I’ve been recently thinking a lot about ideals: the ideal job, the ideal girlfriend, the ideal New York City apartment*. Before I get too emo or abstract, I should state that I’m a bit skeptical of Platonic conceptions, of the Gatsby variety (discussed on Various Provocations blog, excerpted on Google Books). I’ll explain in the same manner as I often like to do; I’ll try to weave together a number of otherwise disparate anecdotes. However, the overarching idea here is: it’s hard to cling to a Platonic ideal, and when you do, it can be dangerous to your end goal.
My first example came from the Mother’s Day dinner my dad and I jointly prepared. I should rephrase that to accurately reflect that I only contributed for the dessert portion of this, but I’d like to think my efforts were respectable. We had a delicious miso Chilean sea bass (fresh fish from here) as well as two desserts: a strawberry shortcake and an orange bundt cake. (This parenthetical is a big tangent, but a worthwhile one: for those of you who are in NYC, I could not more strongly recommend the monthly cake special from Benoit, Alain Ducasse’s midtown bistro. It’s either $20 or $25, with something different each month and each one has been spectacular. We’ve had every month’s since it started in late ’09 and not only are they a steal, but they’re beautiful, and delicious — we’ve seen pumpkin pies, bouches de Noëls, coconut-chocolate ganaches, etc. This month’s was a strawberry shortcake with a very delicate pistachio filling and a thin layer of meringue on top. Fabulous. As for the bundt cake, I actually made that from scratch, see pics here and here, and that was my total contribution to the dinner preparation. It should be noted, however, that my dessert was just as popular as the Benoit cake.).
Anyhow, we had these two desserts. And when the inevitable question of comparison came up, the issue was phrased as a comparison not of each implementation — this strawberry shortcake versus this pound cake — but of their respective Platonic conceptions. Which do you prefer, the world’s best strawberry shortcake or the world’s best orange bundt cake? Earlier in the meal, we ran across a similar problem (this is a family that likes food). When discussing the Peking duck at previous night’s dinner at Chinatown Brasserie, we asked which was preferable when eating 北京烤鸭: the Platonic thin, pancake/tortilla-like wrapper or the Platonic conception of the white, fluffy bao?
Fair questions, both. Except my uncle pointed out: seeing the world via a binary (or even ternary) lens was inherently limiting: perhaps there is a cake out there which combines the wonders of strawberry flavor, layered whipped cream, with the satisfying weightiness of the pound cake. (Actually, that sounds pretty good.). What about a wrapper, a vehicle for the Peking duck which allowed for the best of the thin wrapping and the flavor-absorbing bao? By pigeonholing yourself, or either of these food dilemmas, into an “either…or” version of the ideal, you miss out entirely on the possibility of a delicious hybrid!
My second example is from the first line of this piece. I have been apartment hunting, and while I knew who my roommates would be (Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum) we didn’t have an apartment squared away until recently. It was tough, New York real estate is a tricky business, and dealing with brokers can be no fun. There are plenty of fun neighborhoods we liked, but we also wanted to be sure we had a space we liked that was commutable for the three of us. Anyhow, I think we each had in our heads the “perfect apartment.” The apartment in my head was more than just an aspirational, it was a really nice place: plenty of light, too much space, 2.0 bathrooms, marble countertops, super convenient location…I may be a bit hyperbolic here but I had a Platonic conception of the ideal apartment. So did my roommates. And in a real estate world where inventory flies off the shelves faster than Ben & Jerry’s in a heatwave, we acted quickly on an apartment which I’m sure fits in none of our combined Platonic conceptions of a place. The location can’t be beat, and it has a large living room space to entertain. It’ll be home. And we’ll make it a great home. It took us, all of us, to realize how to temper our expectations and put aside whatever ideals we had in our heads.
Now, I don’t have an MBA. And I don’t (currently) run a start-up. So I’m uniquely unqualified to tackle the issue of whether an MBA is a plus or a minus in the start-up world. But I’m going to try and answer, and propose what I think is the best solution. (Hint: it relates to the Platonic form I’ve been writing about so far.).
On the one hand, you have Guy Kawasaki, who proclaimed on Twitter that the MBA was not only of no utility to him as an entrepreneur, but in fact it was a negative. (I’m not sure if I’d even entertain that thought…I can understand an MBA being of no positive value, but it’s a different thing entirely to say that it has actively hurt him as a Silicon Valley fixture). On the other hand, you have Vivek Wadwa defending the MBA as “the best investment I’ve ever made.”
Wadwa, who has various appointments at Cal, Duke and Harvard, summarizes Guy’s thoughts as follows:
Kawasaki explained that his issue with MBAs is that they are “taught that the hard part is the analysis and coming up with the insightful solution.” In other words: implementation is easy and analysis is hard. “But this is the opposite of what happens in startups. Implementation is everything in a startup.” Kawasaki believes that MBAs aren’t a good fit for startups, and engineering graduates are.
Wadwa agrees that the average (tech) entrepreneur does not need to know much about pricing assets or about accounting cost flow assumptions, perhaps staples of the MBA program in the U.S. And he’s right. But, Wadwa argues, there is enormous value in learning how to present business ideas, how to integrate teams and how to manage. So why not re-envision the MBA entirely? Why is this piece a back-and-forth between two guys, spitting out jabs 140 characters at a time? Plenty of top schools are looking at reworking their entire programs, given the changing business environment (and perhaps the realization that their model wasn’t best preparing people for business). Maybe, then, there is a time and a place for the Platonic conception. There is a time and a place for the ideal, the imagined.
Tags: alain ducasse, apartment, bao, benoit, bundt, cakes, dessert, entrepreneurship, erika, fitzgerald, gatsby, Google, guy kawasaki, mba, mother's day, peking duck, plato, platonic conception, sea bass, startups, techcrunch, union square, vivek wadwa