I finished my studies, I had a job lined up with a big corporate. A big campus out in the suburbs, a long commute there and back. Good work-life balance and decent pay. My girlfriend and I were looking to buy a place together.
The future seemed to be full of backyard barbeques and family holidays.
And yet, something was missing. Despite being promoted regularly, I didn’t find my job dynamic enough. Sometimes, I’d feel downright suffocated. All the exciting stuff seemed to be happening elsewhere.
I’d go for a lunchtime walk and wonder: was I destined to be a perpetual bystander on the highway of life?
About three years after joining the company, I had enough and decided to start my own business. A year in, it gained enough steam for me to ask for a twelve-month sabbatical. My request was granted, and I dived right in, trying to grow the business so I never had to go back to work.
And I failed.
I won’t go into the reasons why. What I will tell you is that it was painful going back to work. I didn’t burn any bridges on the way out, and most people were friendly and supportive. Still, it was clear some people were talking behind my back.
Determined to ignore them, I set about planning my next move.
By the time I was boarding that flight to Philly, I had racked up two great years at work, aced the GMAT and got two glowing recommendations from my superiors.
At the same time, I knew that an MBA wasn’t going to be cheap. Tuition was $100k, living expenses another $50k easy. My parents co-signed on my student loan, which effectively meant they put their house on the line. I was also worried about what two years apart will do to my relationship with my girlfriend.
Suddenly, the suburban life with weekend lie-ins and barbeques didn’t look so boring. But there was no turning back, so as I found my seat, I muted the voice of anxiety in my head and tried to get some sleep instead.
Ten Years Later
They say small choices can make a massive difference. Taking out a six-figure loan to do an MBA abroad probably wasn’t a minor decision. But then, the impact has been nothing short of life-changing.
The past decade has been a whirlwind. I got into – and graduated with honours from one of the top MBA programs in the world. I lived and worked on two different continents and three different countries.
I’ve met tons of fascinating people, including two Nobel Prize winners, a former head of a G7 country, a Top Gun instructor, a former US presidential candidate, visionary entrepreneurs, hereditary billionaires, and more Fortune 500 CEOs than I can remember. And apparently, I circumnavigated the Earth 6.4 times along the way:
Then again, this represents about a third of my travel…
A bystander on the highway of life no more.
Graduating with a six-figure student loan into a world ravaged by the financial crisis was stressful, especially so as my parents were on the hook.
I ended up getting an investment banking job in London. At first, it was a relentless sequence of 100+ hour weeks, missed anniversaries and canceled holidays.
But a few years in, my wife and I paid off the student loans. A few more years and our net worth cleared the seven-figure mark. In the meantime, the hours got better – and the job much more fun.
This may well be par for the course for some, but not for this first-generation immigrant. The first time I’ve ever been on a flight – or a subway – was when I turned 14. I shared a bedroom with my sister until I was 19. And I spent my undergraduate days working until 2 am to pay the tuition bills.
Still, the risk paid off. And so did all the hard work.
What About Others?
Of course, not everyone gets to go to a top MBA program and become an investment banker / management consultant / lawyer / corporate executive.
Remember that friend of mine I flew to the US with? He got close but didn’t get admitted. He tried again, came close but missed the goal again. For a bright, hard-working and highly motivated individual, it was a killer punch in the gut.
It’s amazing what people can do if they don’t mind a punch in the gut along the way. That friend of mine simply wouldn’t give up – and today he is even further up the career ladder than I am.
Top MBA? Not required.
A desire to succeed or die trying? A pre-requisite. And he has it in spades.
Then there’s the other friend, one who barely graduated college. He then hustled his backside off as a real estate agent for fifteen years – and built up an impressive property empire along the way.
And another one, who lived with his mom until he was 30 – because they were trying to establish themselves after immigrating to a new country. Today, he has a pretty chilled out 9-4 job, a profitable business on the side and spends three months a year in Costa Rica with his son. Oh, and he’s not even 40.
I can keep going, because somehow, my immediate circle of friends is full of people who have decided to reject the conventional life. Who refused to succumb to the sweet inertia of a glass of wine and Netflix at 8 pm.
Who redefined what a good life looks like.
If you are reading this, chances are you are also in this category. For those who are well on their journey – congrats and well done. You are an inspiration for the rest of us.
And if you happen to be just starting out, remember – the first step is the most important. You’ve got the right mindset – now it’s all about the execution.
Keep putting one foot in front of the other and soon you will realize: the journey is even more enjoyable than the outcome.
The Twenty Hour Week
A 9-6 job, a one-hour commute each way and 7 hours of sleep leave you with 6 hours of free time a day. Let’s say other commitments (parents, I’m looking at you!) take up another 4 hours. That leaves you with two hours of free time.
Weekends are a different story. There’s lots of life admin to catch up on, but a motivated enough individual can carve out 5 hours of time on Saturday and Sunday. You know, like doing that crazy thing of actually waking up at 7 am and working until noon?
That adds up to 20 hours a week.
1,040 hours a year.
10,400 hours a decade.
That’s about five years of working a full time, 40 hour / week job.
The list of things you can accomplish in that time is endless.
You can perfect a skill. Change careers. Create a business. Build a property portfolio. Supercharge your ascent up the career ladder.
So where will you find yourself a decade from today? Will you still be a bystander, with a glass of wine in hand, another Netflix originals on TV and a deep sense of discontent inside? Or will you design – and live that dream life you’ve always imagined?
Remember – time will pass no matter what. But where you end up is up to you.