I Retired Early by Avoiding the MBA.

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Getting an MBA has been all the rage for years in the business field. The hard press marketing from the high end to online universities is out there:  Its always a good time to get your MBA they say.  Did you just graduate with an undergraduate in a business field? Get an MBA. Have a non-business degree? The MBA is your ticket. Frustrated with your job after three years, why not get an MBA? Are you a mid-career executive searching for how to get to the next level? Want a network you to grow your career? Higher education is ready to sell you their solution to all these desires.  

The sale of the MBA being the easy path to making more money (or having the career you love) smells of the same filth as the “real estate guru workshops” hocked to poor souls in hotel ballrooms.  According to Top MBA, the average two-year MBA program now exceeds $60,000 and the top business schools cost up to $100,000. This is before account for opportunity cost, the lost time you could have been spending in your current career or developing yourself professionally in other ways. I increased my income nine-fold over a fifteen plus year career and did this in part by not spending my time & money on getting an MBA.

Disclaimer: I once considered getting my MBA, I was in my early 30s, working for a great leader, and still had an aspiration for a higher position. My undergraduate is not from a reputable state school, so I had some thought (with some help from an inferiority complex) that I would need a degree from a prominent school to go along with my MBA.  The advice I was given was “I think there are more effective uses of your time and better ways to build a network”.

The cost of the program I was considering was $90,000. The company’s reimbursement was 90%, which would have left me on the hook for $9,000. It sounded like a deal, until I realized I would also be on the hook for the tax liability of these benefits, which was estimated at $22,680 at a 28% marginal rate.  The cost plus the time investment were too much for me.  

Now I could put together some fancy spreadsheets outlining the cost of the MBA, the power of that money compounded, lost earnings, and how long it would take to break even.  Instead I’ll just say it takes a LONG time and share my alternate path: 


What did I do instead of getting my MBA?


Learn On The Job: I worked more. Its a novel concept, but  I believe experience is measured in hours, not days or years. Malcom Gladwell professes in Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours for mastery.  For the normal person working a 40 hour work-week, that’s roughly five years. At a 48 hour work week, its closer to four years. There is a point of diminishing returns if you work too many hours, but experience is based on the number of hours worked.  When you’re not on the clock, read your industry’s publications, listen to business podcasts, find books about leadership or your industry.  Always be learning.

You can realistically get to your 10,000 hours between year three and four. I was one of the younger people in my company to earn Senior Vice President at 29. This didn’t come through classroom training, but through working more and consequently providing value to the company once I surpassed 10,000 hours.

Building the Professional Network:  Your first 5-7 years in your career (ie your 20s) are about building your skills at network.   Join your industry’s professional organization and start attending events. Find networking events, join associations, volunteer with a not for profit. Don’t just attend one or two events per month, have a couple on your calendar every week. Many will not be helpful, but this is a situation where quantity will equal quality. You don’t know when a connection  will pay off in the future, so the solution is to meet more people.  This works especially well if you’re in a sales role and the company will foot the bill for you to attend these events.

In addition to the extra time at work and attending hundreds of networking events, I added outside activities to my resume. These included:

  • Going through a chamber of commerce’s leadership program and volunteering to register people at events.
  • Serving as Treasurer and President of a local not for profit
  • Serving as  Vice President and President of a local business association.
  • Enrolling in my industry’s continuing education school (which happened to occur at a fraction of an MBA’s cost on the campus of a prominent Ivy League school).

Find Mentors/Advisers/Clients:  I invited senior people out to breakfast and I networked with peers at after-hours events. Networking after-work is excellent early in your career because you meet a lot of people of similar age and your careers will grow as you age.  People with seniority over you in your company or similar companies are likely older and and won’t be at the after-hours events, but will still probably meet you for breakfast.   They’ve already invested the time earlier in their career and are probably with their family after work.   

I’ve found senior advisers simply by setting an alarm clock, getting out of bed, and going to breakfast with these people before work.   I would ask for advice, but the more specific and less generic the questions the better. Show that you are taking ownership and act on their advice.  Give them feedback when it went well.   This helped me develop relationships with a number of more experienced people.  Always thank them and pay the bill, it’ll be cheaper than drinks.

