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In our first lecture in Strategy this week we didn’t kick things off with the Five C’s, the Four P’s, or Porter’s Five Forces, instead we shone the spotlight on ubiquitous pop-star turned movie star turned social do-gooder Madonna.

We discussed how “Madge” built and sustained commercial success over the last three decades thanks to using controversy to establish herself, surrounding herself with the right people to make up for her weaknesses as a performing artist, and reinventing herself to anticipate the needs of her fans. Most importantly, though, Madonna always had a clear vision of who she wants to be: an “icon, artist, provacateur, diva, and mogul”, as her website proclaims.

Now, that might not be everyone’s aim in life but, regardless of your ambitions, I think we can learn a few things from Madonna.

1) You don’t need to be the most talented person to accomplish your goals

  • Madonna certainly doesn’t have the voice of Aretha Franklin, dance moves of Janet Jackson, or songwriting ability of Joni Mitchell, but what she lacked in talent she made up with drive and smarts. She is a notorious workaholic (sleeping an average of four hours a night) and drew on the talents of others to make up for her shortcomings. This takes both ambition and self-awareness which are attributes we can actively develop as opposed to raw talents that we are born with. So regardless of what you want in life, if you work smart and work hard (see Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers for the 10,000-hour rule) your chances of success are likely to be much higher.

2) Having a vision for yourself can go a long way

  • Ever since she was young, Madonna knew that she wanted the “whole world to know who (she) was”. Whether you find this noble or not, Madonna’s creation of and commitment to her vision has made her a household name around the world. In 1977, Madonna moved to New York with $35 in her pocket and worked at Dunkin Donuts to pay her bills while she was moonlighting as a backup singer/dancer. It wasn’t until five years later that she received a recording contract that led to her debut album, Madonna, which ended up selling 10m copies and catapulted her to superstardom. Having a clear vision (for your career or life in general) not only helps us make decisions on how to use our time, money and energy, but it also gives us the resilience to persist through tough times. No matter how certain you are of what you want to do in life, we can all benefit from being a bit more deliberate and creating a strategy that will guide what we do each day of our life. Check out HBR Article “How Will You Measure Your Life?”.

3) It’s easy to be successful in one thing, but harder to do well in everything without compromise

  • In 1987, a year after releasing her third album True Blue which was critically acclaimed and spawned three hit singles,  Madonna filed for divorce with her then husband, Sean Penn. Of her marriage to Penn, Madonna later said, “”I was completely obsessed with my career and not ready to be generous in any shape or form.” Madonna’s focus on a single goal has led to undisputed commercial success, but this is matched by failures in her personal life (most notably her two failed marriages and brief relationship with Vanilla Ice). In truth, this is the outcome of many people who are wildly successful in their professional lives and drills home the point that there’s an opportunity cost to everything. We just need to be straight with ourselves about what we want and what we don’t want, and appreciate that professional achievement should not be confused with personal fulfilment. For more on this check Out Tony Robbins’ TED talk on Why We Do What We Do.

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Although my first term at LBS officially kicks off on September 12, I, along with 405 of my fellow MBA2013
classmates, have already been thrown into the deep end with pre-class reading to do, study group contracts to complete, and campus club presentations to attend.

Three things stand out to me as I prepare to welcome the start of the term:

1) Study groups will be the centrepiece of my first year at LBS

Eight of my first ten days at LBS have been spent largely with my study group, a mosaic of individuals including a Japanese banker, Hungarian management consultant, Peruvian airline operations manager, Danish IT consultant, and a New Zealander lawyer. Up to 40% of our first year marks will be based on our group work so I have a feeling that I’ll be spending a lot of time with these wonderful people.

2) Learning to say “No” will be the key to maintaining a balanced life

With a plethora of opportunities presented to us on a daily basis – from attending club events to joining my classmates for a pint at the Windsor – I recognize that I will need to learn to be disciplined with how I spend my day and not be afraid to say “no”. While I’m keen to experience LBS to the fullest, I also realize that people (i.e. friends, family, and my partner) and personal interests (i.e. cooking and running) that I had prior to LBS are equally important.

3) The friendships made at LBS will be the most fulfilling part of this experience

The first ten days at LBS have flown by and, before I know it, I can see myself at convocation wondering where all the time went. Regardless of what marks I get on the Finance exam, what event I organize for a student club, or what job I end up with after I graduate, I realize that the relationships I build here over the next two years will outlive it all. One of my favourite quotes comes from American ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes who completed 50 marathons in 50 states on 50 consecutive days and said “Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up”. While I am about to set off for a once-in-a-life time journey at LBS, I’m sure that regardless of where I end up at the finish line that I will be able to look back at my time here with few regrets.

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