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Rising State at HBS Opts Out of Rat Race

By Benjamin D. Grizzle, Crimson Staff Writer

At the end of Mark S. Albion's '73 first year at Harvard, his father came to visit him while attending his own 25th reunion. Standing atop Weeks footbridge, his father asked him how he intended to measure success.

"Do you want to become famous or become rich?" he asked the young student, who was considering concentrating in Greek and the classics. "Most people can't do both."

But after about 25 years chasing both, the student who went on to win an appointment as a professor at Harvard Business School at the age of 31 says that while fame and fortune make a living, they don't make a life.

His Personal Start-Up

Albion says he fell into the economics concentration more because of his father's expectation than his own interest.

After graduation, Albion took 15 months to backpack around Europe, but his youthful wanderings were short lived: He returned to Harvard in 1974 and went on to earn an MBA and Ph.D.

He said many of the people he knew at the time felt they needed to make a good living--in part because that was what their parents had to do after World War II.

He would go on to earn an appointment to Harvard Business School in 1982, where he began teaching marketing--at age 31.

Once there, the young scholar was on the fast track to success--international corporations sought him out for his marketing expertise, and he appeared on 60 minutes and Nightline because of his innovative approach to marketing.

But Albion says the success came with a price. He says he was unsatisfied and generally uninspired.

"People would ask me what I did and it would take me two seconds. 'I'm a prof. at Harvard Business School teaching marketing,'" he says.

What's more, he says, he began to realize the truth in Lily Tomlin's now famous statement: 'The problem with the rat race is that even if you win, you are still a rat.'

"It all started to feel wrong," he told Fast Company magazine in January. "While my high-paying, high prestige job made me the envy of my neighbors, I could feel the life being sucked out of me."

Though he could feel the drain, Albion says its was difficult to break free from the money and status that tied him to Harvard and his professorship.

Opening His Eyes

But the real "wake-up call from hell" came in 1986 when he learned his mother had developed cancer.

He says watching her fight while still devoting her energy to her high-end textile company inspired and challenged him. He too wanted to be so passionate about his work.

"I felt like I was leaving a legacy I couldn't believe in," Albion says.

In surveying his students at HBS, he says he found that an overwhelming majority of them wanted to learn how to make money more than anything else.

He had no trouble understanding their sentiments--his own life's question then, he says, was, "'How can I be a Marxist and still own a Jacuzzi?'"

Yet he was a dissatisfied with teaching graduate students, and he thirsted for the kind of passion in his own life that his mother had.

As he talked to his colleagues about his grief over his mother's illness and his dissatisfaction with his work, he says he found that many of them shared his doubts about the meaningfulness of their work at HBS.

In 1988, Albion made the decision to leave Harvard, his eyes opened by his mother's illness and those doubts that his colleagues had confirmed.

Lessons Learned

Albion says the decision to leave Harvard taught him two important lessons, which he says are fundamental to being able to merge one's career and one's passions.

The first, he says, is to "keep your walking costs low"--never letting one's passions and one's work be divided by financial or social necessities.

The second, he says, is for people not to get good at things they don't really want to do.

"People compartmentalize their lives. They say they'll make money for ten years--then do what they want to do," Albion says.

Sharing His Experience

Albion says he learned these lessons the hard way as he experienced the losses and disappointments that came from walking away from a flourishing career at Harvard.

When he left, he says, he lost many of the supporters and financial backers who had once sought him out.

His first effort to merge his career and his personal values--a company that promoted anti-drug messages--fell apart.

"It was an incredible setback when it failed," he told Fast Company.

Albion says he came to realize that his true gift was teaching--even though he might have been teaching the wrong things at HBS.

In talking with his colleagues at HBS, he says he realized that rather than just teaching students to make money, he wanted to teach people to do good.

"Money is like manure," he says. "Pile it up, and it starts to stink. Spread it around, and it does a lot of good."

After leaving Harvard, Albion got involved with the Social Venture Network--a group of socially conscious executives, investors and entrepreneurs.

His work with the group encouraged him to give back to other people in his work. He says he wanted to teach about life, and how people can merge making a living with having a life.

He says members of Generation X are what he calls the "'And'" generation.

"You want to have a life and make a living," he says.

He also went on to co-found a group called Students for Responsible Business--a group which links students who want to merge their lives and their passions with businesses that are socially responsible.

He says he began surveying businesses, business school students and executives, and found an overwhelming desire to be socially responsible and do more in their work than just make money.

Albion's friend, Seth Goldman '87, president and CEO of Honest Tea, says Albion's work is helping change industry for the better.

"It's part of Mark's mission to change how business does business," Goldman says.

Albion's current undertaking, ML2: Making a Life, Making a Living, is an electronic newsletter with over 2.5 million subscribers.

In addition to providing advice and research on social responsibility in business, Albion and his partners help connect professionals who want to unite their careers and their passions with socially responsible businesses.

To make ends meet, Albion and his partners serve as consultants to businesses that seek to attract and retain similarly passionate employees.

But Albion says he real drive is to help other people be happier and more satisfied about their careers and their lives.

For instance, one of the things Albion has found in his many surveys and research is that most successful people have low self-esteem.

He calls this phenomenon the "Imposter Syndrome," in which such people believe that if others really knew them for what they really are, they wouldn't think they are as good at their professions as is widely believed.

He says one woman he knew had a starting salary of $350,000 at Morgan Stanley and was one of the youngest people in the company's history--as well as the first woman--to speak to the executive committee.

Still, he says, she felt unsuccessful.

"Self-esteem comes from being and doing, not getting. The way you get in life is by giving," he says. "People want people to respect and like them for the right things."

Albion has compiled not only the wisdom of his own experience, but that of many of his precursors and contemporaries into his several best-selling books and hundreds of newsletters and articles.

Goldman says Albion's influence stems from a personal desire to see other people satisfied in their lives and their careers.

"His greatest powers come not from communicating academic ideas, but from communicating about life--how to live it, how to lead it," Goldman says.

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