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Navigating Life’s Unclear Choices

July 05, 2012

Speakers at June Convocation advise graduates that things don’t happen according to plan and that it is often wise to think inside the box.

Gazing into the faces of the newest Booth graduates, William Conway Jr., ’74, a founder of The Carlyle Group, advised that the way forward will not always be clear and that, at times, “you find yourself in the fog.”

In his address at the spring diploma and hooding ceremony at Arie Crown Theater, part of the University of Chicago’s 511th Convocation, Conway discussed navigating life’s choices when the path isn’t always clear.

“Nearly every day of my life, I’ve awakened at 5 a.m. and been in my office by 6 a.m,” he said. “Perhaps you could infer if you follow a similar path you could have the honor, 38 years from now, of talking to the graduates of Booth 2050. Develop plans and a goal, work hard, and it could happen to you.”

“But things don’t work out according to plan,” he continued. “There are good days and bad days. Choices are rarely between good and bad and right and wrong. More often, they’re between good and better, bad and worse, or easy and hard. It looks confusing, disorganized, inconvenient, and full of distractions.”

Conway weighed a number of good choices when he graduated from Dartmouth College. He had offers from Exxon Mobil, Procter & Gamble, and the First National Bank of Chicago. He chose First Chicago because it paid for his Chicago Booth MBA. Conway’s next big career decision came when he left the security of the bank to join MCI Communications Corp., which was still a start-up at the time. While he was there, Conway said, revenue at MCI grew from $100 million to $2 billion. Then he had to decide whether to be part of the growth at MCI or join “an even smaller start-up with people I didn’t know” at Carlyle.

Shortly after he and his partners started the buyout group, the stock market plummeted. “At the beginning, we didn’t know what we were doing,” he said, and he wondered whether he should have stayed at MCI. “There was no book called Buyouts for Dummies.”

In the end, they figured out the business, and made their investors four times their money with the firm’s first fund. “I think I was more afraid of failure,” he said, “than hungry for success.”

Before Conway gave his address, Kevin Murphy, George J. Stigler Distinguished Service Professor of Economics, stepped to the podium and removed his academic cap to reveal a red baseball hat with the words, “Chicago Booth”—eliciting loud applause from the graduates.

In his talk Murphy suggested that students spend more time “thinking inside the box.”

“It was and still is my opinion that you hear far too much about thinking outside the box and not nearly enough about thinking inside the box,” he said.

Many times, he said, things that are inside the box are there for a reason, he said. At the same time, most of the things that are outside of the box are bad ideas. In practical terms, he cautioned graduates against going into a new work environment and plunging forward with what they perceive as a new idea before assessing the practices already in place, in case their ideas already have been tried and rejected.

“There is one critical lesson: when you take your first job with a new degree, and you walk into work, and you see them doing what you think is really stupid, stop before you open your mouth,” Murphy said. “Remember the old adage that it is better to keep your mouth shut and have people think you are stupid than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

“The key thing to remember is that if you have one of those truly great ideas from outside of the box, it will most likely hold until you have had a more thorough chance to evaluate the status quo.”

It is true that ideas and practices that reside inside of the box need to be questioned and scrutinized, especially if the explanation given for their existence is, “‘That is just how it is’ or ‘That is just how it’s done.’ Try hard not to accept that answer—at least immediately.”

“The lesson,” he said, “is to not simply accept what you find in the box but to thoroughly question what you find there. Understanding better what is inside the box will do more to help you find things outside the box than rummaging around in the vast space of largely bad ideas that exist outside the box.”

As for life’s decisions, some of which may need to be made in a haze instead of in a more lucid manner, Conway gave graduates these three guiding tools:

Have Clear Goals
“This is the path you want to be on. It’s not my path, it’s not your parents path, it’s not your spouse’s path. It’s your path. Enjoy it. It’s your dream, and don’t be afraid to fail. You may have to change the dream, but by having clear goals, you’re able to work on what’s important as opposed to what’s urgent.”

Get Some Good Guidance
“When you’re wandering around in the fog, it helps to have people around you who can help you. It can be your parents, friends, coworkers, spiritual advisors, teachers, spouses. It’s easier to see where you’re going when there are a lot of people to help you along the way, someone to pick you up when you stumble, and believe me, we all stumble.”

Make Sure You Have a Good Moral Compass
“As you’re trying to build your net worth, don’t confuse it with your self worth, which is much more important.”

After receiving their MBA diplomas, Rick and Jennifer Cavolo, a married couple who started at Booth together, said they will remember Conway’s speech as they start new jobs in Cleveland. He will be a consultant with McKinsey & Company and she accepted a position as a product manager with Progressive Insurance.

“He spoke to that the fact that it wasn’t just about business and measuring your life by based on your bottom line,” said Jennifer Cavolo. “But also the relationships you have with your friends, your family, and your spouse.”

Rick Cavolo added: “I got out of it that you’re never really going to be certain what the path forward will be, but if you take the time to develop your goals and go after them, good things will happen.”

Erin Chan Ding