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altMBA recap: 84 hours, 105 kindred spirits, and countless lessons

altMBA recap: 84 hours, 105 kindred spirits, and countless lessons

I recently completed a month-long, intense online workshop called the altMBA. It was created by Seth Godin, one of the thinkers and leaders I most respect.

Raven: spirit animal of the altMBA

My intention here is to debrief myself on my experience and share some of the lessons learned from the experience. I’m writing this as much for myself and a reminder to future me as anything else.

I hope that this contributes something to your own journey. Let’s get into it.

Why’d you do it?

I’m the kind of person that is always looking to learn and grow. I love my life now, and I’m obsessed with getting to the next version of myself. I love who I am today, and this version of me better be obsolete compared to who I am and what I’m capable of in a year.

I took the altMBA for three reasons:

  1. to level up as a leader and creative
  2. to learn to ship work regularly and overcome my perfectionism / to beat “the resistance
  3. to push myself (and be pushed) to get clear about the change I seek to make

In this context, “shipping” means putting work out there for others to engage with.

What does it cover? Is it a “real MBA”?

First off, no, it’s not a “real MBA,” not in the way you mean it if you’re asking the question. There are no degrees and few “right answers” in the altMBA. And, you learn a tremendous amount about business, yourself, and being an effective changemaker and leader.

Does it work?

Unequivocally, yes.

I got everything I wanted out of it, and much more.

How does it work?

It’s one month long and pretty intense. I averaged about 20 hours a week for that month. There are online learning group meetings three days a week: two weeknights, and all-day Sunday.

One of the keys to the program—and one reason I took it—is the rhythm of shipping every day. You are shipping SOMETHING every day—feedback, comments, new work, or reflections on previous work.

For more on the basics, see the FAQ.

My big takeaways

I have a much longer list in my notes, but here are my top few takeaways, followed by an explanation of each:

  • it’s ALL made up
  • what a growth mindset actually looks like
  • shipping isn’t final or fatal
  • how to be generous as a creative
  • clarity on my mission

Let’s dig into each of these briefly.

Takeaway 1: It’s ALL made up

Look around you. Everything you see—EVERYTHING—someone just made up.

It’s all invented. Everything.

This is such a simple but profound lesson. If you let it sink in, it will change your life.

Steve Jobs said the same thing eloquently in “One Last Thing,” a PBS interview in which aired on TV in 2011:

Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.

This really struck me during the program when I was considering the creative confidence that I so admired in some of my role models. The confidence in their ideas, in the ability of their ideas to make a difference in the world and for people. And it hit me—I have the same raw material as they do. So that confidence must be built off a track record of shipping, of establishing credibility with themselves by their actions.

This idea—establishing credibility with myself—is a powerful one that I’ve been playing with lately. All of the areas where I have fear, there is some tiny version of it that I could do, and then build on. In doing so, I build credibility with myself. It’s gathering evidence to convince myself of my ability to do something by doing a teeny tiny bit of that thing, then a tiny bit more, rinse and repeat.

This was a lesson I was introduced to in The Art of Possibility (my notes from the book are here), which happens to be one of my all-time most recommended books. It’s a must-read. This book was on the pre-reading list for altMBA and it was a joy to revisit.

Takeaway 2: What a growth mindset actually looks like

Another of my all-time favorite books is Mindset, by Carol Dweck. Dweck popularized the ideas of a fixed and growth mindset, which she defined in a 2012 interview:

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

I believe humans are the ultimate adaptation machines. It’s the human superpower. So to me, having a growth mindset means believing that you can learn anything you can set your mind to and owning the superpower we each already have.

A false growth mindset?

But what about a false growth mindset? It’s something we all have, sometimes and in some areas, as Dweck explained in The Atlantic:

False growth mindset is saying you have growth mindset when you don’t really have it or you don’t really understand [what it is]. It’s also false in the sense that nobody has a growth mindset in everything all the time. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets. You could have a predominant growth mindset in an area but there can still be things that trigger you into a fixed mindset trait. Something really challenging and outside your comfort zone can trigger it, or, if you encounter someone who is much better than you at something you pride yourself on, you can think “Oh, that person has ability, not me.” So I think we all, students and adults, have to look for our fixed-mindset triggers and understand when we are falling into that mindset.

How did this show up for me?

It turns out, I didn’t actually have the growth mindset I thought I did. I had to confront this (and still do) in meeting the cadence of shipping work in altMBA. I’m a recovering perfectionist, and that desire for everything to be perfect is just a defense mechanism. It’s a way of trying to avoid criticism of my work.

This was where the idea of a growth mindset got real for me. I already have a growth mindset in many areas of my life, but the challenge for me was to learn to transform a fixed mindset to a growth mindset in an area where it turned out I had a false growth mindset.

I did this with a method that seemed, at first, absurd.

I had to find a way to get myself to not only ship work but to actually lean into the criticism and feedback that would follow, look FORWARD to the criticism and feedback, to get myself emotionally excited to see what was wrong with my baby.

The only way I found that worked was to fake it, at first. I basically had to talk myself through it and force myself to generate enthusiasm and generate positive emotions. I was jumping up and down in my room, talking aloud to myself in an animated way, saying things like “this is GREAT that these people care so much that they’ll help me make it better” and “I LOVE that I just got one step closer to having this dream be real by finding out how it couldn’t be.”

Honestly, it felt awkward and ridiculous. But it worked.

This is the idea of embodying emotion, and wiring together new neural circuits by creating emotion around them. At first it was mechanical, but soon enough, that wiring can become the default. And within about a week, I was actually thinking that way automatically!

