Life, Death, and Consulting...

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If you have been following the news, the death of Steve Jobs has been everywhere.

Steve Jobs had an unusually big impact of my life and my parents' lives. You see my parents started one of the very first Apple dealers in my hometown of San Diego, California.

In 1977, Jobs co-invented the first mass market personal computer, called the Apple II. In 1978, my parents started a retail store to sell it.  This was 33 years ago.

As a kid, I worked in almost every job in that business. I did sales. I answered phones. I unpacked boxes. I counted inventory. I fixed computers. I wired network cable through the ceiling (8-year-olds can climb more easily).

In 1984, when the Mac was first introduced, I had one of the first 500 Macs ever made sitting on my family's dining room table. It had this new thing called a word processor with a graphical user interface and fonts. I wrote my first "ransom" note - where every word had a different font face or size.

My family has always followed Jobs from the very early days. So when he died, it really was an end of an era for my family.

In reflecting on Jobs' various speeches and quotes, I came across one of my favorites. Its from a speech he gave at Stanford University Commencement a few years ago.

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking.

Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.

They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

This quote is profoundly wise and particularly appropriate for aspiring and new management consultants. One of the potential risks of working in consulting is: the industry (especially in the top firms) is quite dogmatic.

If we define dogma as living with the results of other's people thinking, the prevailing dogma in consulting is: upward career advancement is a good thing.

In other words, if you are a new consultant at McKinsey, BCG or Bain, consulting dogma says you should want to be a partner at your firm.

It is one thing to be partner because you truly love it. It is another to do it because it's the next most obvious prestigious step.

The same dogmatic rationale applies to aspiring management consultants.

When I was at Stanford, many of the most successful business-oriented students applied to either consulting firms or investment banks. We did so because it was "the thing" to do. The natural next step to a prestigious academic career.

In hindsight with much time to reflect, I've concluded that this dogmatic thinking was absolutely absurd.

The reason everyone applied to the investment banks and consulting firms was because these firms were extremely aggressive in marketing themselves on campus, and conveying the idea that it was the obvious next step.

But having worked in the global economy now for many years, I can assure you our economy consists of more than two industries -- consulting and investment banking.

Yet aside from working in technology, the overwhelming majority of students obsessed over working in two very small industries that likely represent less than 0.01% of the entire global economy.

This is dogma at work -- living with the results of other people's thinking.

It is a very large world out there. The options are truly limitless. And while I will be the first to say working in consulting can be a wonderful step in one's career, it is not the only option, and it is not a good fit for everyone.

For example, if you have enjoyed the case interview process, you will most likely enjoy the day-to-day work that a consultant does. Conversely, if you disliked the case interview process, you will probably dislike the day-to-day work as well.

Pick the path that is right for you -- not the one the others (your friends, your parents, your in-laws) suggest. It is your decision, not anyone else's.

Time in life is very short.

The same week that Steve Jobs died, one of my first small business consulting clients also passed away.

He was 71 years old, and he too died from complications from Pancreatic cancer.  I was exchanging emails with him on a Friday discussing how his treatment was going (and it was going well), and by Monday, he was in and out of coma. Two weeks later, he died.

And in my final conversations with him before he died, do you know what we talked about?

We did not talk about jobs, promotions, career accomplishments.

We talked about two things:

1) the people who he was worried about (his wife, kids, and grandkids),

and

2) the things he always wanted to do in life... but was now running out of time to do.

To use his words: "I'm getting taken off the playing field before I'm done playing."

The tragedy of the situation is he ended his life on earth with his "lifetime to-do list" incomplete. And most of those "to do" items left undone were things to benefit the people around him.

In the end, he simply ran out of time.

Don't run out of time in your life. Decide what it is that you want to do with the time you've been given.

In the final days of each of our lives, the only standard we will use to evaluate our life is our own. Dogma pretty much goes out of the window when you only have a few days left. You have the benefit of much more time, don't waste it living someone else's life.

Live your own. Choose wisely.

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11 comments… add one
  • Damien Low Oct 11, 2011, 8:27 pm

    Dear Victor,
    I just wanted to thank you for the materials available on your website.
    Your introductory videos, and most importantly your LOMS recordings, were invaluable in preparation.
    I’m elated to report I recently received and accepted an offer from a Tier 1 firm, with the feedback I received paying special notice of how structured I was, and the clarity of my synthesis and hypotheses.
    I could not have achieved this result without your materials, or the many hours I spent listening to them over and over again. Your advice in this regard is absolutely true as I found the lessons contained in LOMS became more and more engrained in my thinking the more I listened to them and practised the techniques in live practice cases.
    Kind regards,
    Damien

  • Semper Eruditio Oct 12, 2011, 1:11 am

    Hey Victor, I wanted to thank you for posting this entry.

