Last week I toured a factory in New England that makes office furniture systems. If you think that this doesn’t have much to do with my everyday activities, you’re probably right. The visit was relevant to a project I’m handling, though, and I always find it interesting to see how things are made.

For some reason, this tour brought to mind the time I spent earning my MBA. Along with the others in my cohort (the class that moved through the program together), I found myself steeped in case studies and textbooks and discussions. I remember having the same initial reaction that I had at the furniture manufacturer: distantly relevant, but interesting nonetheless.

By the time I finished the program, I had realized something very important. It wasn’t the textbook material or the lectures that brought the most value to earning this degree. It was the people.

The true educational opportunity lay in spending three years with people from all industries and walks of life. I gained insights into how things work, how the real world runs, that could never be presented effectively in a lecture. I collected nuggets of information that I didn’t realize I had stuffed into the pockets of my brain until weeks, months, or years later when some problem or situation called for tapping into that gold mine.

I peeked into hi-tech manufacturing processes, insurance moguls, not-for-profits, law firms, drug companies, and mail-order distribution. I watched people juggle travel and work and families with varying degrees of success. I listened and learned and asked questions–we all did. And in the 13 years since I walked across the stage with hat and hood, I have found more applications than I ever expected for all this information that wasn’t covered on any syllabus.

Of course, I read volumes of case studies and textbook material. I wrote papers and made presentations. I stayed up late studying for tests. I completed evaluations of courses and professors at the end of every semester. I did all the things required to earn the letters behind my name, but my real MBA came from the people who did it alongside me.

So I’ll keep touring plants and asking questions and seizing opportunities to see how the world works. It all counts.

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