Michael Tefula




United Kingdom





By Michael Tefula

5 Unusual Bits of Advice for Curiosity-Driven MBA Students

They say curiosity killed the cat. The truth is it didn’t. The real culprits were care and too much worry. Those are the things that killed the beloved furry mammal some 400 years ago. However the original proverb, ‘care killed the cat’, conceded to ‘curiosity killed the cat’ because the latter version had an irresistible ring to it. It was also a great way of preventing people from asking uncomfortable questions. But as we embark on what will be a very challenging and exciting year at Saïd Business School, I can’t help but be reminded that it was curiosity that got many of us here. Worrying whether we were good enough to apply and caring too much about what other people thought about our decision to return to school didn’t get us here. Curiosity did. The urge to understand business and its impact on the world is what continues to drive many of us. And with that in mind, here are five unusual bits of advice to help curiosity-driven MBA students thrive in a world of uncertainty.

1. Close Some Doors (And Say No To More)

A frequent concern I’ve heard from past and current MBA students is FOMO – the fear of missing out. With so many activities on campus, and all the doors an MBA from Oxford can open, it’s tempting to peruse all the possibilities. But such exploration needs a caveat: keeping options open blunts efforts; closing doors sharpens focus. So as painful as it may be, we must willingly shut some doors if we hope to be effective in our pursuits. This means that while I may try a few improv classes to work on my public speaking skills, I won’t sign up for the coffee lover’s society or every other shiny thing that comes my way. An aspiring leader must do what good leaders do: know when to say no.

2. Seek Opposing Views (And Taper Echo Chambers)

The UK’s EU referendum taught me something I was completely oblivious to. Virtually all my friends supported one side (the Remain camp) and I was living in an echo chamber that reinforced views rather than challenged them. Such an environment can breed narrow-mindedness and misunderstanding. It’s why the Remain camp all too often labelled Brexiters dumb and racist, and why the Brexiters frequently labelled Remainers unpatriotic and elitist. Both sides were intolerant towards each other and the result was a divided nation. To counter such tropes we should seek out opposing views with the aim of understanding them better. And to achieve that we must learn how to listen when we disagree. Thankfully Oxford is home to one of the best debating societies in the world and though you won’t find me on a debate team (see point 1), I believe it’s a good idea to really listen to the opposition wherever you can.

3. Ignore Your Passions (And Follow Your Success)

When I was 12 years old I dreamt of playing basketball in the NBA. But if we met at the courts you’d quickly realise that I had neither the height nor the talent to play professionally. Today I know for sure that if I followed my NBA passion I would have ended up disappointed or even worse, disillusioned (like some of these poor X-factor contestants.) ‘Follow your passion’ without any restriction is just bad advice. So as we consider our post-MBA options, it’s prudent to reflect on where we have succeeded in the past and whether we can double down on that success. One related lesson I took from a diverse career in my twenties (which spans Accountant, Web Developer, Restaurateur, Author, and Junior Venture Capitalist) is that you are better off following your successes. This is because you can forge passion in almost anything. You just need to work hard to become so good at something that with some luck, success becomes inevitable. Passion doesn’t have to come first. It can develop when you start to succeed at something. And if that was the case for Steve Jobs (who was initially passionate about Zen Buddhism but eventually grew more passionate about a venture that achieved spectacular growth), why can’t it be the case for you?

4. Have Strong Opinions (And Hold Them Weakly)

I have a quirk that sometimes works against me. I always try to see things from several perspectives and most curious people do too. Like the ancient Greeks who quipped, “nothing too much” and “moderation is best”, it’s comforting to seek out all the pros and cons of an issue before taking a position. This method works well in a world with perfect information and unlimited time. However in business there are no such privileges. Attempting to take a balanced and fully informed view is impossible. You can’t wait for all the right information to become available so you can take a nuanced position. This approach mutes conviction. So effective leaders do things a little differently. They seek out the most relevant information if possible, and quickly complement it with instinct in order to act swiftly. Not only that, but they keep an eye out for contradictory evidence and are open to changing positions should their assumptions be falsified. That’s how you form strong opinions weakly held. It’s far from balanced but it saves you from paralysis by analysis. With that said, I maintain that the Greeks were right about seeking balance in a few other areas, one of which involves your appetite, but I dare not turn that into a pun.

5. Question All Wisdom (And Make Sure This Blog Post is No Exception)

The MBA is a fantastic opportunity for personal growth and education. However, this doesn’t mean that everything we will learn can’t be questioned. Conventional wisdom deserves to be challenged too. For instance, we shouldn’t be afraid to debate that monopolies are good; or that celebrating failure as a path to success is problematic; or even that capitalism, as we know it, may not be good at creating jobs. Such views go against the grain but they are worth considering (and questioning!) And even when we find that we all agree on something, it’s good to find people who don’t (see point 2). These naysayers, as the English Philosopher Stuart Mill once wrote, can help us articulate and remember our arguments for something. For without an opposition we end up forgetting our reasons for a belief and revert to dogma.

And there you have it – five simple but unusual bits of advice to help the most curious students navigate the MBA and the uncertain world that awaits us.

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  • Rohit Kumar

    Brilliant read and good advice, Michael.

    • Michael

      Thanks for the read @rohitkumarx:disqus!

  • Maximillian Pullen

    Thank you for sharing Michael. Out of interest, which doors have you kept open in your MBA time?

    • Michael

      @maximillianpullen:disqus sorry i saw this like one year late since I wrote the blog. but a door I kept very open during my MBA was related to opportunities in the investment industry.

  • Ehui Osei-Mensah

    Excellent read Michael!!

  • Tiffany

    Michael–great read. I’m finishing my diploma in Org Leadership at Said and currently sitting in the Skoll club room working on MBA essays. This was full of rich reminders and timeless wisdom, especially about the nature of discourse and debate. Have taken down several notes from your words, including “closing doors sharpens focus.” Looking forward to reading more of your writing as you go through the MBA program.

  • Tara Stephenson

    Hey Michael! Love the read… To the point and great advice! Made some notes. But may I practice some and disagree. I wanted to challenge the idea of success verses passion. I think it can be dangerous if we make an hierarchy out of these two words. First, we all have a different definition of success and second passion doesn’t = unrealistic. I think it is wise to see where success has lead us and to potentially double down but that could lead to 30+year career in something we don’t have passion for. I know too many people that have followed success over passion and have found themselves regretting and to the core…unhappy. Of course this is not in every case, but I think passion and success are more like friends sitting across from each other have a great chat and not one a king and the other a pauper. Keep writing…great stuff.

    • Michael

      @tarastephenson:disqus that’s a really good point. there are definitely people who end up succeeding in things that don’t reward them spiritually. so i like your analogy of the two friends sitting across from each other. indeed they can, and do, influence each other. hopefully harmoniously!