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A Novelist in Business School: Zeno’s Paradox and Graduation

A Novelist in Business School: Zeno’s Paradox and Graduation

“A Novelist In Business School” is a series about putting my literary arts brain through formal management training.

Zeno’s Paradox (more specifically, Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox)states that to cover any distance, you must first cover half that distance, then half of the remaining distance, then half of that distance… and so forth, the end result being that you can’t ever actually arrive anywhere.

Of course this is silly. We’ve all set to to get somewhere and arrived there. But right now it feels like Zeno might have been right. Even though objectively the time between me and graduation must be reduced every day by exactly one day, subjectively it doesn’t feel that way at all.

At halfway through my program I remember thinking “I’m halfway through! That was hard but it’s over now! I can do another half!”

Now I’m halfway through my last class. Objectively I have five weeks left. Subjectively I will never ever be done with school ever. The five weeks ahead of me feel just as long as an entire year felt eleven months ago.

A Novelist in Business School: How to Teach

A Novelist in Business School: How to Teach

“A Novelist In Business School” is a series about putting my literary arts brain through formal management training. This article was originally published on my write. as blog and is republished here with permission from the original author. Which is me. I gave myself permission. I’m very strict about things like this.

I’m in the final week of my last accounting class ever. I’m pleased with this. In two weeks I will have mostly forgotten everything I’ve ever known about managerial accounting. I’m less happy about that, but that’s the nature of the game. At least I have my notes.

But here’s what I’m not going to forget:

My professor in this class is an excellent teacher. I’ve been thinking about his teaching style all session, trying to identify the things that make his style so impressive, and here are some things I’ve identified.


He loves this topic, and that enthusiasm comes through in his teaching.
One of the most common phrases in his lectures is “now this is interesting…” and you know what? He’s right! When he points out something that interests him I get interested. I start thinking about how full absorption moves costs compared to variable costing. He is telling stories using numbers.

On the other side of the coin, he’s fully aware that there are people in his class who don’t love variance analysis on static budgets vs. actuals. So he works to “motivate” us (his word) to want to learn the topics with stories, concrete examples, and, when the situation demands, MegaBlocks to demonstrate how costs move through a system. It works. I don’t love cost accounting, but I understand it far better than anyone would have any right to expect.


Our professor knows what it’s like to be a student in his class. He knows this because he listens to feedback. He monitors his emails and answers incredibly quickly. He has moved deadlines, changed assignments, and given extra tutoring sessions because people asked for help. He listened and worked to do what is best for the person asking, and the class in general. He treats us with respect, and it’s effortless to respond in kind.


I’ve never had a professor in any of my classes who is so open about how much he’s learning. Our professor asks for feedback and asks to follow up questions about the input. He tells us what he’s trying to do and why he thinks it is the right choice, then asks for our opinions.

Which isn’t to say he’s a pushover. I spent three hours studying for Part I of a four-part take-home final last night. I expect to spend another three hours for part II tonight. The class is hard. But no matter how hard it is I know it’s fair. I know that my professor has thought through what he’s asking of us.

I’m never going to be a college professor. (Probably.) But there will always be opportunities to teach others, and when they come up, I hope I can be as dedicated and competent in my teaching as this professor is in his.

A Novelist in Business School: The Emperor’s Club

A Novelist in Business School: The Emperor’s Club

“A Novelist In Business School” is a series about putting my literary arts brain through formal management training.

There are two parts to this one — first, my thoughts on the use of films as teaching aids. Second, my feelings about a specific movie that was recently used as a teaching aid in one of my classes.

Don’t Use Commercial Motion Pictures as Teaching Aids

There are exceptions to this rule. Film Studies classes, any of the performing arts, any course that has to do with film production or theater or even music are exempt from this rule. But for anyone else you are relying on Hollywood to make your point. Classroom movies were marginally acceptable up through about junior high school, when sometimes the teacher needed an hour or so to grade papers or take a break. But in graduate-level classes this is insane. If you have something to tell us, please tell us. Or ask us to read the novel. Yes, it will take longer, but we’ll get so much more out of it.

Especially in this case.

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A Novelist in Business School: Make it Stick

A Novelist in Business School: Make it Stick

“A Novelist In Business School”, is a series about putting my literary arts brain through formal management training.

I’ve always thought of myself as an excellent learner. I enjoy staying curious. But my innate curiosity doesn’t have a lot of bearing on formal education, because on my own I can be an educational dilettante. If my ability to learn something new doesn’t matter I can say I’ve learned it without actually gaining any knowledge.

Fortunately one of the professors in my first semester of my MBA program was aware he was teaching people who have been away from education for a while. He recommended, along with his coursework, a book called Make It Stick. This book is all about learning effectively and maximizing the time you can put into learning.

The book resonates strongly with me, and has shaped the way I study over the past year and a half. Looking back, it sheds light on experiences I’ve had but didn’t have any formal language to describe.