This blew my mind. One of my role models, Tom Bilyeu, talks about this a ton in his epic show, and it made sense to me but I’d never gone through it before. As he says, “the struggle is guaranteed, the money is not.” So I better learn to love the struggle.

This is how you learn to love the struggle.

How am I carrying this forward? Well, I’ll continue to mechanistically generate that enthusiasm in the beginning when I need to, and I’ve also added this as one of the key questions I revisit often:

How can I get value, joy, and energy out of EVERY step in the process? Out of this step right now?

I’m asking myself that every time I get stopped right now and it’s helping.

Takeaway 3: Shipping isn’t final or fatal

This relates directly to the perfectionism I discussed above. Shipping, the act of putting something you made out there, is an act of courage. It’s courageous because you know (or think you know) that people are going to criticize it. It’s hiding from whatever feeling is anticipated once that happens.

For me, I remember getting stung by a nasty blog comment years ago and it actually affecting me. Or by things I put out there not being received the way I intended, a partnership not going at all the way I wanted, whatever. We all have things like this.

The key is going again.

Shipping, and the criticism it opens up as a possibility (if I’m lucky enough to be doing something that anyone cares about enough to criticize) is the path. And it turns out shipping isn’t final, and it isn’t fatal.

It isn’t final because I can always ship more, ship again, based on what I’ve learned. In altMBA we did this on every project: we’d ship a project, get feedback, and then ship a reflection incorporating that feedback and discussing how we now saw things. This was magical.

It isn’t fatal, because learning to give and receive criticism (per growth mindset above) is not only exciting but a real act of generosity. Generous skeptics and critics are a GIFT. They help me as a creator to get better and help illuminate the path for my work to make the difference I hope it will.

Takeaway 4: How to be generous as a creative

Go first.

Seriously, this is the core of it. Being willing to go first, to be vulnerable first and expose yourself to criticism, makes all the difference.

To borrow Seth’s words, it’s confronting the fear of “this might not work.”

I learned this because early on, despite knowing intellectually that this was a group of really generous people on the same journey as me, it felt really risky to be vulnerable. To put myself out there.

What I discovered was that it was the very act of going first and being generous by being vulnerable, that actually made me feel safe to be vulnerable. Kind of a paradox. It goes back to my mind gathering evidence for an assertion: by doing the action of being vulnerable, I got immediate evidence that “oh, this is ok, I’m ok. I’m still alive. It must be safe to do this after all.”

Silly as it sounds, that is the emotional core of a lot of what stops me.

Also, criticism: in learning to receive criticism, I was greatly helped by learning how to give useful criticism. It is a real act of generosity to empathize and do the work to understand where the other person is, where they’re trying to go, and to then offer as much generous feedback as possible in helping them get where they want to go.

It turns out that this is entirely separate from whether or not I “like” what they had to say, or agree with it. As a fellow student said to me during the program, “agreement is not a prerequisite for growth.”

Takeaway 5: Clarity on my mission

I got an immense amount of clarity through this program. Largely due to the rigor that the written word brings. (You write a lot in altMBA.) The writing, combined with the generous questions and challenges from my fellow students, really pushed me to get clear.

For me, lack of clarity is just another defense mechanism to avoid being at risk, avoid “this might not work,” and it is the backup to perfectionism. Lack of clarity kicks in on the ones I REALLY care about because those areas are even more sensitive. The things like what do I believe work is for? What do I want work to be? What change do I want to make in the world? Those company or product ideas I have, what are they for?

So I get to keep putting those things out there and strengthening that growth mindset.

I got a huge amount of clarity on three things as it relates to a vision I have for a new kind of company, my personal why, and my career mission:

  • What’s work for?: I believe work is a place that people go to discover, develop, and express who we are in service of something greater than ourselves. One of the changes I seek to make is that I seek to change the people I work with from people who see work as something they DO, to seeing work as a place they go to discover, develop, and express who they ARE.
  • My why: I get up every day to discover what’s possible so that people can flourish and marvel in the adventure of life. To get the most out of life and help others do the same. To see what’s possible and help others see that for themselves.
  • My career mission: to use work design and innovation to help people and their environments thrive.

I’m sure the wording of all of the above will shift over time, but the essence is there. I will be shipping much more work based on the three points above.

These are now the core of what I seek to express through my work and creativity going forward. I am deeply, deeply grateful to know this, especially to the many people who contributed challenging questions and generous listening throughout many conversations and much work.

There are no secrets

In closing, you should know that there are no secrets in the altMBA. By that, I mean that all the material we read and referenced in our project prompts is publicly accessible.

I agreed not to share the course material / prompts (as that is the property of altMBA and their proprietary curriculum) but here a few resources that I think would be great starters.

So why does it work? That is a post unto itself, but three that jump out right away are:

  • the power of a committed group to improve ideas
  • people enrolled in a growth journey together
  • setting norms right up front

Before you go down this rabbit hole, let me remind you of one thing: the ONLY thing that matters is that you do the work. That you actually USE these resources.

  • Ship It journal: here is a free PDF version. I love having a physical copy too, so consider one of the special edition print versions just released. The key isn’t buying it. The key is using it.
  • My favorite two questions, that if answered honestly, change everything: “What’s it for?” and “Who’s it for?”. Answering Seth’s key project questions would be a total game changer for any project, though.
  • Read Seth’s books and listen to his podcast, Akimbo
  • Use Zig Ziglar’s method for goal setting. It’s probably overkill each time in the long run, but going through every step of the process for the first 5-10 goals will train you how to think.
  • If you can, take the altMBA. It was awesome. (I’m suggesting this entirely of my own volition. I was not incentivized or nudged to get others to take the program in any way. It just was worth it.)

As Seth says: Go make a ruckus. I’ll see you out there.