Mary Oliver

What graduating Harvard MBAs are really up against

June 5, 2012: 11:23 AM ET

Harvard's annual Portrait Project gives MBAs a chance to abandon their bullet-point approach to communication and reveal some inner truth. Here's some of what this year's writers had to say.

Jake Cusack: "When great sacrifices are made, they do not pass quietly into the night, but call loudly for the rest of us to fulfill their promise, their legacy, their dreams."

By John A. Byrne

(Poets&Quants) -- An honest, personal account of just about anyone's life can offer a rare, powerful view not just of where someone has been, but also where they want to go. For the past 10 years, Harvard Business School has had its own dreamcatcher of sorts run by students who gather essays from classmates that address one rather profound question: "What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

The question was first posed by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver in her poem, "The Summer Day." Ten years ago, an inspired MBA student at Harvard named Tony Deifell borrowed the line and presented it to his classmates, beginning Harvard's Portrait Project. Since 2002, Deifell has returned to campus from his home in California with his camera every year to photograph the winning essayists -- all 432 of them over 10 years.

His stark black-and-white portraits tend to bring the sentences of the subjects to life. Their words, often highly personal if not intimate, are paired with the dramatic photographs at an on-campus exhibition during commencement week as well as online and, for the past three years, in print.

Ultimately, the project is about storytelling. As Betsy Brink, assistant director of MBA communications and marketing at Harvard, puts it, "Storytelling is at the heart of every great community. And the storytelling that happens through these essays reveals our students in a way that no other medium does. These stories leave a legacy among classmates who I've overheard say, 'Gosh, I have known this guy for two years but I didn't know this about him." The legacy also filters out through the world to prospective students and alumni and it smashes the stereotype of the HBS student."

Maxeme Tuchman reflected on losing one of her students before heading to Harvard in her portrait essay.

For students, the Portrait Project is a chance to abandon their bullet-point approach to communication and reveal through prose some inner truth or secret. Sometimes it's writing about a powerful loss that still lingers, other times a public pledge for the future. "I see it as the last statement of the class before we leave: What do we want to say to each other, to our family and friends, and to the classes of students that will come to Harvard after us," says Meredith Cantrell, one of the student co-leaders this year.

The project is also a rare opportunity for MBA students to start a conversation with the wider world. In fact, for the first time, Harvard put note cards and pens under each essay at its exhibit in Spangler Hall this year, inviting viewers to write their own thoughts and drop them in a bowl on the floor. Hundreds responded. Essayist emails were handed out and put on Twitter and Facebook to encourage dialogue. More

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