JJ van de Vyver




South Africa


Management Consulting



By JJ van de Vyver

When you go to Ithaka

As we exchanged influences one chilly Friday afternoon in the Lighthouse, a wise friend on the MBA programme showed me the poem that you will find in this post. It was, and remains, a tremendous gift. A metaphor for life, ‘Ithaka’ (by C.P. Cavafy) also beautifully captures the essence of this wild, winding, wonderful year.

As you set out for Ithaka

hope the voyage is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:

you’ll never find things like that on your way

as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them

unless you bring them along inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Embarking on an MBA is an invitation to venture out into the world, but also an invitation to venture deep into your inner world. In this tiny microcosm of life – filled with incredible people, unexpected turns and endless opportunity – the greatest monsters that you face are always those that you bring with you. Here were the three shadows that I learnt to dance with.

My Laistrygonians came as doubt. Doubt that I deserved to be here (imposter syndrome for days), doubt that I had value to contribute, doubt that I was making the most of my time, doubt that I would find my way. Not having control over this experience, and sitting squarely with long-carried insecurity, can be tremendously unsettling.

My Cyclops came as fear. The MBA offered me an opportunity to break out of the roles I have played for years and to grow into the person I want to become. But letting go of so much familiarity, no matter how dysfunctional, can be really challenging. It means surrendering again and again to what must emerge, and to stop feeding the habits that clip your wings.

My Poseidon came as loneliness. Being far from familiar support structures and surrounded by incredible strangers was extremely isolating at first. You are not yet able to share the highs and lows in the comfort of ripened relationships. You are also discovering all the ways that you are different from your peers. Slowly coming to accept my idiosyncrasies paved the way for authentic connection with others.

Hope the voyage is a long one.

May there be many a summer morning when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you come into harbors seen for the first time;

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,

mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

sensual perfume of every kind—

as many sensual perfumes as you can;

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

The experience has taken me to places I would never have dreamed of. Ask questions, seek hidden corridors and explore with abandon –  you will find what you are looking for. Highlights from the voyage so far include:

  • Walking the streets of Barcelona to relish festive hospitality after successfully winning the Creativity 4 Business Innovation case study competition, where we shared our thinking with FC Barcelona’s Innovation Hub;
  • Exploring the UK with old friends and new, including windy cliff faces, cool winter beaches and the bustling city of London;
  • Snow! Snowflakes drifting gently from the sky was an incredible first for many of the warmer climate students. Too much fun! Also quite cold and wet it turns out…
  • Discovering culture and cuisine in the UAE as part of a group of students invited to participate in the Ministry of Happiness’ groundbreaking conversations at the World Government Summit.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you are destined for.

But do not hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you are old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you have gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Keeping track of your journey’s priorities, and honouring them, is critical as the year goes on. Personally, mine are grouped into three pillars:

  1. Academic excellence – the learning, inside and outside of the classroom, has been incredibly enriching. Oxford offers the flexibility to explore your path, whether that is financial and technical, or interpersonal and philosophical;
  2. Personal development – your MBA year offers an open canvas to reflect on, experiment with and discover who you are and where you are going. Investing deeply in the way that you operate, and trusting that the details will take care of themselves, is certainly working so far;
  3. Relationships – there is perhaps nothing more valuable than the beautiful human beings that the programme has managed to attract. Creating time to cultivate these friendships – many that will already last a lifetime – is an important, deliberate investment.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.

Without her you would not have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

You see, at the beginning it is all about the MBA – what it will mean for your career and your trajectory. However, the longer you spend out here the more you realise that those three letters will never capture how precious this time is. It has been tough. It has been magical. I have seen brilliant highs and engulfing lows. And I am already forever changed.

Indeed, I am coming to understand what these Ithakas mean.

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