Building a Business in the Context of a Life

Careers rarely run on a track from Point A to Point B—life experiences often change our goals. At Harvard Business School, Senior Lecturer Janet J. Kraus teaches students to take a life plan as seriously as they would a business plan. Key concepts include:
  • Students and practitioners must evaluate what's important to them both personally and professionally and create a "life plan" for getting where they want to go.
  • Students reflect on experiences and explore visions for where they see their lives going, taking into account not only career ideas but also family life, hobbies, community, spirituality, and other interests.
  • The ideal is for students to find their "flow"—experiencing such enjoyment from an activity that they feel time, space and friction melt away.
by Dina Gerdeman

When MBAs start the second semester of their second year at Harvard Business School, most have already lined up new jobs--but that doesn't mean they have a clear idea what they want out of the rest of their lives.

The same could be said for many business practitioners who have been working for decades, including those who have found success professionally, when they lift their heads up in their 40s or 50s and question whether their lives are heading in the right direction.

“We sit back, look ahead, and ask, 'What do I really want in the long term?' ”

That's where Senior Lecturer Janet J. Kraus comes in. Kraus teaches the second-year MBA course Building a Business in the Context of a Life (BBCL) and is currently helping to develop a similar Executive Education program called Crossroads. The two courses attract different audiences—people at different stages of their lives and careers—but they have the same goal of allowing participants to evaluate what's important to them both personally and professionally and creating a "life plan" for getting where they want to go.

Some MBA students, most of whom are in their 20s, have told Kraus that they were drawn to the BBCL course because they already knew there had to be more to life than attaining business success. Others, who arrived at HBS with a goal of realizing financial gain, come to have their assumptions and beliefs challenged, Kraus says.

"What makes the MBA moment so important is that everybody here is so ambitious and high performing, but they have had guardrails their whole life," Kraus says. "Then they get to the end of their MBA, and they have no guardrails. They have to pave their own way. They experience this peeling back and discovery process in class, and they start thinking of things they never thought about before. By the end of the course, they really get it."

The BBCL course, developed by Sarofim-Rock Professor Emeritus Howard Stevenson, has been offered since 2008. Kraus taught the course last year when she was serving as an HBS Entrepreneur-in-Residence.

A Life Examined

The course encourages students to clarify their personal and professional goals while looking at their strengths and weaknesses. They are asked to reflect on their experiences and then explore one or more visions for where they see their lives going, taking into account not only career ideas but also family life, hobbies, community, spirituality, and other interests.

Students work in small groups on various exercises, including one called "What We Carry," in which one student interviews another about the influence their parents and other family members have had on their lives. In addition, Kraus has students interview their role models, asking them whether they're happy or disappointed with their lives. Students also gather insights from mentors, people who know them well.

Finally, students create the life plan. Kraus helps them define their own meanings for success, which can vary from providing for the family to thriving on variety and excitement.

Kraus explains that the course is really about finding out who you are and how you define your success in this world and in this life. "We sit back, look ahead, and ask, "What do I really want in the long term?' "

The life plan should be viewed as focused but malleable, a rough outline that will likely change as circumstances warrant or as a person's view of success evolves. The process of creating a vision and a plan of action provides a baseline, and it also increases a person's chances of success.

"When you write a new business plan, you know that what you write down is not what will happen," Kraus says. "But by writing it down, you start with the imagination of what you want it to be, and then you recast it. A plan provides meaning and purpose."

Data shows that entrepreneurs are more satisfied with their lives than people who work for others, and that may come simply from feeling in control of their own destiny, Kraus says. About half of HBS alumni report that they have started a business at some point. However, the other half chose different paths. Kraus says the course helps students get clearer about their plans.

"Entrepreneurs believe they are paving their own way," Kraus says. "But even if you're not an entrepreneur, you can still harness that ability to pave your own way by creating a plan and reassessing when bad luck shows up."