The thrust of Make It Stick is that we learn best when our learning is put to the test, that frequent practice of new knowledge engrains that knowledge us, and halts the progress of forgetting far better than just repeated exposure. In other words, re-reading a text doesn’t help you learn it all that much, but testing yourself on a text will force you to learn it. While I dislike this as much as anyone (what do you mean I’ve been wasting my time????) I can see how it’s true in an example from my own life.

The Twelve Steps of Laser Printers

When I was young in my career I was given the opportunity to get my A+ certification, a certificate that says you are more or less competent to do desktop support and repair. This certification asks you to identify and diagnose a wide variety of computer parts and issues. One of the more relevant and intricate things it asks about is laser printers. Anyone who has worked with a laser printer knows that they are sometimes finicky beasts, and there are a lot of moving parts in there that can fail on you mysteriously. At the time I was tasked with supporting some ten or twelve such beasties, so the information about what was going on inside them was immediately relevant to my job, and I was tested on it informally every time I was asked to get a laser printer working again. Beyond that I prepared myself a series of quizzes based on the steps of laser printing, forcing myself to recall all the steps at random intervals along with all the other things that I was being asked to learn.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was doing exactly what Make It Stick recommends. According to the authors, repeated practice (or testing), varying your topic of study, and varying the intervals of study are the key strategies for actually learning something new. Which might be why, nine years after I left my desktop support job, I can still identify all the steps and parts of a laser printer’s paper path.

I’m trying to do the same thing as I go through school. It’s an interesting challenge, because each topic, each class, demands a different type of study. Note taking strategies that worked in my Accounting classes are less useful in marketing classes. But the process, the act of conscientious, meticulous note taking and reviewing still matters, still works.

A Novelist in Business School: Over Engineering

A Novelist in Business School: Over Engineering

Finally. A class I actually understand.

Technically this new class is called Management Communications, but everyone calls it Comms, because that’s what students do. It’s a whole class about presenting yourself clearly and effectively. It’s about using a good balance of emotion and logic to communicate to your listeners who you really are and what you’re trying to accomplish. I had kind of hoped most of my MBA would be classes like this, but for now I’ll be glad that I at least have this class.


One of our first speaking assignments was to present a “Transformational Moment”, something that changed us in some way; an event that helped make us into the people we are now. Because it’s an online class we have to figure out how to shoot the videos on our own, instead of just presenting in class, face to face.

The featured image above shows what my setup looked like. As usual, I completely over-engineered it, because I like doing that. The ingredients in that shot are:

  • A MacBook Pro
  • A Blue Yeti Microphone
  • Two USB-C-to-something-else dongles because Apple
  • A Logitech USB webcam
  • A pair of Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones to check how I was coming through on the microphone
  • A ladder doing duty as a camera dolly
  • A chair on a piano bench doing duty as a boom for the microphone
  • Kids
  • A dog (who is cropped out of the picture, but for some reason was sleeping under the ladder)

It took me about half an hour to set this up, and about an hour (and nine takes) to actually get a video that I was willing to call good enough.

to me, the crazy part about this is that I already had all the equipment. The even crazier part is that I probably could have just propped my phone up on the ladder and the video would have been perfectly acceptable. It’s a great time to be alive.

A Novelist In Business School: I am the Null Hypothesis

A Novelist In Business School: I am the Null Hypothesis

In my Statistics class[1] we spent a lot of time identifying the “Null Hypothesis”. According to my mac’s built-in dictionary the formal definition of this term is:

(in a statistical test) the hypothesis that there is no significant difference between specified populations, any observed difference being due to sampling or experimental error.

But that’s boring and hard to remember. My excellent professor defined it as

the state in which nothing interesting is happening.

The ever delightful Tom Scott dedicated a video to people disproving the null hypothesis in zero gravity.

Your Point?

My point is this: I’m an overfed middle-aged white dude. In America generally and in my MBA program specifically I am the null hypothesis.

This was made apparent a while back when a friend and colleague of mine, a woman of Asian descent, was approached by an advertising firm, asking if she would like to be in a commercial for our MBA program. In her words, “They only wanted me because I was a diversity double-shot”. They didn’t know anything about her or her life, just that she disproved the null hypothesis.

It was made clearer when I started looking for a scholarship. There are precious few scholarships available for overfed middle-aged white dudes.

And That’s a Good Thing

I don’t really need a scholarship. Yes, it will take me a non-trivial number of years to pay off my student loans. But I’m not worried about paying them off. I would much rather see people who don’t normally have access to business education getting into programs like mine than pay my own loans off a few months earlier. The deck is stacked in my favor in pretty much every other aspect.

Nice job Virtue Signaling, Nate!

Yeah, it looks like that. It might even be that. I’m still going to compete like crazy for any job I apply for, regardless of who the other candidates are. I’ve got a family to feed. But I recognize the problem. I’ve spoken to my fellow null hypotheses in our program, and to a man[2] we all agree.

We are a Null Hypothesis that Needs–and Wants–to be Disproven.

