To business school, on the run

Somewhere today I'm talking at a bunch of strangers from a big screen.

Somehow I let Daphne con me into being one of her examples of the younger aerospace workforce. So, she's there in Pasadena, leading a panel of other, happier aerospace people as they talk about Aviation Week's recent workforce study that says people with 0 to 5 years of experience are bailing on the industry. Me, I'm sitting in Massachusetts, but Daphne was wily enough to get me to answer a few questions on video, which will be projected on a screen to make my head seem way bigger than it really is. Here's hoping for a faulty projector.

I'm not sure if I'm a good representative for her group anyway. Or maybe I am. In fact, I might be the best representative because I know some of the folks on the panel, and they're all, like, really super-excited to be there in aerospace. If any one of them were to say something negative about the industry, oh my, they'd probably have to turn in their space cadet badges at the door. If I would have been there, well... I would have gotten in a few good lines that might have been... well, let's say that I'm not looking for current unemployment or future unemployability. Or I might have turned out like Peter Gibbons, promoted for my willful insubordination. I already have eight bosses, why not tell the Bobs what I think?

I'm not sure what I would have told them. There's a fine line between telling them a different point of view and huddling in the warmth of a few bridge fires. I know some people in that crowd. I like the mutual respect we have. I probably would have told them exactly what they wanted to hear: don't worry, everything's fine.

In the meantime: I'm in their target 0 to 5 year span and, though I haven't bailed yet, I'm clearing that trail. There are some fine suggestions in the Aviation Week report (not sure if I can link to it yet) about retaining the younger workforce. I've got an eye on the exit because the industry isn't what I thought it was when I chose aerospace as a major over a decade ago. There's a difference between what I thought I wanted, and what is.

Everyone's afraid of their own life
If you could be anything you wanted, I bet you'd be disappointed, am I right?

That's the opening of "Lives" by Modest Mouse, off of The Moon & Antarctica. I've had this album on repeat in my car for about a week now. This line is right on for me. So I repeat it. And I repeat it. And so on.

What that bit from Modest Mouse says, to me -- and I'm sure I'm taking some liberties with their intention -- is that we tend to make ill-informed decisions about what we think is important to us, then we trudge forward unabated. There's no stopping to consider if it's the right direction. It says to me that we're afraid of making choices -- and because we didn't know any better, what we chose wasn't as good as we thought it was going to be. Of course it's disappointing to press forward on the current trajectory and find it doesn't end in a big flourish like we thought.

And that's where I am right now. I'm reconsidering the expectations of an 18 year old. Hey, it's ten years gone, but better late than never. I hope.

I'm comfortable these days. I work in a big, stable company. I'm paid well, I live in an interesting part of the country. I'm lucky to work with people I like. (Don't underestimate this last point.) But, damn, how long has it been since I've had to think hard or work hard or struggle at anything at work? It's been a long time -- not since I worked at Orbital, trying to crank out the jettison motor requirements on time.

(Professionally, there is rarely a day that goes by that I don't regret leaving my job at Orbital. Financially, though, it has worked out: the DC suburbs were an expensive place to get started after grad school and a summer in France.)

It's been a constant state of coasting for over a year now. I just... I just can't do that. I don't have it in me to work easy. And when you're comfortable and things are easy, the next stop on that train is complacency. I'm not lazy. I'm getting my work done. But the work is easy. It's nothing like the clawing and scraping of four years of undergrad and two years of grad school in aerospace engineering. Senior design wasn't difficult, but thanks to the mutual competition from other design teams, we worked our asses off to design a system we were proud of. The combustion homework in my last semester of grad school was like a four-month long series of kicks to the solar plexus. Maybe I was just stupid and it wasn't that hard for everyone else.

(On this last point, it's probably true: math was my worst subject and I have no idea what I was thinking when I got into engineering. I mean, my scores were good, but I'm surely one of the only students that ever got into the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois with better ACT scores on English and Reading than on Science and Math. On one hand, 18 Year Old Me was really bad at picking a career based on my strengths. On the other hand, by the time I got to MATH 285 Differential Equations, I was on the top side of the curve.)

The real world -- my real world, at least -- has been only a scale model of my expected world. Aerospace was supposed to be a tough, high-flying (pun, zing), challenging affair, but it's been mostly a bureaucratic snooze so far. It's not like that for everyone, sure. If you want to make me crazy, that's how you do it: don't challenge me. That's not to be confused with impatience. I've spent hundreds and hundreds of hours working on details so slow and arcane and exacting -- woodworking, stitching panoramas, reading, writing, etc. -- that you'd die of boredom if you watched me work. But I need something to work on. I get jealous reading about people that own their own businesses, the way they talk about having a reason to get up and start working in the morning. I'd like to have a reason to jump out of bed, too.

Whine, whine, whine, OK. If you know me, you know I get to work when I get worked up about something. I have an evil plan or two up my sleeve, but that's none of your business for now. I've got no solution but now I've finally got some momentum to get out of this rut.

Four weeks ago, I spontaneously ran a 5 km race in Lowell. They were setting up the race right next to my apartment when I got home from work. Why not? It was an awful race. I wasn't in shape for it, but I had been meaning to get in shape. (Have you heard that one before?) I was aiming for sub-20:00. I finished in 20:48, which is maybe my slowest time ever, but I did it on just a handful of kilometers of running a week. If I was in that shape without really training... and my body didn't fall apart in the race... what would happen if...

That was the turning point.

That's all it took. I had a challenge. It had nothing to do with my day-to-day life, but it was movement. One of the things I learned from hiking in the mountains in the Mojave is that the route to the top of the mountain isn't a straight, continuously upward line. Sometimes you have to go down to go up, sometimes you have to aim away from the peak to get there. Concentrating on racing was a step in a different direction. Now I'm planning, preparing, and executing: beat 20:00 in the 5 km on 27 September, and beat 19:00 on 25 October. I've been getting after it: every week I'm on the road four days, on the track one day, in the weight room two or three days.

What I really want isn't to get faster. That's auxiliary. That's just the waypoint on the trail to the peak. I could walk away from running, but running has been dragging the rest of my ambitions up and out of their ruts. Running is a sort of demonstration to the rest of my life that there can be a correlation between effort and reward.

And that's where this story turns to business school.

OK, now, everyone laugh: I'm studying for the GMAT exam. Now shut up. I've heard from enough people that I don't need to study for this that I don't bother telling anyone about it anymore. I know I don't need to study. I took the GRE to get into grad school. I want to study. I'm not looking to go to a business school, I want to go all the way: Harvard, Penn, Chicago, you name it. For the last few years I've accepted whatever has come down the road, but I'm in charge now, I'm taking what I want.

Every day since that race, with only one or two exceptions, I've sat down for one or two hours and run through GMAT practice questions. Over and over. Repeat it. And repeat it. And so on. It's not so bad. (It's driving me crazy.) Apparently, once you get discipline down in one aspect of life, it's easier to take that and apply it elsewhere.

That's what running means to me these days. And what does business school mean to me? That's my lever. I'm sure I don't need that either, but I want it. I subjugated what I was good at -- leadership, organization, etc. -- to chase after what I thought I wanted: a place in the space cadet cult. It was disappointing. I'm still interested in aerospace, but I'm going to take it on my own terms.

The GMAT is this Saturday. Then comes the applications. Then comes the wait. I'm not there yet, but it feels good to be moving again. It's a start. It sure beats standing still.

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