Finding Your 'flow'

Students learn about reinventing themselves from reading a case study about Padraig O'Ceidigh (HBS OPM 2007), who held a variety of jobs: teacher, lawyer, accountant, and, ultimately, owner of the airline Aer Arann, where he experienced both success and financial hardship. They also learn about following their passion by reading about the three founders of Blue Man Group, who set out to do something fun for themselves and ended up creating a production that continues to attract a huge following. Kraus uses Blue Man Group as an example of finding your "flow"—experiencing such enjoyment from an activity that you feel time, space and friction melt away.

“People can become excessively achievement-focused as the only measure of what they deem as successful.”

"When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, he often went without food or water because he was in flow with his work," Kraus says. "This is part of the goal, finding those activities that don't feel like work because you enjoy them so much."

Kraus talks about the movie The Bucket List and the character played by Jack Nicholson, whose sole goal was professional success. The character played by Morgan Freeman was focused on being a good family man. Kraus notes that they both end up unhappy as they reflect on their lives.

"It tells the story of pursuing a one-dimensional goal," Kraus says. "If you do one thing to the exclusion of all others, you might not be happy. People who say they're happy try to maximize across many categories of their lives."

Kraus also discusses the main character in the movie The Devil Wears Prada, who is ambitious and gets sucked into a cutthroat job that starts to change her for the worse.

"This kind of thing happens. You take a job because you want to pay back student loans and earn some management exposure, and you say you'll only work there for a couple of years," Kraus says. "Then you start doing really well at it, and you get sucked in. If you don't have any vision beyond getting the next pay bump or promotion, it's really easy to keep doing it, even if you don't like it."

Midcourse Corrections

It's never too late to develop a plan, Kraus says, and business practitioners who are midway through their careers can benefit from developing a road map for the rest of their lives. Kraus is working with a team of professors, led by faculty chair John A. Davis, on developing the Crossroads Executive Education program. The course is expected to launch in January 2012 for participants who are typically between their late 30s and early 60s, an age when many people start to take stock of their lives.

"People do wake up at 40 and say, 'Huh? Is this it? What's my purpose?' " Kraus says. "People can become excessively achievement-focused as the only measure of what they deem as successful and if they don't take care of other attributes. They may be successful in their careers, but they're miserable. Part of what a business school tries to create is a leader who makes a difference. If you're not on a life path that has you thriving, it's tough to be a really great leader."

In fact, Kraus, faced her own crossroads in recent years after achieving great success as an entrepreneur. In 1997 she cofounded Circles, a concierge and events company that grew into a $50 million business. She sold Circles in 2007 and then led Spire, a successful travel and leisure company. After selling Spire in 2010, Kraus decided that she was not ready to found a third company and instead wanted to spend more time at home with her twin daughters, who are now 4.

"Then this opportunity to be on the HBS faculty arose, and I thought, 'Isn't this perfect in terms of material that resonates with me and in terms of being at my own crossroads, trying to figure out where I should go next," says Kraus, who this fall is coteaching the MBA elective Founders' Dilemmas and is working with Senior Fellow Timothy Butler on a new entrepreneurial leadership self-assessment tool. "I may have found that where I should go is right here."

About the Author

Dina Gerdeman is a senior writer for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

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    • Daniel
    • student
    Good inspiring lesson.
    • Anonymous
    Very interesting, you are a live example of passion and success.
    • Alice Chan
    • Sr Manager, Learning & Development Asia Pacific, Newell Rubbermaid Asia Pacific Ltd
    Very inspiring! Something I ought to think about myself and perhaps also train our managers to help their team members build a life plan and find their flow.

