By Tomohito Okuda
I can’t believe I am about to finish my three years in the US. I am very satisfied at the same time as I start to miss my amazing classmates. In addition to a wide range of hard skills in public and business administration that I wanted to learn, I could enhance various soft skills and learned some life lessons. This report highlights three major learnings that seem to overarch my experience during my study in Boston. Those are about uncertainty, diversity, and belief. The scholarship program helped me concentrate on studying and pursuing an exciting career path, particularly by removing the post-degree financial constraints.
- Learning #1: Embrace the beauty of uncertainty.
- Our information for decision-making is almost always limited. Sometimes it’s due to a lack of experience or knowledge (e.g., most government officers have a limited understanding of businesses), or it could be due to the complexity of the issue (e.g., the effect of climate change). However, nothing emerges if you stay within the boundary of known information. That’s why we continue learning, that’s why we develop theories and test them, and that’s why we employ conceptual frameworks to digest information when we face complex problems.
- It’s tempting to plan and control everything, but that strategy is vulnerable when we have many unknowns. I failed many times by doing so in group works in classes and my start-up. In contrast, successful entrepreneurs often handled such uncertainty very well, and are very open to tackling uncertainty.
- Throughout the experience during the three years, I became much more open to uncertainty, but I need to embrace it more. This is a simple but very important lesson that I want to keep for the rest of my life.
- Learning #2: Believe to increase the probability of success.
- An MIT professor taught this lesson in his final lecture, referring to the saying “believing is seeing.” If you believe in a successful result in a challenging task, you change your behaviors, which increases the probability of success.
- It sounds like nonsense, but this logic reminds me of many examples in my life. 15 years ago, I never thought I could enter the University of Tokyo or Harvard. I updated my belief thanks to the positive influence of my professors, friends, and colleagues, but it was ultimately myself who believed in my path. People sometimes call it optimism, but it is an important quality that opens a new door.
- For the same reason, you should question others’ opinions when they are simply projecting themselves without considering the external validity of their experiences. You can believe anything unknown, but you should wisely use the available evidence and distinguish them from unsupported views.
- Learning #3: Internalize diversity.
- One of the most interesting cultural differences I found in the US was the debates between some of the extreme opinions that I had rarely seen in Japan. Gender, race, or even school policies related to Covid are some of the examples. For example, no one stands up suddenly and says “I would like to point out the teaching team of this class consists of men only” in a classroom in Japan, but I saw such incidences three times in Boston.
- When I face those experiences, I usually tried to (1) analyze the causes of the difference (cultural difference, diverse society, etc.), (2) listen to others, and (3) think about my opinion.
- Until recently, I believed this was enough, but I noticed I needed one more step: (4) analyze how to reconcile when my opinion is different from someone’s seemingly logical opinion. We need solid normative principles to solve these problems, as I experienced so acutely when the opinions on schools’ Covid policies differed among students. Should we maximize the utility of society, stop people when their principles harm each other or employ another principle? We can’t blindly advocate diversity and inclusion, but we should develop our ability to internalize them and communicate with each other. Some people might call this ability “leadership,” and I believe it is more and more required as diversity increases within counties and organizations everywhere.
- I believe all those learnings are valid regardless of the sectors or generation. Fortunately or unfortunately, I also believe those learnings are very “personal.” They might resonate with someone with similar experiences, but they do not easily settle in one’s mind if they lack personal experiences to associate with. This is a strong justification for my choice to study in the US for three years, including the period that was most severely affected by the pandemic. I feel fortunate to gain a wide range of experiences to appreciate the lessons.
- This fall, I will join McKinsey Nairobi to continue my journey to seek a better way to develop basic infrastructure in developing countries. At McKinsey, I can contribute to the high-level decision-making of governments, donors, and companies in Africa. Given its enormous presence in Africa, I can’t imagine any better option to achieve my desire to provide advisory work to the public sector in the next few years.
- This career choice would have been much more difficult but with the support of the Ito Foundation USA and Friends of UTokyo because the financial constraint is one of the major barriers in this field. People often associate McKinsey with the image of a high salary, butits salary is surprisingly lower in Kenya than in the US or Japan. To avoid misunderstanding, this doesn’t mean the selection process is not competitive or the quality of work is sacrificed. It is extremely difficult for non-African, non-native speakers to get those limited positions. Given the unfairly low salary and high competition, I might have made a different decision if I had a large debt to go through the dual degree program. The removal of the financial constraints encouraged me to take on another challenge to make the biggest impact to society. I recall a strong message given by someone at a conference at MIT: If you don’t do it, then who will?