01 Dec 2012

The Billion-Dollar Question

For a life well-lived, disrupt thyself


After HBS, I walked across America four times. During my first long walk, I asked myself what I call the "Billion-Dollar Question." At HBS, the Billion-Dollar Question that many of us pondered was, "How do I make a billion dollars?"

Many of us are quite good at figuring that out, as the Bulletin frequently chronicles. However, we often don't ask the more important question, "What will I do with my time once I get a billion dollars?" Some would say, "Spend more time with my family," or "Lead a nonprofit," or "Sleep in." Although I didn't have a billion dollars (well, not even a million), I thought, "Why do I need to wait until I have a billion dollars to act as though I do?"

So off I went hiking across America a few times. Afterward, I wrote a book about it. Then I spent three years in all 25 Eastern European countries and wrote about that, too. In 2013, I will start a three-year trip to all 54 African countries and set it all down in a third book, assuming a cute Masai doesn't convince me to become a herder.

Travel, like HBS, is transformative. Both disrupt our lives—usually in positive ways. Yet after HBS, many of us seem to lose the nerve to disrupt our lives again. Steve Jobs said, "Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new."

Fortunately, we don't need to die to enjoy some of Death's benefits. Many of us "died" when we entered HBS and were reborn when we graduated, having reinvented ourselves: The engineer became an investment banker, the consultant became an entrepreneur, the corporate tool became a vagabond.

But years later, how many of us have the courage to disrupt our lives again? How many of us ponder the Billion-Dollar Question that really matters?

My two cents is that you probably need to rock your own boat again. Disrupt your life with a sabbatical. That doesn't mean you have to spend seven months walking from Mexico to Canada and back on the Continental Divide Trail. After being the first to do that and having gone 45 days without taking a proper shower, I can assure you that there are more comfy sabbaticals options.

Whatever sabbatical you do, disconnect and get away from your environment—the more radical the change, the better. I didn't even have a cell phone during my trips.

"But I have kids," you whine. Get over it. Bring them with you or send them to summer camp. My HBS classmate Jeff Hicks could have inched his way to a billion dollars by sticking with his hugely successful advertising firm. Instead, as other HBS alumni have done, he took his wife and three kids on a one-year, around-the-world adventure. He disrupted his life by favoring places that he said were "logistically hard and time-consuming." Few people in the world are as able as HBS grads to take a sabbatical: We are blessed with high incomes, fat savings (you do save, right?), and the ultimate career insurance policy (an HBS degree). Despite these competitive advantages, we say, "Not now." As Jeff said, "It's never an ideal time. If you have half a chance, do it." Taking a sabbatical every five to ten years is not just good for the soul, but good for your career. You'll return to the workforce with ideas and energy that few have—not even your former self. You don't need a billion dollars to disrupt your life. You disrupted it at least once already. Now do it again.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1997, Section I
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