We need to work toward a day where my friend is no more surprising in the halls of business school or the boardrooms of major corporations than any overfed white dude. The shape of success should be that actual, genuine diversity is the state where nothing interesting is happening, and a company that has an overabundance of overfed white dudes is the aberration.

So What are You Doing about it, Nate?

Well, at present I’m not in a position to make any hiring decisions, nor am I anywhere near the C-level suites of any company. But just as consumers vote with their dollars, I can, as an employee, vote with my labor. I can expect my employers to be making efforts to hire fairly, or I can find a new job. I know it’s not much, but it’s a start.

  1. Technically my “Data Analysis and Decision Making” class, but even the professor called it “Stats”  
  2. Masculinity is part of the nullity of our hypothesis  
A Novelist in Business School: Math

A Novelist in Business School: Math

“A Novelist In Business School”, is a series about putting my literary arts brain through formal management training.

I hate math. I always have. In high school I realized during a math class that I had enough math credits to graduate, so I stood up, walked out of the class and dropped it on the spot.

Somehow I then made it through an entire undergraduate degree in information technology without taking another class that involved serious quantitative work. I even got a high enough math score on the GRE to avoid taking basic undergrad math.

All of which changed when I applied for grad school. My standardized test scores demonstrated quite clearly that while I have better than average communication skills my quantitative reasoning skills are less impressive. Like, 45 percentile less impressive.

When I applied for the MBA program I’m currently in we had a long talk about that. They wondered how I thought I would get through an MBA and I wondered why they thought it was so important. After all, I’m here to manage people, and I’ll hire accountants, right? That’s how it works, right?

Maybe. But MBA degrees are famous for wanting you to know things, which means being able to keep an eye on your accountants. So now, some two decades after I walked out of a math class, I’m stuck in not one but two math classes I can’t walk out of.

How I’m handling it

First off, I’m not going to graduate with a 4.0. I’m still not great at this and I’ve been doing a lot of catch up work to get to where I’m even okay with it. So don’t take this is a guide to perfect grades. But here’s what I’m doing to make my narrative focused brain accept mathematics.

Work with someone else

I’m incredibly lucky; one of my co-workers is also in my MBA program. While we were nodding acquaintances before I started the program we’ve become good friends since then. We work on a lot of the homework together, and use one another as sounding boards when we’re having problems with various topics. The psychological power of having someone else who is going through what you are going through is immense.

Take notes. Lots of notes

I can read things and think, “okay, got it, that makes sense,” and move on. Which works until I have to actually use anything I read. Then it absolutely doesn’t. Like, say, when I take a test. So I’m taking copious notes on everything I read or listen to.

I’ve gone through a number of note taking programs, trying to find one that manages my notes, gives me the flexibility to insert images and graphs and highlights as needed. I’ve gone through Evernote, OneNote, Bear, Ulysses, and a few others, before settling on the dumb-stupid version:

Markdown files in directories.

I have been using Markdown in various flavors for years, and MultiMarkdown is my favorite variant. Using MultiMarkdown to take notes means I can take notes in vim or MultiMarkdown Composer or any of a number of other Markdown-friendly apps, depending on which computer I happen to be sitting at. I used Marked to create a formatted preview of my notes more or less in real time, and when I need to share notes with someone else I can send them pretty much any file format that works for them. Also, Markdown is much less prone to tinkering. I can’t waste time playing with fonts and layouts, two things I’m often guilty of wasting a lot of time on.

Learn equations, dang it.

In my daytime job I’m a programmer, which means, according to Larry Wall, that I’m productively lazy. I look for short cuts, ways to make the computer do all the work for me. And MBA-type math is easy to push off to the manager’s best friend, the spreadsheet. Microsoft has done a good job turning Excel into the world’s financial calculator. So as a programmer it’s tempting to just figure out what formula I need in Excel to answer any problem and just plug numbers in there.

Which works until it doesn’t. The computer can only do so much. I need to give it good information to get good information back. So in my note taking, I’ve forced myself to not only look at the equations (I’ve spent my life glossing over anything that looks like math) but figure out how to type them into my notes. I take notes in MultiMarkdown, which uses the MathJax language (which is a subset of LaTeX… to lay out mathematical equations. So I’ve forced myself to learn MathJax, and I make sure that I type every equation into my notes so that it looks the same as the ones in the books or lectures.

Why? Because I have to spend time looking at every term in the equation, and then I identify them in the text of my notes. I have to parse the equations make sense of them, look at them closely over and over to make sure they match… in short, I have to think about them. And that has gone a long way towards getting them crammed into my brain, will I or nil I.

Same time every day

I work on homework every day from roughly 8:00pm to roughly midnight. Some nights I can feel like I’m done around 10:00 or 11:00. Some nights it takes me until 1:00am to get done. But every night I know I’ll be sitting down and focusing, and I am getting to the point where I can feel my mind going into “MBA mode” around 7:45. Habit is a useful thing if you train it right.