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What are your Non-Negotiables?

February 1st, 2010 · Comments

A lot of people go through their lives without knowing what they want. I used to be that way myself. As I wrote in your relationship with your parents have a lot to do with your career success, around the time I graduated from college, I came to the painful realization that I didn’t know what I wanted. I didn’t know how to decide for myself.

Over the past decade, I have become much better in figuring out what I want. A critical lesson I learned is the importance of defining my Non-Negotiables for personal and professional situations.

Let me share with you a story.

In 2002, right after I was laid off from a start-up, I decided to apply business school. It wasn’t the best time to apply business school as I was unemployed, and the number of applications were shooting through the roof.

However, I also knew that I needed to have clear reasons to attend business schools. Otherwise, I would be wasting a lot of money and getting very little in return. In other words, I needed to know what I wanted to get out of business school.

After thinking through my situation, I defined a few Non-Negotiables — these were things that I would absolutely not compromise.

  • I would only attend a business school outside of the Silicon Valley. Although the bay area has two of the best MBA programs, I knew that I needed to get out of my comfort zone, and study and live in a different geographical area.
  • I had worked in enterprise software for several years. I didn’t feel fulfilled. I wanted to work on product and services to make people’s lives better. I wanted to work on something that my family and friends would use. So, post MBA school, I wanted to work in consumer product or service. I would not return to the lucrative enterprise software space.
  • I was a technical person my whole life. The key area of development for me was soft skills. I wanted to attend a school that had a track record for teaching soft skills.
  • The two-year in business school would be mostly likely my last chance to enroll in school for an extended period of time. I wanted to focus on learning and enjoy the student life style. I didn’t want to have any financial concerns.

It’s debatable whether all of my Non-Negotiables were right — everyone’s situation is different. For me, at that point of time, they were the right ones.

I stuck to my list of Non-Negotiables.

Unlike most applicants who applied several schools, I only applied two schools because only those two schools fit all of my criteria. I was extremely focused on these two applications because they were my only chances. I ended up getting into both schools with average academic record and professional experience.

I had a hard time to find an internship and a full-time job. During the recession, companies wanted to hire people with experience. It was incredibly difficult for me to get a job in a consumer product or service company. I was among a small group of students who didn’t have a job at time of graduation. At that time, several enterprise software companies were very interested in me. But, I decided not to interview with any of them. It was not easy — when most of my classmates were travelling around to enjoy their time before starting new jobs, I was still working my tail off to look for a job. I remembered one MBA friend said to me: "I cannot believe that you’re still looking for a job". He was about to start his job at an investment bank.

Again, I stuck to my Non-Negotiables. Three months after graduation, I had three job offers in my hands. All of them were in consumer internet space. This experience gave me tremendous amount of confidence — it doesn’t matter how grim the situation is, I know that I can stick to my guns and prevail.

To make sure that I didn’t need to worry about money matters during business school, I took out maximum amount of student loans. I had some savings and could have borrowed less. But, I wanted to fully enjoy my two years in school without worrying about finances. During these two years, I lived in Europe for one month. I traveled to nine national parks in eleven states. I skied in Whistler. I drove around Florida. I took short trips to LA, Seattle, and New York City. I never regret the money I spent on those trips. I ended up with a sizable amount of loan to pay back. But, I don’t mind at all. For the next 15 to 20 years, with kids and family, I will not have the time and luxury to travel to these many places.

To stick to my Non-Negotiables, I have to make trade offs. Instead of applying more schools to give me better chance to get into a school, I had to be very focused and work extra hard to get into the two schools I applied. To get my desired job in consumer product, I had to keep fighting until the end to get a job offer. To do all of the fun travels, I had to borrow more money. But, having the set of Non-Negotiables gave me clarity. They guided my decisions.

You can have many different type of Non-Negotiables. Some are personal. Some are professionals. Some are long term. Some are short term.

I want to challenge you to think about your Non-Negotiables:

  • What are your Non-Negotiables when you’re looking for your next job?
  • What are your Non-Negotiables when you’re managing others?
  • What are your Non-Negotiables when you’re teaching your kids?
  • What are your Non-Negotiables when you’re looking for someone to marry?
  • What are your Non-Negotiables when you’re dealing with unethical situations at work?
  • What are you  Non-Negotiables when you’re buying a car?

Different situation calls for different set of Non-Negotiables. I encourage you to go through this process. It’ll give more clarity and determination to carry through.

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