Thursday, September 25, 2008

Working Below the Line

For several weeks now (ever since school began looming large on my horizon at the tail end of summer) I've been on a downward spiral: more and more tired every day as I returned to my late-night homework schedule combined with the early-morning routine that comes from having a baby at home in addition to three very active school-age children.

"How did I do this last year?" I asked myself, unable to focus my eyes to read much beyond 11pm.

I think I've finally crossed the line, dipping below "zero" on the Cumulative Sleep Index, and that's a good thing. I'm remembering now that things really start picking up once I've exhausted all my stored-up energy and I begin, in a sense, running on fumes.

Once I reach terminal tiredness, tiredness itself falls away. I'm operating on just five hours' sleep last night and I'm feeling great. During the summer, any less than eight hours a night would leave me groggy the next day. Clearly I'm into a new zone right now. This is where I thrived in college, where I lived on something close to 3-4 hours of sleep a night with fantastic results.

Of course, I could just be delirious, like the man walking toward the oasis in the desert anticipating a long, tall drink of water.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

It Gets Harder

I always wondered whether I was crazy to attempt this program at my particular stage in life (three kids including a baby, busy sales job, working spouse), but decided this was one of those "there's never a perfect time" kinds of things (putting it in the same classification as starting a relationship, falling in love, and having a baby). And I've always known that I'm the type of person who performs better the more he has to do (left to my own devices, I would easily squander days, weeks, months).

Overall, my hypotheses have been proven out: I have been more productive than at any other time in my life, and somehow I've managed to keep the other parts of my life together as well (no pets have died from neglect, laundry and dishes always get done, food on the table, etc.).

But now that the reality of the middle of the semester is setting in (on a timeline where midterms come just two weeks into the semester!), I'm struggling with a new challenge. Last week I learned that, due to a reorganization at my company, the number of accounts I cover has doubled. I was so good about my planning this year, I thought I had everything planned out and under control to a degree that would allow me to have a challenging but attainable year (remember, as a sales rep I get paid on my attainment). Now my account list has doubled, and these aren't small accounts either! So it's back to the planning table and I need to assess how my risk profile has been irreversibly altered with the past week's changes.

As I face two looming deadlines for midterms and the meeting invitations continue piling up in my inbox, I'm trying to keep the old maxim in mind: God doesn't give you more than you can handle. Or at least He's not supposed to! :-)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Two Weeks Isn't

Inevitably, right after class when I rush home to be with my family (lest they forget who I am), I am overwhelmed by a deep sense of peace. "I made it through another class weekend!" I shout inside my head, quite proud of my endurance.

Then, suddenly, it's Saturday night, my family's in bed, and I'm faced with a daunting choice:

  1. Get a leg up on reading for the next class weekend
  2. Go to sleep to catch up on my rest
  3. Completely veg out, either a) browsing the Internet (usually getting sucked in to some random YouTube video thread) or b) watch Tivo until my eyes dry out and/or the sun peeks over the horizon

Do you want to take a guess as to which choice I usually make? Let's just say it's >2. This happens on a regular enough basis that I know there must be some reason (it can't be me, after all, can it?).

I think it has a lot to do with exhaustion combined with the false belief that "two weeks is plenty of time to get my reading done for the next class." As I've seen time and time again, two weeks will pass in a flash, so I'd better get off this chair right now and crack a book if I know what's good for me.

The jury's still out on which decision I'll actually make. And hey, is that ice cream I spy in the fridge?


I'm consistently amazed at how much more quickly everything moves when you're in a program like ours. We make friends faster, exams come up much faster, and time passes much much faster-- just about the only thing that doesn't move faster is the actual time spent in class.

I just got home from class and realized I've spent eight of the last eleven days in all-day sessions (that's 10-12 hours/day for those of you keeping track). Throw in a trip to Florida for work this week, a ton of reading, and two group projects already done, and it's amazing none of us have committed ourselves to the nearest padded cell.

One other thing I'm also remembering about this experience is how quickly we regain that stamina I spoke about last week (was it really just last week?). I was happy get most of my reading mojo back this week (hopefully along with some of the retention), and as long as the coffee holds up, I seem to at least be able to stay awake in class.

Nonetheless, it's pretty amazing that we already are getting our midterm exams and that we're almost halfway through our first round of two classes. Before we know it, finals will have passed, the semester will be over, and we'll be catapulted into our last semester together.

That was a good reminder to me today as I sat talking with classmates at lunch: although you can't imagine it now, this time will be over before we know it, so amidst the chaos, at least make an effort to savor the relationships, laughs, and even the humiliations (thank you, Advanced Financial Management!) that are part of this quick, strange, wonderful journey.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Fact Check

So we continue to have issues with some of the facts being presented in our IT class. I don't think it's beyond reasonable to expect that our professors will have the latest and most accurate information. Sure, in our Strategy class last year, we may have had older information and cases (some dating back to the 1970s) but the information was included because it had retained its relevance over time.

