I was in debt, living with my parents in New Jersey, and I needed a job.

In the help-wanted section, I saw that the NYC Department of Corrections was hiring a Statistician. To be working for the city, that’s not bad. In an office, I would think. I had taken some advanced statistics, knew enough about the software. Doesn’t matter, I didn’t get the job.

Or any others, week after week, going into months.

I finally got an offer: Reporter on the Education beat with The Montclair Times, my hometown paper, for $24k/year, full-time. But I couldn’t afford to take it. Student loans.

Four years earlier, on April Fools’ Day, 1996, I had quit my job as a database programmer.

I wanted to get an MBA, and I came up with all sorts of reasons as to why it was a good idea. To learn about the business behind the technology. To rebrand myself beyond being just a database programmer. To get a higher-paying job. To learn what I wouldn’t be able to learn easily on my own, like how the financial markets really work, or how to network, or how to prepare for a job interview.

But at a fundamental level, it was an escape from a job that was no longer fulfilling. It was an escape from the commuter bus to Port Authority Bus Terminal. It was an escape from a city in which I hadn’t yet found my place.

And it was an escape with a destination: Japan.

The plan:

  3. ?
  4. PROFIT!!!

At the beginning, everything went according to plan.

I had a high GMAT score, a good story about working with entrepreneurs, and solid recommendations to back it up. Those factors outweighed my mediocre undergrad GPA.

It came down to three finalists: Carnegie Mellon, Thunderbird, and Vanderbilt.

Carnegie Mellon was my alma mater. It was nice of them to accept me, but I wasn’t going back. I barely made it through the first time around.

Vanderbilt was a solid choice in every respect. Strong reputation, well-regarded academics, and an intimate scale. Beautiful campus, affordable city, close to nature. And a partial scholarship.

Thunderbird had the best vibes. I had driven from New Jersey to Phoenix, by way of Pittsburgh, Columbus, Raleigh, Nashville, New Orleans, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso, and Tucson. I liked the people, the campus, and the strange desert climate. I had a good feeling about the place. The school was offering a Master in International Management (MIM) combining business, language, and area studies. I would have been around people with similar interests to my own.

Then I got into the Cornell Summer Japanese FALCON program, an eight-week intensive introduction to the spoken language. I spoke on the phone with the head of the program, Professor Robert Sukle. We talked about my future. I told him about Thunderbird. Sukle-sensei said that if I wanted to learn Japanese and learn it well, it would take more than a part-time commitment. To be precise, it would take a full year: the Summer program plus the Fall and Spring semesters as a Japanese FALCON.

Sukle-sensei made a good point. At Thunderbird, I would only learn the basics of Japanese. Also, I hadn’t studied business as an undergraduate, and so most of my two-year schedule at Thunderbird would be filled with required classes. By comparison, the traditional MBA curriculum of Vanderbilt would let me specialize, and if I couldn’t decide on a speciality, I could pursue a double concentration. And the price was right.

Instead of Thunderbird’s all-in-one, two-year bundle that closely matched my interests, I chose to assemble an à la carte education spanning business, language, and area studies. Vanderbilt (1996-1998) for an MBA; Cornell (Summer 1996, Full-year 1998-1999) for Japanese; and eventually, Harvard Extension School (2003-2012) for Foreign Literature and Culture. I learned more doing it my way, but it would have been easier to go with the bundle.

I also might have stayed in Arizona for a much better reason.

In Tucson, I took a meeting at the University of Arizona, following up on my response to an RFP found on a user group mailing list. A team was seeking to improve health outcomes by putting laptops in ambulances. With the data collected, they wanted to optimize ambulance fleet deployments across the great expanses of the state. As a certified developer in the database software they were using, I could have jumped right in, helping people who save lives.

But I turned down the opportunity. I had a four-point plan and I wasn’t stopping for ambulances. In retrospect, I’m sorry about that. I could have made myself useful. And by being adjacent to a major university, who knows what might have come from that?

I drove back East. After a pleasant summer learning basic Japanese at Cornell, I went to Vanderbilt, where I got what I paid for, a well-rounded business education. I concentrated in finance and accounting, and had an internship working in ventures and alliances for MCI Communications in Washington, D.C. Upon graduation, I had two job offers in hand, one for $75k with a Colorado telecom company and another for $44k with an airline in Phoenix.

The telecom job was a pig in a poke. I don’t remember learning anything about the company or even interviewing, and so it must have been one of those situations where you check a form to submit your resume to a bunch of companies. I’ll assume they were impressed by my tech background, telecom internship, and coursework in regulatory policy and antitrust law. Or the simpler explanation, that someone at the company owed the placement office a favor.

The airline job was statistical yield management, figuring out how to fill airplanes, how many seats to overbook, and where to send the planes. I gave Phoenix another visit, but this time it didn’t feel right for me. I liked that the airline job would let me fly free on any empty flight and imagined spending weekends exploring the West. And then I concluded that the prospect of free flights was no way to choose a career.

I went with a third option: To finish the full-year Japanese FALCON program at Cornell. If I didn’t do it then, I never would. I had been granted a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship from the US Department of Education. And I liked the idea of studying just one topic for an entire year.

By mid-1999, the first two parts of my plan were complete. I had an MBA from a Top 30 business school, and I spoke passable Japanese, far from fluent and years from literate, but enough to get an interview with a Japanese telecom firm. They flew me out for second round of interviews in Tokyo. I wrote about this elsewhere (see Tokyo Nice), and let’s just say it didn’t pan out.

In Tokyo, I worked as a freelance writer and quickly ran out of money. Although I had partial scholarships for the MBA and the year of Japanese, I had borrowed for the rest, including three years’ living expenses and accrued interest from deferrals. I wasn’t making enough as a freelance writer to support myself in Tokyo, let alone make a dent in the loans.

I returned to New Jersey and moved back in with my parents. I had talked a good game with the four-point plan, but my father was out of patience. I had to get a job and no longer had the luxury of being picky about it.

It was a difficult time. I was losing confidence in myself. I might have gone back to Nashville to throw myself on the mercy of the placement office, but I was too proud to do that. And so I started answering newspaper ads, anything that might fit the profile of a 30-year-old former programmer with some Japanese and a low-miles MBA.

Eventually, it was my family who came through for me. A close cousin had been working for a trade publisher, Miller Freeman, that had recently acquired CMP Media. In 2000, at the tail end of the tech bubble, the company was still hiring and paying bonuses for referrals. Win-win-win.

I interviewed for the job of Associate Editor with Bank Systems & Technology, a B2B publication for senior-level bank executives. I went in and said, “I can do the job and I want the job.” I got the job, making twice the salary of a hometown reporter.

My expensive education finally got put to work. It turns out that I had become fluent in a language after all – the language of business and finance.