An MBA graduate shares the 5 best lessons from his $60,000 business degree

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Are MBAs worth it? It depends on many factors, like whether you have the money, time and willingness to commit.

In 2015, I enrolled in The University of Florida’s online MBA program, all while working a full-time job in finance. The degree cost me $60,000 and took two years to complete, but it gave me the confidence to take business risks, improved my decision-making skills, expanded my network, and even boosted my salary.

It also taught me several fascinating and valuable lessons. Here are the ones that have helped me the most:

1. Contracts don’t have to be complicated

Having a contract for any business deal you make can save you from emotional distress and financial losses. It doesn’t matter if it’s with close friend or family member — anything that involves a chunk of your time and money should come with a contract.

Also, the mere act of proposing a contract is a good stress test: If the other party gives long-winded reasons not to sign, you should probably move on.

Even a short and simple handwritten one can go a long way. Here are the most essential elements to include:

  1. The “offer”: Something needs to be offered.
  2. The “consideration”: Something needs to be exchanged for it (usually money, otherwise it is a gift or a promise, rather than a contract).
  3. An “acceptance”: Both sides need to accept the terms of the contract.
  4. The “mutuality”: Both sides need to agree to the conditions and understand that they’ve entered into a contract.

2. The trick to persuasion

Aristotle’s three key components of persuasion, which I learned in my Business Writing and Negotiations class, gave me the tools and methods I needed to succeed at selling myself and winning people over:

  1. Ethos (ethics): Cite your moral standing and credibility.
    Example: “I am a wife, a mother, and a taxpayer. I’ve served faithfully for 20 years on the school board. I deserve your vote for [X].”
  2. Pathos (emotion): Tap into the emotional impact of your argument.
    Example: “My opponent wants to hurt [X] by doing [X]. Imagine how frustrated you would be if [X] were to happen.”
  3. Logos (logic): Craft your message with facts, such as evidence, analogies, statistics or even hypothetical scenarios.
    Example: “We do not have enough money to pay for improvements to [X]. And without improvements, the [X] system will falter and thus hinder our economy. Therefore, we should do [X] to pay for better [X].”

3. Too many options can be a bad thing

More than once, I’ve gone into a store, looked at rows of the same product in varying colors, brands and sizes. They all seemed like great options, but I felt paralyzed and couldn’t decide.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz captured this experience perfectly in his book, “The Paradox of Choice,” in which he argues that the more choices people have, the more likely they are to become dissatisfied with their choices later on, or feel stuck and don’t make a choice at all.

The number of options you present to a customer is extremely important and can affect your bottom line. Don’t overwhelm them.

4. Time in the market beats timing the market

In business school, we reviewed a study with a simple insight that replays in my head every time I make an investment decision: Investors who buy and hold tend to perform significantly better than those who trade often.

Our professor cited legendary investor Warren Buffett, who wrote in his 1991 shareholder letter that “the stock market serves as a relocation center at which money is moved from the active to the patient.”

I know, it isn’t sexy. But it was also the message of Jack Bogle, the founder of index fund giant Vanguard Group: “Time is your friend; impulse is your enemy.” Whenever markets were down and anxiety up, his advice was “don’t just do something, stand there.”

5. How to be a better negotiator

Advanced Negotiations was one of the hardest classes I took, partly because it pitted students against one another — and the outcomes affected our grades.

In one case, I represented Canadian zoos and wanted to borrow pandas from Chinese zoos. Working out the cost and duration of the panda visits caused a long standoff between me and my classmate.

But it taught me a few things about how to get what I want:

  • Statistically, the first person to make an offer in a negotiation tends to do better (they “anchor” their number first). But if you get too greedy, it could embitter the other party and hurt you.
  • Before going into a negotiation, do some scenario planning: What are all the things that might happen? How will you react? What are your walkaway terms?
  • Touch on things that will benefit the other person and what you can easily give them. Try to roll it all into your deal as a negotiation: “I can’t offer that salary, but I can let you work from home if you’d like.”

The ideal position is for both parties to walk away and feel like they got the deal of the century.

Sean Kernan is a writer and former financial analyst. Follow him on Twitter @seanjkernan.

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