Saturday, November 24, 2012

Are you doing what YOU really want, or simply what's expected of you?

Earlier this semester I asked one of the strategy program directors if he could recommend someone who's worked in a variety of positions and different size companies around strategy development. Strategy is an intimidatingly broad field and it's a challenge to even speculate where one might fit best in the strategy 'careerscape'.  In the email, I told my director I'd be interested in sitting down to chat with someone about the practicalities and day-to-day activities of their work in various positions.

My question prompted a dialogue which turned into the idea behind what will become a series of roundtable discussions with alumni from our program and other professionals we invite. The first roundtable was yesterday, when we welcomed nine strategy students and three alumni to the Aalto Design Factory for a two-hour conversation.
I was so pleased with the friendliness and expertise of our alumni guests, and their willingness to come alongside us as coaches and mentors. Not only did I get a lot of my own questions answered, but I got great feedback from other students as well.

One of the topics that came up was the distinguishing factors between the top consulting firms (McKinsey, The Boston Consulting Group, Bain Consulting, Ernst & Young, etc.) -- from the outside it's hard to tell; What differentiates these companies?  The consensus from our alumni panel was that they're all good firms with great reputations and career opportunities; what we should pay attention to when interviewing and attending recruiting events is the culture of the company and the recruiters themselves. Which people do we enjoy being around and interacting with?

We got into discussing lifestyle and what implications a consulting career might have for one's lifestyle. It was really neat to hear the alumni talk about how they each went through a phase of realizing that whatever career they were going to pursue, the most important thing is that they're truly passionate about it. "It's important to distinguish between what you've been taught to appreciate in school, and what you actually appreciate for yourself," said Petri Rikkinen, Consultant at Accenture.
How true, I thought, as I reflected on this same process I've been going through during the past few months.

I've realized that I've made a habit of always choosing the most ambitious option. I do it because I can, and because I believe that there's something to be said for living out one's full potential.  One of the reasons I chose to come to Aalto is because of the opportunity to join CEMS, a program which allows masters students to earn both a degree from their university and a Masters in International Management in a total of two years. After arriving here, though, I realized that if I were to participate in CEMS and leave Helsinki for a semester on the required CEMS study abroad, I'd have to compromise some of the important elements of my strategy degree, and I'd miss out on taking some of the other design-oriented courses at Aalto that I've been really excited about.

I'm still unsure of whether I'll apply to CEMS this winter or not. As an American, I'm already studying abroad simply by being here at Aalto. I'm cherishing the sense of 'home' I have here in Helsinki at the moment, and I'm wondering if my desire to go for CEMS is just because it's the next most ambitious thing to do, or if it's something that will actually add value to my progress toward life goals and passions.

I think this pondering process is part of maturing and 'coming into one's own'. It takes a good deal of reflection to distinguish between preferences and habits that have developed because of my environment (because people/schools/parents/employers around me have valued them) and the preferences and habits I have because I truly enjoy and value them. It's one thing to live 'intentionally', and another to know where those intentions come from.

photo credit polnamara
I took a walk this afternoon while thinking about all this, and ended up in a big rocky mud field near the shipyard at the West Harbor.  My iPod was set to shuffle and just kept pumping out the most subtle, perfect playlist I've heard in a while - each tune more inspirational than the last.  I stayed out there for an hour, getting all my squats, lunges, pushups and pilates in while enjoying the crisp sea air and gazing up at the 3:00pm sunset over the islands speckling Finland's western coastline.  By the time Andrea Bocelli's Con Te Partiro came on, my spirit was overflowing. There's no question that I love being here because I really love it. The way I feel about this place isn't something that can be prompted by anyone else's suggestion or expectation.  At least that much can be established for now.

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