Years ago, while trying to explain how a person can be caught off guard, someone shared an analogy with me of a frog being boiled alive. The explanation of the situation was that if a person threw a frog in a pot of boiling water, the frog would immediately jump out, and the would-be cook’s future frog-leg dinner would be lost. However, if a person threw a frog into a pot of cool water and then gradually warmed the water to boiling, the frog would swim around happily until it was too late, and the frog-leg dinner would be a success.
I can empathize with that frog.
I’ve already shared on this blog my experience a couple years ago with rediscovering social enterprise and the work being done in developing markets. What I didn’t share was that I admired C.K. Prahalad’s (the late author of “The Fortune At The Bottom of The Pyramid”) expertise and imagination, and it occurred to me that there would be a lot of value in turning toward an academic career. That didn’t mean I actually wanted to do something with it. There was value in it, but there wasn’t a chance that I was right for something like research and clear academic rhetoric.
Fast forward a little more than a year, and I was a brand new student in BYU’s MBA program. I was vigorously working to learn as much as I could about the social enterprise space and trying to determine what the best way into the space would be. (Note: There is so much that I’ve learned that could be written here, and I’m hoping to catch up with it, but I have avoided putting down a lot of my thoughts, because it was looking like I was going to be getting a corporate internship, and I didn’t want to scare anybody off with my “distractions.”) The initial options I found for working directly with the BoP or starting my own social enterprise or consulting weren’t the right fit as a career, but I had observed some previous graduates entering into innovating in developing markets through multinational technological corporations. It also occurred to me that a PhD could be a strong option, because it gave me more control over my work, and it offered a solid situation for my family. I didn’t take it very seriously, but that time I did ask some colleagues about it.
At the same time, I was taking my MBA courses – courses taught by PhDs. I think I was lucky to have a set of professors that I unanimously enjoyed, and I often reflected on how much I appreciated the way they were engaged in their work and carried out the task of instructing us. Not only that, it occurred to me that I would enjoy teaching, and I thought I would be good at it. It didn’t really matter whether I was right about that or not. The thought was back.
It was about this time that I realized there was probably something up – the water around me was warming up.
I followed up with one of my professors (Dr. Curtis Lebaron) with some questions about my career, and it was during that conversation that the idea of a PhD was first brought up and entertained as legitimate. Dr. Lebaron asked me what kind of career options I was thinking of, and I shared some details about my goals and what I thought I could do, and then I told him that I’d even thought of a PhD, but I didn’t give that idea any real traction. I told him how I just couldn’t see how I could be a PhD, and then I rattled off a bunch of concerns I had about myself in such a role. They didn’t phase him a bit. He just smiled and said that he didn’t think I would have a problem at all – if that’s what I wanted to do of course.
That little bit of encouragement was actually pretty startling. I really hadn’t expected anybody to write me down as a PhD candidate. I’d been a salesman – persuasive communicator – for years, not a well-articulated deep-thinking academic. I was excited about making the world a better place, but it was going to be my enthusiasm and work ethic and drive that changed the world, not my ability to come up with the next big breakthrough in business theory. At least that’s how I saw it then.
Not only was I concerned about my own fit as a PhD, the fact is that going through a PhD would mean taking my family so far “backwards”, as I saw it, that I couldn’t even fathom the idea at all. A significant force for reducing the stresses on my family was focusing on making our home comfortable and inviting and having our family in one of the best neighborhoods on earth. A PhD would mean packing an active and growing family with 3 kids into a tiny house and a guarantee that I was going to be explaining at some point to my kids, especially my oldest son, why dad had taken them from comfort and friends to cramped quarters, toys that couldn’t be repaired, second-hand sports equipment, and a new school. At least that’s how I had seen it before, but the little bits of preparation I’d had prior to talking with Dr. Lebaron had taken that edge off, warmed up with water I’d been swimming in if you will, and my defenses were down. For better or for worse, I didn’t say no to a PhD. My family was doomed.
A month or so later the PhD finally started taking a very realistic place in my career path decision. One prominent factor was a pre-PhD information session that was put on by the faculty. I didn’t find out about this until later, but the secret sauce that PhDs use to entice students into the career path is the most fantastic sounding family life you’ll ever discover. That information session was covered in secret sauce, and I ate it up. I learned a lot about the career path and the demands of a PhD too, and by this time I was in so deep that I really wasn’t putting up a fight any more. Shortly after the information session, I went to talk with another of my professors Dr. Dan Snow to bounce the idea of a PhD off of him – an idea that I was now realistically considering. Dr. Snow was encouraging again, he really only had good to say about the opportunity and my ideas for it, and he wished me the best while I figured things out. That was good enough for me. I was two for two in professors giving me a thumbs up, and I was considering that enough of a vote of confidence that the option of a PhD was now a very strong contender for a career path.
A contender?! Seriously?!
To my wife and friends I imagine this was something like watching a jaded left-wing hipster friend take off for a couple months and return wearing an Izod shirt, Dockers and penny loafers and listening to Glenn Beck. Well, something like that. The change just begs the question: what on earth happened?
The reality is that while I had come a long way, and my awareness had changed a lot in a very short time, there was still a long way to go to make a decision. I’ll probably talk more about the actual decision (making the difficult choice took more time and skill than I would have expected) a little bit later. Right now I just want to stress that it took me another two months to read info on PhDs, to visit companies that I was interested in, to talk with my wife, to talk with my professors, to get my wife to talk with my professors’ wives and the rest of my career path due diligence. I think it’s also worth noting that I did a lot of learning about myself and how I make decisions during that time.
The decision has now been made, and if the subtext wasn’t clear, my wife and I have decided that a PhD will be best. I’m really pleased with the decision, and I’m excited by how closely it fits with all of my goals. It hasn’t been easy (I just sent an email to one of the best contacts I’ve ever made who was bending over backwards in ways that would have made a Chinese acrobat jealous to get me into the company I was most excited in. I can tell you that it seriously makes you question your sanity when you find yourself turning away from success at the same time you’re finding it.), but I’m confident the decision is right.
What’s so fascinating to me is how rewarding this experience of being “boiled” has been for me. This wasn’t an easy decision – it hurt to make it, and it’s going to be painful to a certain extent to adjust. I guarantee you if somebody had told me at the beginning of my MBA that I had to make a choice about a PhD or a professional career right at that time, I would have chose the professional career immediately without even thinking. The decision was just way too “hot”. Now, after swimming around in this gradually boiling pot, I’m really pleased to be where I am. I guess you could say that if there was a frog who was really happy about being a frog-leg dinner, I’m that frog. Once I was deep into the possibility of deciding on being an academic, I would have felt irresponsible turning away from something that had such great possibilities for allowing me to achieve my goals for my career and taking care of my family. I had to see it through, and I’ve discovered that seeing it through was a brilliant exercise in learning how I value my own work and my family and how to approach critical decisions. The decision process was painful, but it was right to go through it. The decision itself was somewhat painful, but it was right to make it.
I can empathize with the boiled frog, and the experience was transforming for both of us. I’d like to think that the results for my life will be a spectacular “dinner” made of success.