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Executive Education

The meaning of life (and business)

By Peter Walker for CNN
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(CNN) -- Srikumar S. Rao isn't really like most business school professors. For starters, the syllabus for the course he teaches at two leading schools begins with a lengthy argument as to why many students should not consider signing up.

The reading list below -- all 33 pages of it -- is similarly unorthodox.

For example, the six books Rao cites as compulsory pre-course reading cover not only business creativity but also a spiritual travelogue through India and a 1923 novel by noted English humorous author P. G. Wodehouse.

And the aim of the course? Nothing less than to help each student "discover your unique purpose for existence."

Rao developed his course, called "Creativity and Personal Mastery," in the mid-90s and currently teaches it at Columbia Business School and London Business School, where he is returning for a second time this month.

Students who are accepted onto the perennially over-subscribed elective -- they have to first submit a string of essays and a resume -- are guided by the Indian-born professor through a series of tough, time-consuming exercises designed to help them focus on what they want to achieve from life, and how they might best be able to do this.

"At business schools, the vast majority of students don't have a clue what they really want to do," explains Rao.

"They're in business school for a number of reasons -- the most important one is economic security, they want to go out and make a ton of money, they want to be in a prestigious company."

However, many are also wary of the long hours and intensely competitive environment typical of post-MBA employers such as investment banks, he notes.

"My basic thesis is that work hours are getting longer and longer and more grueling. But if you don't get up in the morning with your blood singing at the thought of what you do, if you're not really into your life, then you're wasting your life. And life is short."

Shock to the system

This can come as a shock to the traditional MBA student, many of whom have progressed seamlessly -- and successfully -- through school, university and the start of their business career.

"Just the thought that someone comes out and puts it so boldly is like getting hit in the face with a dead fish," Rao says. "They go off and think about it, and they say: 'By golly, he's right!'"

As well as the enormous, ever-growing reading list, taking in everything from business books to texts on quantum physics, Zen Buddhism and factory farming, and described by Rao as "a life-long resource" for students, they undertake a series of exercises.

These, which Rao warns in the syllabus will "spill over into other activities and, indeed, into every waking moment," include a series of week-long mental challenges called "as ifs".

One compels students to treat every single person they meet as if it was their final day on Earth, while another asks them to conduct all their activities as if they were completely and utterly enjoyable.

The course is intended to get students to ask themselves about their values and hoped-for legacy, and how these could be expressed in work -- as Rao notes, "questions which are very important but which are not even acknowledged, much less addressed, in a business school."

The pace can be tough, Rao admits, with students submitting between 250 and 500 pages of written work.

The results can be dramatic. A string of testimonies from ex-students on Rao's personal web site, the inspirationally-named areyoureadytosucceedexternal link, talk of how the course changed their life. Devotees of his method, known perhaps inevitably as "Raosim," even have their own separate alumni association.

Perhaps inevitably, some students end up persuaded that the traditional post-MBA route of stellar salaries and endless hours is not for them, a fact that has prompted opposition to Rao's course among certain business school colleagues.

Equally obvious, the course is not for everyone: hence Rao's plea in the syllabus for those who "cannot tolerate ambiguity and live in a black and white world" to go elsewhere.

Such warnings, coupled with the tough entry process, means Rao says he is rarely faced a classroom of traditionally-minded skeptics.

"Those who are not deadly serious about the kinds of things I am talking about tend not even to make the effort," he says.

"The people who get through the screening are very serious about it, and they invariably get results."


Asking the questions: Professor Srikumar S. Rao.


FT's Executive MBA Rankings
1. Wharton, U.S.
2. Hong Kong UST, China
3. London Business School, UK
4. Instituto de Empresa, Spain
5. Fuqua, Duke, U.S.
6. Chicago GSB, U.S.
7. Columbia, U.S.
8. Kellogg, U.S.
9. Stern, NY, U.S.
10. Cass, City University, UK
Source: Financial Times 2006



Executives taking the top EMBA courses in the U.S., Europe and Asia have average salaries of around $130,000 to $200,000.

A typical EMBA student is likely to be aged in the early 30s, with 6-10 years of working experience.

A top EMBA course can cost $100,000. Customized courses start at a few thousand dollars.


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