Each year, Morgan Park Academy begins graduation season by celebrating seniors’ college choices on National College Decision Day on May 1. This year, we were joined by investor and entrepreneur Mike Bechtel ’94, who spoke to Upper School students about his college decision, his time in school, and how his MPA experience laid the foundation for future success.
A transcript of his remarks:
I’ll tell you, senior year sitting down with the guidance counselor here at the Academy, I felt stuck.
I really felt stuck, because MPA, doing that thing that MPA does — MPA made me well-rounded. Whether you want to or not, you can’t help but come out of Morgan Park Academy being a Renaissance person. And I said, listen, I’m good at math and science, but I like reading and writing. What do I do? And I remember the advice in 1994 — I don’t know if it’s the same today — but at that time, the advice was to start in engineering because it’s easier to fall out of engineering than into it.
So when I got to college [at the University of Notre Dame], I did one semester of engineering and I wasn’t feeling it. That’s just me. I had gone from 13-person classes to 300-person classes and I figured, hey, MPA already taught me how to learn; I’ll get a book and I’ll figure out Bernoulli’s principle or something.
So I went in and changed my major period after my first semester. I said you know what? Maybe I’ll be an attorney. So I picked up a government major and the semester after that I said you know what? I don’t think I love this either, because I don’t want to argue for a living. So now I’m stuck.
So I’m killing some time — I picked up a minor in economics and philosophy. I’m philosophizing and I’m economizing, thinking, what am I going to do? And then I realized I was missing something and what I was missing most — and I didn’t even realize I had it when I was here. I was missing diversity.
Here at Morgan Park Academy, I was part of a United Colors of Benetton group of students where, as a white, male, Irish Catholic, I wasn’t in the majority. I was just Mike. At Notre Dame, I was like a thousand other dudes. I missed the color, literally and figuratively, and the flavor of my diverse MPA experience. So that’s why I picked up my anthropology major, because I value culture. I value different perspectives. I value different experiences and value systems.
And so strutting out of Notre Dame in 1998, I’m like, OK what am I going to do? I’ve got this crazy, potluck potpourri of majors. But you know what? I played the hand that I was dealt. Because in 1998, if you could spell “www,” congratulations, you are a technology expert.
I got a job at this company called Accenture, which was really all about helping big companies solve their business problems by sticking in newfangled technologies. All of my coworkers at the time were straight-down-the-middle engineers. [They had learned] none of the communications stuff. No [performing in] “Romeo and Juliet” plays, no “Sound of Music.” No cultural diversity. No diversity of thought.
I realized that what got me in the door was being just technical enough, but what kept me cooking was having all those other shadings in my repertoire. Pretty soon, they put me in charge of innovation at the company, which is to say, my job was to translate the crazy, hare-brained technology ideas coming out of our doctors from China, India, Russia, and the Philippines into boardroom-relevant stuff that [the bosses] think would save them money.
And so, ironically, out of all my studies, anthropology — which was informed by my coming here to MPA — is the skill that I use the most in my work. It’s playing translator between different tribes, between different cultures.
When I think of MPA, I think of the diversity of the curriculum. You guys have learned a little of a lot. Don’t lose that.
Two, I think of the diversity of the student body. Play that to your strengths. You guys have a blessing that most people don’t even realize they’re missing out on.
If I would leave you guys with a little bit of perspective around choosing your college — and I know [some of] you already have, but as you think about it, and double-check it — I would say look at college as an opportunity to accentuate the positives, focus on your strengths. Eliminate your negative, stamp out those fuzzy-wuzzy, ambiguous weaknesses. And don’t even waste time, don’t even mess around with [getting stuck] in between.
You guys are through the bulk of your formative education. You’ve learned where you’re a rock star. You’ve learned where you’ve got some work to do. Shore this up, double down on this. Be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brain falls out.
And then finally, as you think about majors, think about what’s next.
People are going to tell you follow your passions. OK. I disagree.
People are going to tell you follow what you’re good at. I disagree.
People are going to say follow the money. I disagree.
People are going to say follow your values, follow your heart. Nope.
You have to follow all four. All four at once.
Here’s what I mean, in all sincerity: I’ve been out of school at MPA about 25 years and I’ve seen people get stuck because they’re all in on one of those buckets. The dirty secret is you’ve got to figure them all out.
You’re not going to be happy if you’re a broke poet. You’re not going to be happy if you’re rolling in dough and feeling morally empty. You’re not going to be happy if you’re any of those without the others. And so build yourself a four-dimensional Venn diagram. Use your math skills, your engineering skills. Plot that sucker. But find the intersection. Find the intersection, because that’s what’s going to keep you cooking.
I’m pumped for each and every one of you. I look forward to watching each of you flourish. Thanks for being part of MPA. It makes me feel strong for being part of MPA.