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Quo Vadis?

April 5, 2013

Just got admitted to the class of 2015…your silence here has me worried about what I’ve gotten myself into!

– A comment left on my blog… Name Withheld

It’s true. I have been quite silent throughout most of the second year. It’s been a very different experience. One that I’ve found far more difficult to chronicle than that of the first year. Let’s start in the middle.

Last month, I went to Rome to work with my GO-Lab client. Global Organization Lab is the EMBA program’s Grande Finale in which students take on a global client with a compelling real-world problem and attempt to address that problem using all of the skills learned throughout the EMBA program.

I know what you’re thinking. Rome. If that sounds fabulous, romantic and dreamy to you, I’m here to assure you that it was. Our client asked us to review operations in four of their offices, so while my partner Charlie and I were in Rome, the other members of our team were in Abu Dhabi, Singapore, and Australia.

Charlie and I brought our wives with us. Rome is too romantic to see alone and Charlie and I don’t quite “like like” each other. The plan was that while we met with our client, the wives would tour the Vatican, see the ruins of Ancient Rome, and max out credit cards on expensive Italian shoes that are NOT imported to the United States and therefore are unavailable to any of the other women in their social circle. Jealous! This last goal was deemed crucial to the success of the trip.

Turns out, however, that Charlie and I had the BEST HOST EVER! So, rather than sitting in an office discussing organizational structures, he taught us that when in Rome, one must do business in the Italian style: by building personal relationships through shared experience. Over the next couple of days we dined with Hollywood directors (or at least sat at the next table), took behind-the-velvet-ropes tours of the Vatican, private tours of Ancient Rome, and generally explored 2500 years of history… Ancient Egyptian obelisks, basilica upon basilica, fountain upon fountain, Mussolini’s Balcony, the Spanish Steps and the Wedding Cake, each site frenetically obscured by hundreds of stylish, high-heeled women driving Vespas with erotic abandon. I’m still trying to figure out exactly where Giulia Farnese lived…

It was fabulous.

Business was conducted over dinner, which starts at 7:30pm and progresses uninterrupted until 11:00pm each night. Our host made a strong case for the superiority of Italian culture. We managed to complete our interview, gather our data, understand his issues, and formulate options, but did so in an atmosphere of understated elegance. For the first time in my life, I felt just like Audrey Hepburn.

And so I haven’t written. Partially because I have been taking it all in. Not just the trip to Rome, but the entire second year MIT experience. The first year is easily parsed and described. It’s a series of classes, each of which builds some functional skill, together with the immersive experience of really deconstructing yourself. Questioning your career, your motivations, your base psychological drivers, your definition of success… even perhaps in my case, the very purpose of my existence. But that kind of deconstruction hasn’t been my experience of the second year.

Certainly I’ve taken more classes, built more skills and gained more insights. But, starting in December or so, I began to feel a strong draw back to my own company, my management team, my clients, and my family. I really struggled as I tried to figure out how I could possibly bring back the innumerable lessons learned at MIT and apply them in a meaningful way. I’ve learned too much and I just can’t seem to communicate it all. That has been the source of my silence: indecisive contemplation. I’ve acquired an incredibly valuable education that I really don’t know how to use.

On the Appian Way (Via Appia Antica) less than a mile outside the gates of Rome, the Church of St. Mary in Palmis marks the spot where the Apostle Peter, fleeing from Rome, saw a vision of Christ and asked, “Domine Quo Vadis?” – “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” whereupon Peter finally accepted his martyrdom and returned to Rome. The Church of St. Mary is quite small and modest in its adornment, especially by Roman standards. It’s really not much more than a simple country chapel. But its spiritual power is real and palpable. As Charlie prayed at the kneeler, I lit a candle and stared at Peter, hung upside down on his cross.

I have been at MIT 18 months. Quo Vadis? Where are any of us going? I’ve been silent because I am trying to divine an answer to my own question and it hasn’t come easily.

We arrived in Rome the day after the installation of Pope Francis. There are now two popes in Rome. New Pope, Old Pope. City Pope, Country Pope. Working Pope, Retired Pope. All throughout the city and probably generally throughout the world, many are trying to come to grips with a leadership structure that has never really existed before. Two Popes on friendly terms. It’s puzzling.

Old R entered the Sistine Chapel one morning to simply look around. And the beauty and complexity and sheer genius of Michelangelo affixed me in absolute wonder.  And New R came and held me by the hand. And together we took in the story of Moses, and the story of Jesus, and the creation of all Creation, and the coming Last Judgement of Christ. Old R had read these stories many times over the years, for these stories are well known. But, as New R explained… these are not stories. This is who we are together. There is from whence we came… and this is where we go. And with that New R rose and left the Sistine Chapel… But Old R stayed behind, seated on a marble bench, smiling up at the Cumaean Sybil.

There are stories of what we will become. And there are moments in which we become. And the moments become the stories and then leave them behind. At MIT, in the first year there are many stories. And in the second year, there are a few moments. And the beauty is in the leaving.


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