College Admissions

Over the last 15 months I've spent hundreds of hours preparing for grad school: studying for the GMAT, researching schools, filling out applications, writing essays, interviewing, etc. Over this period, I pored over the web site of every business program ranked in the top 25, as well as the sites of a dozen unranked schools.

The whole process has been eye opening to me. On one hand, I have been appreciated, accepted, and awarded scholarships by some the country's top schools. On the other hand, I have been ignored, lied to, and discriminated by others. Naturally, I chose a school that welcomed me heartily over schools that wanted me to beg to get in.

I could go on for probably 20 pages about all of my observations about my experience. But frankly I don't have the energy to write it all down and edit it so that my arguments and opinions are sound and make sense. If you ever talk to me in person and want to get me going, though, just ask me about college admissions.

Seth Godin recently wrote about this subject. He argues that college has turned into an expensive status circus. He's not against higher education. He's just against archaic institutions being obstinate elitists who charge astronomical tuitions (which they get away with because of their prestige and recognition).

The Box Itself

We often use the phrase "think outside the box" to encourage creativity in problem-solving. In my experience, many people incorrectly equate this phrase to mean doing something outlandish merely for the sake of being unique. The result of this kind of attitude can be an answer that is admittedly different, yet ultimately impractical.

In a college marketing course, we once brought in an owner of a struggling Italian ice store. As a class, we assessed his business model and made suggestions for helping him attract new customers. When we finished, I felt that our brainstorming session was overall ineffective. The bulk of the suggestions were either over-simplistic and expensive, like "advertise more" or absurdly outside the box, like going door to door or using a network marketing model to sell ice cream.

In 1945, psychologist Karl Duncker designed an experiment in which he challenged participants to fix a lighted candle on the wall in a such a way that the wax would not drip on the table below. To do so, he provided only a book of matches and a box of thumbtacks.

Duncker found that many of the people attempting to solve his problem developed creative solutions, to no avail. For example, some tried to tack the candle directly to the wall. Others attempted to melt some of the candle’s wax and use it as an adhesive to stick the candle to the wall. In the end, the answer to the problem was simply to dump out the thumbtacks and use them to attach the empty box to the wall, which could then hold the candle.

Duncker concluded that the reason why most participants did not find this easy fix was because they were experiencing functional fixedness, or a mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem. In other words, everybody was so busy thinking outside the box that they forgot to think "the box".

Coming back to the Italian ice case, I think that my class was so fixed on finding creative solutions that we missed the practical solution, which was to find a better location. His shop was located in Provo, Utah, the only college town in America where students don't drink alcohol. Emerging from this drinking dearth, the market forces forces that be have filled the void with the only thing that Mormons are allowed to get drunk on: ice cream.

The last time I counted, there were over thirty ice cream, gelato, shake, and/or smoothie places in Provo. Most of them were situated very close to BYU campus. Our Italian ice friend, however, was located several miles away in place that rarely got foot traffic. In light of all this, my recommendation to him should have been either 1) move closer to the students in order to have a better shot duking it out with all of the other guys or 2) go to a city that was not so saturated with frozen saturated fat.

In sum, there are many times when thinking outside the box is beneficial for solving problems. But don't forget to think about the box itself, too.

Think Down

The Paradox of Choice is a great book that explains why the commonly held belief that "more choices=better" is wrong.

In one chapter, the author explains counterfactual thinking. Simply put, this is when we think about the world as it isn't, but might be or might have been. Essentially, it's when we think of an outcome of an event that is different from the way it actually happened.

There are two directions counterfactual thinking can occur. Upward thinking is an imagined state that is better than what actually happened. Downward thinking is an imagined state that is worse. As it turns out, upward thinking can be damaging to our emotional health and can be the cause of regret and despair. Downward thinking can be the cause of appreciation and contentedness.

Most people would probably tell you that it is better to will a silver medal in the Olympics than a bronze one. In reality, bronze medal winners are generally happier with their achievement than athletes who win silver. This is because the 3rd place winners tend to think of how close they were to 4th place and receiving nothing, whereas 2nd place finishers dwell on the tiny difference that cost them the gold.

I think that understanding the difference between upward and downward counterfactual thinking can help us be grateful for what we have and not feel regret for "the way things could have turned out."

Don't Contact Us

Am I bothering you? Is my patronage to your business burdensome to you? No? Then why do you make it so impossibly difficult to contact you when I have a question?

I understand that the internet is all the rage these days, and that you love to tout that most questions can be answered on your web site. But what about those times when I want to know something else that's not there?

Oh that's easy. Click on the "Contact Us" button. Wait a minute here. This button just takes me to a FAQ page that has nothing to do with what I want to know. I really just want to talk to a person.

Well, I finally found your telephone number for customer service. Let me call that. Hold music... English. Accounts. Punch in my SSN. Stupid phone tree. More hold music. Yes, I know that most questions can be answered by the website. I wouldn't be calling if mine could. I'm starting to get impatient.

Um, can I just talk to a person. Oap, there we go. What's that? Oh. My name is Drew. Yes I just had a question..... (I ask my question). Um. I can't really understand what you just said. (Where is this call center anyway?) I guess I shouldn't be surprised that you've outsourced.

Well, 30 minutes ago I really wanted your product/service. But right now I just kind of want to punch the guy in your company who made it so hard to get through and get a straight answer. I guess you don't need my money.

Really, is that the best you can do?


I find it somewhat amusing that I have been on this planet for 26 years and have only known what I was going to do with my (professional) life for about two months. In the end, I was influenced in part by Jim Collins' Hedgehog Concept. As shown in the diagram, this concept basically encourages you to try to find the intersection of

1) What makes you money?
2) What could you be best in the world at?
3)What are you passionate about?

I think that it is easy to dwell on things that may only fulfill one of these criteria. For me, staying at E*TRADE, windsurfing in Hawaii, starting a business, getting a PhD, traveling, playing tennis, and doing pottery each fell into only one of those categories.

In pursuing an MBA in Brand Management, I hope that I'll be able to tap into each of those goals in order to fall somewhere in the center of the mix.