    Only then can we achieve work-life integration and "We Bring What Matters to Our Work" (Newell Rubbermaid Values).
    • Kiran Khan
    • Student
    A very encouraging and enlightening article; very near to the reality and a true reflection of a hard core experience.
    • Anonymous
    This article is very helpful for students to set their carrier plan in developing countries like Nepal where youngster are in confusion either to do a job or to become an entrepreneur many economic and political instabilities.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Nobody exploits to advantage his potential to the full. And, academics- MBA programmes etc. - never guide the students on this.
    Being highly ambitious the student aims at hitting at a lucrative job/business and remain a lot excited about it. Being diligent, he
    would progress and achieve positions to satisfy his ego. At a later
    stage, however, he will start getting a feeling that being only materialistic is not giving lasting happiness to him. It is for this purpose that BBCL course is very important.
    Pleasure derived from outside is fleeting and it has an element of greed too. But if your innermost is properly aligned, the pleasure would be manifold.
    Drawing out plans is useful as we set goals for us and can monitor progress and make correctives/apply brakes as necessary.
    The real achievement has to be holistic.
    • Zari Zahra
    • Student, HBS
    An excellent, inspirational piece, that highlights some of the multidimensional perspective that we often forego as students here at HBS.
    • Chritine Teopiz
    • student, University of San Carlos
    Nice..I was really moved and inspired me to continue my Entrepreneurship course. I'm very excited.
    • Ajay Kumar Gupta
    • Doctoral Researcher and Faculty(ITM), Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India
    Conceptually the idea of BBCL looks appealing. It creates direction and meaning to the life but in practice there are forces that deviates us from our paths. Most of the time, these forces challenges our beliefs and compel us to seek the root that might be unethical sometimes. And if we analyze those factors, it seems logical and rational as well. Let us analyze some forces one by one. Parents either borrow or arrange funds to pay the fees for their kids. To pay their dues, they expect their kids to get good jobs and better salary to repay their dues. This looks simply logical and convincing. Society has its own yardsticks to measure success of people. Though these yardsticks vary from society to society but in most of the cases, it is measured monetarily. Now, it puts pressure on parents first and on students in multiplier form to meet those social expectations. Now, in these situations, interest and goal of students take back sea
    t. Students struggle to meet expectation of others (parents and society) and forego their own goal and dream. They are expected to follow the dreams and goal expected by others.
    Looking at above situations, BBCL is challenging. Now, to make the concept of BBCL, I think, we need to influence social forces that deviates students to follow their own dreams and desires. One way to this approach is to redefine the meaning to success. Success should be redefined more in intangible form. We also need to think that money is byproduct of our effort and hard work, so we need to focus on effort and means. If we are able to redefine these parameters, then I think we can make this concept more workable, socially acceptable and more satisfied.
    • Sai Dattathrani
    Excellent article. It is very important to blend personal goals and strengths with professional goals. I am just past the mid-career crossroad, where I felt I was not in a role that aligned with my personal interests and goals. I would also attribute it to the changing stages of life. When one is young and fresh out of school, the professional and personal goals are different, and with time, as personal responsibilities and commitments change, the goals also change. Hence it is important to introspect every once in a while when we don't feel connected with our inner self or feel stressed out. I have captured my own experiences dealing with it at Would like to get more insights from others' experiences as well.
    • Anonymous
    Building a Business in the Context of a Life - And surely if this happens as much as it is easily said, then at least for the most part, we are kind of guaranteed with one thing and that is we would not look back at the years and feel we had compromised one for the other!! Coz both are played in tandem to the individual's goals, circumstances, opportunities presented and the choice was obvious between either veering a little more towards feeding your business motive or just taking it easy and settling in with the personal options, or probably choosing something in between the any case it is in keeping with the two largest factors that make up the crux of your very life and living.
    • Michele Zwillinger
    • Owner, Zwillinger Research
    I wish I had been exposed to this lesson when I was in graduate school planning my post-graduate future and again when I made the decision to start my company, Zwillinger Research (

    Business planning has always been part of my life. Life planning was something I never thought about. Life just happens. Thank you for this program and this article.

    Michele B. Zwillinger, PRC
    Zwillinger Research
    Providing strategic direction
    for forward-looking companies