Life is an emergent strategy. This is my main takeaway from my two years at HBS.
In one of my favorite classes, Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise, we studied a theory about deliberate strategy and emergent strategy. With the former, we map out our goals and the actions we will take to achieve those goals, predicting that x will lead to y over z time. With emergent strategy we open our course to influence from the environment, and often the resulting actions and outcomes are unplanned and often a surprise. Businesses use a blend of both approaches, though more established companies try to be more deliberate and startups by nature must rely on emergent strategy.
As I pursue entrepreneurship full time after graduation, I have realized that life is really much more like a startup than most of us would be comfortable with. No matter how much we try to plan out our lives, very few of us will end up where we originally intended.
My first year at HBS, I listened avidly at CEO speeches, CPD workshops and career coaching sessions for some hint of what I should do to reach some vague destination in the future where I would be living my life to the fullest. We saw many business leaders who had “made it,” and we all wanted to know how to achieve the same success. We asked the same question over and over with slightly different wording: “How did you get to where you are?” The answer was also basically the same. “I don’t know.” When they were our age, these leaders couldn’t have predicted that they would end up where they are now. They simply lived life and took opportunities as they came along, and with passion and perseverance they accomplished great things.
I came to HBS certain that I would return to China and continue to work in consulting. In a few months that all changed as mentors and classmates challenged me to think about what I really wanted to do with my life. I’ve always had a love of storytelling and creativity. I took a 180 degree turn out of a traditional business field into entertainment and arts, writing script coverage on my free time and landing internships at Lincoln Center and Mirada, a studio in LA. I thought I’d be set for Hollywood after graduation. Then at the beginning of my second year, I was hit very powerfully with a startup idea. It was scary. Heart-pounding scary because I’d never thought about starting a business. At the same time I couldn’t stand the thought of this idea NOT coming to fruition simply because I was afraid. I started working on it right away, wondering if this would derail all my plans for Hollywood.
Several months later I was pursuing three startup ideas at the same time. I eventually picked one as circumstances narrowed down my choices to one path – a revolutionary technology that allows musicians to play with real, dynamic orchestra sound. An orchestra in your pocket that listens to and follows you like real musicians would. As a pianist I’ve always dreamed of playing a full concerto with an orchestra, and lamented that I never would be able to because I’d given up professional training a long time ago. 99% of musicians are in my position. Now this technology, Music+1, can change that, revolutionizing the world of music performance the way recordings did for music listening a hundred years ago. I am working with a great team, and we recently won a runner up prize at the Deans’ Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge. China is a huge part of our future plans. I’ve landed at the intersection of my passions, and through this I think I have discovered the overall driving force behind my work. To spread beauty to the world.
Two years ago, I had no clue I would end up staying in Boston, much less working on a startup. But through a wandering wide-eyed journey, I have come to a place I know is right at this time in my life. And while from my limited, human perspective, my life strategy seems to be perpetually emergent, I know that from God’s perspective, it is deliberate. Only when I have already lived through these things can I look back and see how He was so meticulous and so very good in how He shaped my path. Proverbs 16:9 encapsulates this.
“In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.”
I can embrace uncertainty because I know that “emergent” does not mean “random.” It means open-mindedness and faith, and no regrets.
- Ann Chao, MBA 2013