Not so for our IT class. This is our third session and already the professor has based his lectures on information that is not only dated but also inaccurate:

  1. He claimed the total sales at Wal-Mart were in the neighborhood of $175 billion. In fact it was $397.3 billion.
  2. He claimed that Apple had the largest market capitalization of any technology company. In fact, Apple is #3 behind Microsoft and IBM.
  3. He claimed you could only buy Dell computers online, using Dell's direct model. In fact, Dell now sells PCs through Best Buy stores as well.
  4. He claimed you couldn't buy M&M's online. In fact the company has offered custom-printed M&M's on its website for years.
  5. He asked, "Who ships anything via next-day shipping anymore?" Um, how about just about everyone in business?!?
  6. He claimed, "everything Microsoft has, Apple had years ago." I'm not even going to touch that one, it's so uninformed.

It would be different if he were espousing items we couldn't easily check online, but this is pretty basic stuff.


Blogging Professors

As I've written before, we have all kinds of fancy new technology in our classroom this year (but only this morning did we get blinds on the windows-- a story for another time).

Further bringing us down the rabbit hole of technology, I found this morning that our IT professor has himself been blogging about us.

Is it possible to create a blogging feedback loop? Or a blogging Hadron Collider?

Should be fun to find out.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Know Thyself

How well do most people really know themselves? There are the typical personality or strengths tests to take, but I'm talking about knowing what kind of work will really produce a life of meaning.

Going into this program, I dreaded the thought of classes like Statistics and Accounting. OK, Accounting was pretty hellish, but the classes I enjoyed most from first year were Managerial Accounting and, yes, Statistics. That fact still surprises me. We had a full roster of more "touchy-feely" classes last year: classes like Organizational Behavior, Strategy, and Marketing, and while those were enjoyable, what stands out for me are the more analytical classes.

If you know me, you know that's pretty much the opposite of how I view myself. I'm an English major by training, though I'm also a bundle of contradictions. Growing up, I loved electronics and taking things apart to see how they worked; throw a computer into the mix and I was in heaven. I'm pretty sure my path to dot-com greatness was first averted by a spate of math teachers in high school sent by Satan himself; this is when I gravitated to the school newspaper (later to become managing editor) and it's also when I first read a work of literature (my parents had books, but it would be a stretch to say there was much reading going on in our house growing up).

All of this led to a liberal arts degree, though I was almost a joint English and Environmental Science major. And looking back to my college experience, I think I enjoyed my junior year class in Geology more than any other class. Again, totally out of the realm of what I assumed to be my "style". The professor even approached me and asked if I'd consider changing my major to Geology, so there may also be a lost opportunity of Geologic Greatness in my past as well.

And here we are, circa 2008. I work in sales which is a lot more about art than science, I've managed magazine publishing endeavors, worked in nonprofit fundraising, and explored the higher education market as well.

More and more, I'm wondering how much opportunity I'm not noticing in both my personal and professional life because of my self-notion as someone who doesn't (or shouldn't) be drawn to topics like Statistics. Yet I am. Could there be a little patch of untapped Statistical Greatness in my future?

For the rest of this academic year, I'm going to try viewing my tastes and attractions in a slightly different light.

Finance, anyone? Coming from an Engligh major, that's pretty radical talk.


So I think I really picked the wrong place to sit in class. They spent the summer remodeling the rooms and we walked in on Tuesday to sparkly, high-tech classrooms with sleek new chairs and fancy new tables. Only they forgot to install blinds to keep out the sun, and apparently the air conditioning isn't working, so today was yet another coma-inducing day of baking in the sun in my seat next to the window. They brought in fans, but we couldn't hear the professor over the fans, so we're back to baking.

You can see how it's going.

One funny thing I did want to share was a Yogi Berra quote from yesterday (related to us by our Finance professor):

The story goes: One day, Berra ordered a pizza. When asked whether he would like his large pizza cut into four slices or eight, Yogi replied: "Four, because I don't think I have enough appetite to eat all eight."

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


As I sit here in my hotel room on our 5-day domestic residency retreat after a full day of class and after completing the first of our group assignments for Finance, I'm reminded of something a classmate said earlier today, something that sums up the force that drove us last year and which for many of us atrophied over the summer.


Simply stated, it takes pure stamina to power through a day of work at our regular jobs, followed by evening personal lives that include families and small children for many of us, and then to pick up a book or do homework for three hours each night (7 days a week) while class is in session.

I thought I was tough. I thought I'd retained much of my edge from first year. What I'm learning this week while on retreat (where the work just doesn't stop, even at night or at 6 in th morning) is that I am sorely lacking in stamina. Somewhere between the early bedtimes and homework-free days of summer, I lost it. Time to build it back up!

Right after first year began, I remember going to the zoo one Sunday morning after class with my family. I'd been up the night before until 2:30am and was up again at 7 with the kids-- all in all, a respectable 4 1/2 hours of sleep, but some additional factor (the accumulated fatigue of a weekend of class) made me literally fall asleep standing up at the zoo. I feel like I'm right back there tonight! That's what the Pepsi and Red Bull was supposed to counteract an hour ago down in the hotel bar. Now I'm facing a mountain of reading for tomorow morning ("tommorow" being the class period that begins in 9 1/2 short hours). Time to push the limits and rebuild that intellectual stamina.

