As logic would have it, there are three types of people reading this.

First, there are those with an MBA degree, who have come here either to satisfy curiosity or to berate me for whatever they assume I’m about to say about MBAs. Second, there are those without an MBA, who have come here to find out more about getting one or to lay waste to any positive advice to earn an MBA. Lastly, there are those currently earning their MBA, who have come here to see if they are on the right track or not.

(I recognize that there may also be some odd fourth type who await a punchline to what they thought was the setup for a bad b-school joke.)

I’m not sure who I’m going to satisfy the most from the options above, but this is not to extol the MBA degree, nor to bad-mouth it. It is simply to give the applicable reader some perspective. Or rather, that is, my perspective. In finishing my MBA recently, I have answered one question more than any other in the last four weeks:

“Was it worth it?”

Whether it was worth it to me is subjective – I wanted to help determine whether it would be worth it to someone else. I aim to answer that question by asking all who would listen to first consider the bicycle.

The bicycle is a means of transportation that takes our exerted energy and transfers it through a system of gears to propel us forward. In essence, it makes us more productive if we choose to use it. And that is precisely what a Master of Business Administration will do.

The Bicycle and the MBA

The means to an end. It is true that many people ride a bicycle purely for leisure, but for the purposes of this comparison, we’ll assume that many more use it for transportation to somewhere. It’s important to ask, “Where am I going?” so that you can choose whether it’s the best means to get there. Maybe you could just walk there, or perhaps technology has advanced enough to where you could use one of those fancy engine-powered vehicles you keep seeing around town. Or maybe the terrain will be narrow and off-road, and you know you’ll need a bicycle. Plenty of people have been successful without this degree and likewise for those with it. It’s imperative that you figure out what works for you. How do you learn, by studying or by doing? Do you think a set of professors will be able to offer you more than a set of managers? How do you feel about your current business intelligence?

The catalog of models. Bicycles come in different colors, frames, and sizes. You can get one speed or 36 speeds. Maybe you need a basket or a water bottle holder. The bike can be as unique as you are. Within each make and model are various customizations that you must consider because you are ultimately the person riding the bike. Translation: Considering which MBA program to go with is important. You have to consider the area in which you can focus, such as finance or entrepreneurship; the opportunities for residencies in cities across the country or world; how the professors are ranked; the support of the career center; and the alumni-base you’ll gain access to. These are by no means exhaustive, but should spark the train of thought for where to apply. If you want to ride in the sand, a fat-tire bike is great, but probably a bad choice for racing in the Tour de France.

The need to pedal. Consider a brand-new bicycle sitting upright on its kickstand. “It’s so shiny,” a woman exclaims to you. “That’s a mighty nice bike, you got there!” says the nice man passing by. And they’re right. But how fast is that bicycle moving? A whopping 0 miles per hour. You have to accept (upfront, I might add) that if you think buying the best bicycle on the market is going to somehow win you every race you enter, you should save your money and walk. Getting an MBA these days is like opening a lemonade stand, which happens to be one of the staple applications of b-school lessons. The MBA degree has become diluted with so many people earning one. The order winner of yesterday is the order qualifier of today when it comes to human capital. What do you bring to the table? An MBA provides knowledge and insight that must be paired with what you’re willing to do. No business school will teach you ambition (if they say they do, they’re lying). *And yes, there are self-propelled bikes, which I believe translate to anything from getting a tutor/mentor to outright cheating in a course. You reap what you sow.

The achievement. I grew up in a neighborhood where all the kids had bikes, except one. He literally walked everywhere with us. We would find ourselves riding in circles around him like buzzards as he completely negated the utility of our bicycles. It wasn’t that his family couldn’t afford one; it was that he just didn’t want one. Perhaps not for all of us in the group, but for many, the bicycle represented a tick mark on the checklist of being a kid, right alongside a finding a date for the school dance and being invited to Matt Kessler’s birthday party. Adults may have different items, but for many, it’s still a checklist. The significant other, the white picket fence, the promotion. An MBA does not belong on this list. Of course, I can’t stop you from collecting trophies, but know that you are taking up a seat that someone else could have sat in, and absorbing the professors’ time that could be given elsewhere. Go learn French if you need to feel accomplished.

So, do you want to buy a bicycle?

Philip Clark
Philip Clark is a former business consultant who currently writes about where leadership meets psychology. On occasion he mixes in education and social impact, aiming to improve the world one person at a time. Earning his degree in Psychology and an MBA from the College of William & Mary, he offers insight into looking past a standard checklist life by digging into what makes you tick and then improving it.