Mark Zuckerberg's advice for MBA applications

Facebook CEO and noted dropout Mark Zuckerberg gave the commencement address at Harvard’s graduation this year, and he left the graduates with an important nugget of advice for applying to business school. If you weren’t paying close attention, you may have missed it.

Here is the full video. The quote in question comes right after 6:00:

Here is the quote:

One of my favorite stories is when John F. Kennedy visited the NASA space center, he saw a janitor carrying a broom and he walked over and asked what he was doing. The janitor responded: “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon”.

What did the Janitor do in his reply to strike a chord with the President? In a word, he offered a purpose for his work.

Say one of the Janitor’s Window Cleaner peers applied to business school. If we were on the admissions committee and came across his resume, we might see lines such as “expertly cleaned all glass surfaces with 10% fewer streaks and peers” or “implemented new harness safety program, dramatically reducing falls.” 

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Now let’s consider the Janitor. What might his business school resume say? Maybe, “Enabled the success of the moon-landing by providing clutter-free work spaces that enabled calm, decisive mission management” or, “Aided the President’s key national priority by maintaining safe, clean, and functional work spaces that top engineering talent would want to work in.”

Why do we find the second resume more compelling even though they have similar performance in similar jobs? In the first case, the Window Cleaner demonstrates an achievement-orientation and a desire to do his job better than others, but his impact starts and ends with himself. His resume explains why he is a better worker, but it does not explain why we should root for him to be successful. We never learn why we should care about how well he does his job. Meanwhile the Janitor, much like the Third Stone Cutter in an earlier blog post (check it out if you have the time), extends his impact outside of himself. In doing so, he creates a cause -- a vision, a meaning, a mission --- big enough for all of us to root for. The purpose of his work is clear and all of us can feel a part of it.

When we help clients craft their admissions essays, we never lose sight of the fact that Admissions Committees are made up of people who find meaning in their work by believing that it matters on a global scale who they decide to extend offers of admission. Whether at undergraduate colleges or MBA programs, all Admissions Committees want to give those spots to the people they believe will make the most of them. The surest way to make that argument in your application is to clearly explain not only the nature of your work, but its purpose as well. 

What Stonecutters know about writing a compelling MBA admissions essay

Harvard is home to a famous allegory often attributed to the late management guru Peter Drucker. The fable initially came to my attention from an address Harvard University President Drew Faust made in 2008 on the future of business education. It is The Parable of the Three Stone Cutters and while many versions of it exist, this one is mine:

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The Parable of the Three Stone Cutters

A rich nobleman was on a journey far away from home, when he encountered three laborers toiling away in the quarry by the side of the road. When his caravan stopped for a rest, he called out to them and asked each what he was doing.

The first rested his arm on his pick, wiped the sweat from his brow, and replied, 'I’m making a living – as honestly as I can.'

The second stood tall, puffed out his chest and replied, 'I’m working hard to become the best stone cutter in all these lands.'

The third barely looked up, instead pointing a finger skyward. 'I’m building a cathedral.'

The question that often follows this parable is which of the three stone cutters is the most compelling? Let’s put it another way. If you were an MBA admissions director and had one final spot in your class for a stone cutter, who would you admit? Are they all the same, or do their answers reveal something important about their work and motivations? Let’s examine them in turn.

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The First Stone Cutter is transactional. He is providing for his family and the nature of his work is ancillary. He provides no reason as to why he is a stone cutter instead of some other profession. Maybe his true calling was to be a brick layer. He doesn’t bring any passion to his description of his work and so we’re not that excited about it either. If we were to consider his future, what would we expect his next career move to be? We really have no idea. His vision offers no roadmap of where he’s been and where he is going. We really know nothing about him.

The Second Stone Cutter is professional. He is motivated to become the best version of himself. With confidence, we may assume that his current job is a necessary step on his path to become a better stone cutter. We can imagine a set of follow-on jobs – surveyor, foreman, architect – that he may pursue once he has learned everything he can at his current job. Sure, stone cutting may not be that interesting to us, but we can admire someone’s dedication to their chosen profession. Yet somehow his story is still lacking. His vision starts and ends with himself. He sounds like he is gliding through the world, not improving it. He offers no “cause” that we can be behind if we were inclined to support him, except perhaps a scholarship for stone cutter school.

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The third stone cutter is aspirational. He tells us nothing about his specific work or how he came to pursue it, yet we understand him instinctively. We know why he is doing what he is doing and have a clear road map of where we think he will go. He offers a mission that is audacious, concrete, and larger than himself. It’s a vision we can root for and one large enough for us to imagine concrete ways of helping.

What makes the Third Stone Cutter so much more compelling than the other two is his narrative. Though he may be engaged in the small work of cutting a single stone, he vividly shows us how it fits into a greater mission. His purpose in life has shocking clarity. In our hearts, he is so much more than just a stone cutter. He is a “cathedral builder”.

Now, think about how you can apply this parable in your MBA application. How can you become the Third Stone Cutter?