Notational Value Add

You heard it first here: Notational Value Add (NVA). What is it? I've been thinking about this for a long time, and finally think I've got it. When taking a class (or attending a corporate or training presentation), how often do you find yourself asking, "what is the benefit of this class? Is the instructor adding value?"

We look at value add all the time in our jobs: economic value add (EVA), market value add (MVA), and other methods look at finance impacts of various activities. But what do you do at the end of a long class day in a classroom that doesn't have working ventilation and you're trying to assess the value-add of the class you're sitting through?

Here's my formula-- see if it works for you. It's not a numeric formula (though you could measure quantitative items like number of slides or lines of notes), but you get the gist.

Step 1: Consider the assigned readings (books, articles, cases, etc.). Do the assigned readings.

Step 2: Consider the PowerPoint slides the instructor has prepared for class. Review them online. Note: if an instructor doesn't post the slides in electronic form before the class, it may be fair to ask yourself what they're trying to hide (you know the kind of professors I'm talking about).

Step 3: Come to class, and take notes.

If you do all this, NVA will be a measure of net new insights or information you gain by coming to class and taking notes. I have captured all notes from all classes in the last 13 months electronically, organized by date and class, and I find that I take copious notes in some classes and almost no notes in others. Sometimes this is due to having firsthand experience with the subject matter (i.e., less need to take notes), but sometimes it's due to a professor just "phoning it in" during class and reading rote from the slides (or, worse, reading from slides his/her TA prepared for them).

Classes with high NVA will generate lots of meaty notes because attending them will be a worthy investment of your time and because attending will increase your knowledge by giving you things you couldn't glean from either the readings or the PowerPoint slides. Classes with low NVA will be have few if any notes (or, worse, just doodles in your margins) because the professor is largely regurgitating what was in the book or in the slides. In low-NVA cases, you could get just as much by staying home and reading the information for yourself.

In addition to the three variables above, NVA results can be augmented (or decremented) by two additional factors:

1. Guidance and coaching ("help") you receive from the professor on assignments or in-class exercises (higher values here imply marginal NVA even when the other factors may be low)

2. Number of random web pages you find yourself visiting as a distraction during class (likely because you are suffering from bone-crushing boredom). High numbers here translate to lower NVA (unless you have a diagnosed attention deficit disorder).

So, working toward a formula, how about:

(in case you're wondering, yes, I put this together today while sitting in a class with pretty low NVA!)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


As we return to class and as the familiar old anxiety starts to return (Did I read everything? Am I behind? Did the other group complete their case yet?), I realized something today about how I learn.

Learning, for me at least, only (or best) seems to take place when I can suspend the nay-saying voices in my head that shout out, "Who do you think you are, taking a finance class? You're an English major, pal!"

As I learned last year, it takes conscious effort for me to keep those voices at bay, but when I can, what arises in the space between "what I know" and "what I'm being exposed to" can indeed be called learning.

Creepy Technology

OK, so the fancy new classrooms we're in are really creeping me out. Sure, they have all the latest gadgets-- cool chairs, handy electrical outlets, slick desks. But they also have microphones at each seat, complete with little "push to talk" buttons. And when you actually are brave enough to push that button, one of two video cameras in the front of the room pans and zooms right in on your face. Just so your humiliating moment of trying to answer a question is captured for all eternity on video as well as audio. I'm sure that will help many people decide if they really want to step up and answer that Finance question.

It could be worse, though. There are also two cameras aimed at the professor, and they follow him/her around the room via some mysterious auto-humiliating technology.

So now we have even fewer places to hide. Look for videos of us on YouTube soon, I'm sure.

The Same, But Different

Greetings from along the beautiful row of windows in our shiny new classroom. Our first class of second year begins in 30 minutes and we're all trickling in and finding our seats in the newly-remodeled room. All kinds of stories of summer are being swapped, and slackers like me are feverishly reading the assignments for our upcoming Finance class. Most of us have checked into our lackluster hotel and we've seen the first year students milling about, also about to begin their classes.

I think there's something primordial in all of us that kicks into gear each fall. Decades of "first day of school" have worn their paths in our psyches and some part of us still thinks about getting books, school supplies, and new clothes when the beginning of September rolls around. For the second September in a row, it's been great to get back into these rhythms. There's an anticipation about the first day of class, whether that's kindergarten, high school, or graduate school.

Enough for now-- I'm so behind on reading, I need every minute I can get!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

One Week

I remember sitting on the porch of a bar in downtown Minneapolis with my classmates on a sunny day in May, right after completing our final exams. We basked in the glory and new-found freedom that came from completing such a monumental milestone: one year down, one more to go. As we sat there drinking beer on that warm day, we pontificated about the day-- so distant in the future-- where we would all reconvene and pick up where we left off. We relished in the realization that that day was a full FOUR MONTHS in the future. At that time, four months seemed like a bazillion years-- it was just that abstract.

Well, now it's a pretty concrete notion-- FOUR MONTHS has dwindled down to ONE WEEK! One week from today we will reconvene in downtown Minneapolis at a really ugly-looking hotel and resume classes. I have cracked my books for the coming semester, but only slightly-- clearly I am still in a stage of massive denial.