5. Don’t leave before you leave (or, my advice to 2+2ers)*

(Again, cross posted from my personal blog, here).

I wrote this essay specifically about the 2+2, because it has impacted me the most. While I haven’t experienced it in another situation, this could be true of anytime you know you’re going to a grad program, moving, changing jobs, etc.

Sheryl Sandberg gives fantastic career advice. Admittedly, I’ve only ever watched two talks, but both were great. In one, she pointed out three things women should to help equalize career gaps. One of those three was “don’t leave before you leave.” By “don’t leave before you leave” she explained that you shouldn’t “off-ramp” your career. Unless you’re actually on parental leave, you shouldn’t start preparing for parental leave, or stop seeking new opportunities, or giving up things too fast. Unless you are actually stopping work to have children, you should keep achieving at the same high level as always. Her main point was that you don’t actually know what you’ll want until you get there- and if you’ve already made your career less excellent by off-ramping, you’ll be even less likely to want to stay. It’s like you’re giving up on your career before there was event a choice to be made.

For some reason, that particular statement stuck with me.  I’d walk around work, and whenever I was feeling frustrated “don’t leave before you leave” floated through my mind, and I’d buckle down to get back on whatever arduous task was bothering me. Yes, for anyone who knows me, that’s probably baffling. I’ve never had any desire to stay at home once I have children, and I’m not planning on having children anytime soon. It wouldn’t really be what you’d expect me to remember from that talk. I might not feel exactly the same way when I’m 28-30, but I can cross that bridge when I come to it. So why did that point stick with me?

“Don’t leave before you leave” doesn’t only apply to having children. It applies to any situation where you might be considering making a change. Maybe you know you’ll need to move cities, and find a new job. Maybe you don’t like your job, and you’re looking for a new one.  Anytime you’re considering leaving a career, it’s easier to say “oh… well I won’t be here to deal with the repercussions of this.” The scarier part is that it’s not even just for children – it’s true for all of life.

When I moved to Seattle, I already knew I was leaving to go back to Boston for business school. I briefly considered only subletting apartments so I’d never have to find  a real one. i considered not buying any furniture, dishes, or really anything. I figured two years wasn’t long. I could totally live on an air mattress from two years. I even briefly considered not making any friends, because I was leaving anyway. I could just work all day, every day, for the two years. I was afraid of having to leave a life I actually liked, so I decided the solution was just not to make a life. Luckily, I came to my senses on that particular front, and now have a lovely home with three great friends, furniture, nice kitchen equipment, and basically anything I could need.

Oddly, I didn’t apply the same logic to work (priorities?) I knew I was leaving. I told everyone around me, and often people asked me “well, then, if you know you’re leaving, how do you stay motivated? how do you think about work differently?”  It hadn’t really even occurred to me that I wouldn’t take my career seriously, until people asked. I’d always just assumed i was staying for two years, and doing work, and that was that. I had after all, moved to Seattle to work. My career wasn’t what I was going to leave too early.

So keep in mind that “don’t leave before you leave” doesn’t just apply to work. It applies to your life. Live your life knowing that things change quickly, and in two years things might not be the same. Put your all in at your job, but also keep your eyes open and change jobs when it’s worth it. Join groups in the community, explore other possible careers, and make friends.

The 2+2 affords you a very great opportunity to take risks. In two (or three) years, you get a full reset. You can take advantage of this – it would be okay if I had a startup and failed, because I’d get a reset. But the same knowledge could also make you not even try the startup, because you know you’d only have two years to dedicate to it. The advantage of being able to take risks can be very easily outweighed by the knowledge that you’re leaving. It’s scary to invest when you know you’re leaving, and it doesn’t always make you make the right decisions or take the right risks.

So go for the 2+2 – but forget that you’re part of it. Be pleasantly surprised in two years when you realize you can go to school, and only go if it’s the right choice for you. When you’re starting, don’t think of yourself as leaving in two years- you’ll be too tempted to leave before you leave.

* For those of you who don’t know, I’m part of the Harvard Business School 2+2 program. You apply to enter the program before your senior year of college (it’s changed a little now, but that’s how it was for me), and find out if you’re admitted by September. You finish your last year of school, work for two years (doing basically whatever you want), and then do the standard full-time HBS MBA, with all the regular admits. For those of you keeping track at home, this would mean I would typically start next fall. Based on my life right now, I chose to defer an additional year, and will be starting in the Fall of 2013.


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