Student Blog: Meaning Matters in the MBA@UNC Program

“If you could be handed your diploma right now without taking any more classes, would you do it?” My friend asked me that question during undergrad, and I’ve been thinking about it for years. I just finished Mabel Miguel’s (awesome) Leadership and Development course, and one of my favorite topics was motivation: what keeps people engaged and interested in what they’re doing, and how you can reward people in a way that motivates effort. I am fascinated by this topic and started a discussion about it with some of my MBA@UNC classmates. Through this discussion, I learned about Dan Ariely’s TED video about motivation, which was a game-changer for me. (Thanks to Summer for sharing it!) Take-home message: Meaningfulness matters. Ariely describes several experiments supporting this theory. In the first experiment, subjects were asked to build Bionicles out of Legos and they earned a few dollars for each one completed.

  • In Condition 1, when subjects completed a Bionicle, it was stored under a table to be disassembled at the end of the experiment.
  • In Condition 2, when subjects completed a Bionicle, it was disassembled in front of them as they worked on their next one.

Even though the “meaning” in Condition 1 was fairly limited, it was enough to create a difference between the number of Bionicles subjects created before quitting, in each condition. (Those in Condition 1 completed significantly more.) Lesson: People want to see the fruits of their labor through to completion. In a second experiment, Ariely shows the value of challenge. He gives origami novices instructions to build different objects, and upon completion asks them how much they’d pay to keep their creation. At the same time, he asks random bystanders how much they’d pay to buy the same creation.

  • In Condition 1, origami builders are given fairly easy directions, and they said they’d pay five times more for it than bystanders.
  • In Condition 2, origami builders were given confusing instructions, which made the process more challenging and, in the end, their results were pretty ugly. In this scenario the builders valued their creation even more highly than those in the first condition, while bystanders (understandably) valued these products lower than those in the first condition.

Conclusion: Our valuation of our own work is directly tied to the effort we’ve expended. These examples serve as a long-winded way to say, no. If someone said they would hand me my MBA now without my having to take any more classes, I would not do it. This first year of the MBA program was one of the most challenging years of my life — balancing a full-time job with a full-time course load is no easy task, but I’m going to see this through. My UNC Kenan-Flagler diploma is going to be the most beautiful thing I own because I’ve never worked so hard for anything in my life. If I were just handed my diploma now, this first year of (intense) effort would seem somewhat meaningless. In “A League of Their Own,” Tom Hanks’ character says of women’s baseball: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” Well, I think this applies to MBA@UNC as well. I am proud to be a part of this program and proud to be among the ranks of my amazing classmates — by working our tails off, we are doing something incredibly meaningful and worthwhile.   About the author: Mary Ryan is from DC and works as a Call Center Supervisor at The Great Courses (an awesome company that sells courses for lifelong learners on subjects ranging from economics to wine tasting -- Bill Gates is a huge fan). Mary earned her B.A. in Psychology from the University of Virginia, and spent a year working as a Guidance Counselor for two low-income schools in Roanoke, VA.  In her spare time she likes trying new restaurants and traveling.  She's getting married in February of 2014 to another MBA@UNC student (she started the program first and convinced him to apply) and for their honeymoon, they're planning on attending the South Africa immersion trip and will explore on their own afterwards.