    I am really at a crossroads right now, trying to decide between taking an offer for a general leadership rotational program with a fortune 100 company, continuing to pursue management consulting (round 1 with a top firm in the near future), or going to grad school.

    Your perspective is helping me to focus on what exactly it us that I want, and what actually matters.

    Thanks

  • Hung Vu Oct 12, 2011, 7:46 pm

    Hi Victor,

    Excellent article. Make me think about my life to-do-list
    Keep blogging!
    Cheers,
    Huung

  • victor Oct 12, 2011, 7:54 pm

    Damien, Semper, and Hung,

    You’re all wife welcome.

    Damien – congrats on the tier 1 job offer.

    Semper – it often takes deep introspection to figure out what you want, but it is MUCH easier to do this early in your career than late. I know people in there the 50+ year old age bracket and it is even harder to walk away from a profession that you are successful, but miserable in. Far better to avoid it in the first place.

  • Darwin Oct 31, 2011, 3:30 am

    Dear Victor,

    Excellent article, I am in my final year and everything seems to be running wild around me. Actually I didn’t pass some of the consulting firms that I applied to. But after reading your article, it seems like I was taken by the dogma. You made me realize that the options are vast and wide. 🙂 Thanks.

    Cheers,

  • Alexey Oct 19, 2012, 6:42 am

    Dear Victor,

    Your article has made an impression on me, but also many questions that boil down to one. I agree that you should better listen to your inner voice, not other’s opinions. But what if your inner voice is formed by the opinions of others and the environment around? What if tomorrow I won’t do what other people are telling me, won’t go to work, I cannot stand, will not seek to stereotypical work wear for the sake of money, without whom I probably would die of hunger. I can’t articulate what I want to be. It seems to me all the time I want to know the views of other people, to keep up with them. It turns out I need this dogma. On the other hand, I take a different position. I can say that all that I deserve – I got due to the fact that listening to my inner voice. Probably what is now happening to me – and this is what I want. It all depends on how I will react to it. I can say that I am listening to my inner voice if everything is ok, I can say that everything is bad, because I listen to others. So which position you think is correct?
    By the way I finished the MS of Moscow Institute of physics and technology, 3 years work on optimization of business processes and consulting. Now I hope to join McKinsey, because I think it would be perfect for me, surrounding people do not believe that I can, and my inner voice just wants me not to get up early in the morning.
    Regards,
    Alexey Lyapidevskiy

    • Victor Cheng Oct 19, 2012, 1:14 pm

      Alexey,

      In general, if you ask your inner voice what it wants and you find you have no inner voice, it often means you’ve become so accustomed for so long in listening to others that you never developed an inner voice.

      It is not possible (in my opinion) to create an inner voice overnight. But, you can start the long process of giving it the room to grow by continuing to ask yourself, forgetting everything else what do you want?

      Even if you don’t get an answer, get in the habit of ask yourself and over time you will get an answer.

      Sometimes, rephrasing the question helps. If your inner voice doesn’t know what it wants, you might ask what does it NOT want… and infer or back into what’s left.

      If your inner voice says, do not get out of bed in the morning, medical and mental health issues aside, it often means you’re not excited by what you’re supposed to be doing AFTER getting out of bed.

      I have to drag my oldest daughter out of bed for school some days, but if we are going to Disneyland or something fun like that, trust me she is dragging me out of bed.

      One thing that is very useful to do in situation like yours is DIVERSITY of EXPOSURE. So if you don’t know what you want, go see what lots of very different people are doing.

      One of the best things my mother ever did was she put me in a fun summer school program one year. Instead of taking math, english and history classes. It was all fun stuff.

      I took classes on building electronic devices, architecture, photography, amateur radio, and a whole bunch of unusual topics that all happened to correlate with different professions.

      Now I didn’t end up pursuing any of those fields as I got older, but I had a sense of what I was saying “no” to. I also had a sense of what my options were. And because of this exposure, I was always curious what other people were up to — so I sought out broader experiences which in turn broadened my perspective.

      These are good “inputs” to your inner voice.

      For example, my oldest daughter mentioned one day she wanted to be a surgeon. So I allowed her to watch videos of orthopedic surgeries on YouTube.

      She then concluded she no longer wanted to be a surgeon because it was too gross. In her words, being a surgeon is like being the person who cleans out portable toilets… in both cases you’re handling the gross stuff that leaks out of human beings.

      She decided neither cleaning toilets or surgery were interesting to her. I figure my job isn’t to judge (though I do a laugh out of some her insights and rationale) but to keep putting new things in front of her. I figure if I do this over enough time, that inner voice of her gets stronger.