Move to a Top 15 City and High Growth Area:  I started my career in a small market then realized I needed to get to a larger city for professional development, a better network, and to ultimately earn more money.  For most professions, the salaries and professional opportunities are exponentially greater in the fifteen largest metropolitan areas compared to everywhere else.   List of Metropolitan Areas by Size.

In my situation, a number of things ended up leading us to Atlanta, GA, and Dallas, TX.   These cities had the benefit of being a large city and a having high growth, which can equal more opportunity.  The largest cities that also have near double digit population growth over a 10 year period are: Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Washington DC, Miami-Ft Lauderdale, Atlanta, Phoenix. San Francisco, and Seattle

You can grow your network with people in their 20s and 30s that you meet in these larger cities and stay in touch with for the rest of your life.


Other Recommendations:


Keep up your network:  Its one thing to develop a network, its another thing to keep it, especially if you move.   I’ve found a combination of LinkedIn, a great database of phone numbers and emails, and text messages to be valuable in this regard.  People may not read your email, your LinkedIn message, or it might not be the appropriate time for a phone call, but people will read a text message. They may not even respond to the text message, but you know they’ve read it.  This doesn’t mean send a bunch of unsolicited text messages to people you don’t know, but they are a great way to stay in touch with people in your professional network.

The most important piece of this is send messages to people when you don’t actually need something.  One of the early people who taught me professional sales was a friend named Ed.   I was working with Ed when he landed his biggest client.   He got this client through a CFO who was laid off at his prior company.   We took the CFO out fishing and I’ll always remember him saying “Ed was the only person who called me when I was out of work and offered to help me in my search.”  Ed was a genuine and caring person, but he also knew this was a talented CFO and someone he should stay in touch with professionally.*

Consider Other Professional Credentials:   Most fields have professional credentials and continuing education.   If there aren’t credentials, at least join your industry association and start volunteering to check people in at the registration table and eventually join a committee or their leadership team.   There was a specific role in my prior employer that was being reduced the place I worked and at all of our peer organizations.  I only knew two people out of more than a dozen local employees at the company who were active in their specific industry association.   One of those two ended up with a much better job offer at a new company than he currently had and made the change six months before a layoff would have come down on him.    He had obtained multiple professional credentials through this association and volunteered to be in a leadership position for the local chapter.  

Final Thoughts

I was once frustrated at work and exclaimed “I don’t understand, this isn’t that difficult”.   A wiser employee said to me afterwards that he disagreed with my wording.   He said the outline was not complicated, but execution was in fact difficult and compared it to loosing weight and following a diet.   The same thought sits with me regarding growing your income and career without the MBA.  Its not complicated, but it is difficult to show up every day and build your skills, your value to your employer, and your outside network.

Agree or Disagree?  Please share your thoughts below.

*I was in one of these positions not too long ago that received many solicitations for money and had indirect employees where I could influence outcomes.  It’s sometimes tough to know if people were only talking to me because of the influence I had professionally or if there was genuine relationship.  I’ve really appreciated the people who’ve reached out to me over the past month and their actions have answered that question for me.  I have others I now need to do the same with.

6 Replies to “I Retired Early by Avoiding the MBA.”

  1. This is great and very true in my experience:

    Its not complicated, but it is difficult to show up every day and build your skills, your value to your employer, and your outside network.

  2. I got my MBA in 2000. Served me well even though it was from a little known school. I learned valuable skills especially life skills. Mine only cost about 5,000 though and I had enough cash to a one year career sabbatical and attend full time

  3. When I was in university I thought about getting an MBA as well. After working for a few years and now pursuing FIRE, it simply doesn’t make any sense for me to get an MBA.

  4. Whoa, I didn’t know you’re on the hook for taxes if the company helps with your education. How did I not know that? It’s a big bill.
    I completed the 5 years BS/MS program and that was enough for me. I’m no good on the business side. Mrs. RB40 quit working and went back to school for a couple of years to get her MPA. That served her very well. She found a much better job and her life improved immeasurably. It really depends on what the degree can do for you. MS probably isn’t important these days unless the job market is tight.
    Good post!

    1. It depends on the degree and the amount. At the time I got my mba the first 10k was tax free per year. I limboed under that amount each year. There were other qualifications like applicable to your current job.

      An mba can be beneficial but like anything else it is situation specific.

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