      As adults, we can do the same thing for ourselves. Read magazines you don’t normally read. Go learn about professions and fields that you don’t normally get exposed to, etc…

      -Victor

      • Alexey Oct 22, 2012, 5:22 am

        Dear Victor,

        Thank you for reply. It has produced a pool of questions.
        My inner voice responds that he also would prefer wondering all try, but where to get the funds for these benefits? Is it possible to combine internal voices and desire to earn, without stepping on the «throat of your own song»?
        Why do you discuss with your daughter, if it would be nice to touch the innards of other people, not its financial perspectives of the future surgeon? Yes, you have to touch the bodies, but this profession is reputable and well paid. Whether it’s my will, I would not have walked on my work, but what I will have? And where to take the time to search for new sensations and professions if I should give away from 40 hours a week to live?
        I think that would have been very happy being a professional soccer player. But my parents told me that this is just a hobby, it’s not in their view to earn enough. Yes, it’s a stereotype, and it always hurts me when I learn that my peers are earning more than me. The dream of a professional sport died in the surrounding social context. Now I can be as I will be going to the games of his son, and how I’ll relive when he would play.
        I graduated from the Institute of physics and technology, but I don’t want to deal with physics and mathematics. On the other hand, I have a proposal to continue my studies and get a PhD in America or Canada, to stay there or come back and use education to earn more. So if I haven’t forced myself to have 8 years to deal with this nonsense, I would not have had such opportunities. Ability to move to other countries.
        To summarize, the environment tells us: « Put your inner voice with his desire to go to hell and go work, weakling. »
        But what if we have enough money to try everything?
        Now let’s do the experiment. What if your daughter now have to go to Disneyland every day in 08:00 and sometimes in school. You won’t believe where she will gladly get up! Just Disneyland it nothing to learn, so she has to go to school – stopping her inner voice. Besides entertainment quickly bored, always want more, and you can maximize and realize that there is no meaning in this. Ending with a good poetry by Goethe:
        «Poor devil! What have you to give?
        Was any human spirit, struggling to ascend,
        Such as your sort could ever comprehend?
        Still, have you food on which no man can live?
        Have you red gold that runs through, without rest,
        Quicksilver-like, the hand it’s in?
        A game at which men never win?
        A maiden who while on my breast
        Will with my neighbour ogle and conspire?
        The joys divine of honour, once possessed,
        Which vanish like a meteor’s fire?
        Show me the fruit which, ere it’s plucked, will rot,
        And trees that every day grow green anew!»

        Regards, Alexey

        • Victor Cheng Oct 23, 2012, 2:19 pm

          Alexey,

          I think you may be thinking too much in black and white terms. It is quite common to love doing one thing (that doesn’t earn much money), but also be good at something that is more financially lucrative (that you don’t enjoy as much).

          In situations like this, you might consider a portfolio approach. The musician who plays music in a band at night, but during the day works as an accountant. That is one option. The other is to just go for it and accept the near term or perhaps permanent financial tradeoff.

          The kind of person who reads this blog generally has enough talent that they are unlikely to die from starvation.

          Another factor is to consider your fallback position. If you stop pursuing Y to pursue X, do you have the option to come back to Y later without great consequence?

          A lifetime is in most cases a very, very long time. Being miserable (not saying you are, just speaking in the general) for the next 50 years is well a pretty tough road — even if it is profitable.

          Finally, I find people who are unhappy in a particular field tend to perform poorly. So even if the field itself is very lucrative, if you don’t enjoy it you’re not going to do very well over the long term.

          It is not that hard to be among the best in the world at something. Most people are completely unwilling to put in the time and effort. A good book to read on this is the book “Outlier”.

          -Victor

  • dude_in_consulting Jun 4, 2013, 6:43 pm

    Victor,

    Your article is one that hits home when work has led to me in googling “being worked to death in management consulting”

    What is your general view on being in a big4/top3 type of firm for 1 vs. 2 years in terms of exit opportunity and career acceleration?

    Thanks (at the one year mark currently)

    • Victor Cheng Jun 5, 2013, 8:34 am

      To oversimplify, exiting at the one year mark raises some questions as to why you are leaving. The types of opportunities are similar, but it causes the new employer some doubt. The most successful transitions I’ve seen are transitions into different fields. It’s the consultant who becomes the investment banks after they realize consulting is not for them, that kind of thing. Switching from one consulting firm to another (without do engraving prestige level) is less common as the issues that cause someone to be unhappy at one firm might also exist at the new firm… At least that’s what the new employer assumes.

      Victor

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