Last Updated Jan 25, 2011 11:09 AM EST
If you want to master business basics and advance your career, forget spending big money on an MBA, argues Kaufman, who thinks you should buy his book instead. The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business ($15.49 on Amazon, at the moment) offers a reading list and self-study guide designed to give you the goods, without the mountains of debt.
But can a library and study guide replace what you'd get on campus (or even online)? We asked Kaufman which aspiring business people should dig into his book and which should start prepping for the GMAT. Here are most though-provoking bits if our conversation:
Your book has a program for a DIY business MBA. Are you all-around anti-MBA, or is a traditional biz degree right for some?
I'm not necessarily anti-MBA -- I'm anti-unnecessary debt. Unfortunately, business school is a very poor deal for most students. You pay too much for a paltry return.
Is it worth it if you get the pedigree and network of a Stanford or Harvard?
If the MBA is from a top school, an MBA makes it easier to land an interview at a Fortune 50, big-six accounting firm, prestige consulting firm, or investment bank. In essence, you're buying a $150,000+ interview, and unless you're already wealthy, you're financing it with the worst sort of debt.
Beware the mystique trap: a job may look attractive, but once you're in it, it's far less exciting. These positions are almost uniformly stressful, demanding, time-consuming, and low on autonomy. If you sell your freedom for a credential, you may end up as an indentured servant.
If you want to succeed on your own terms, or want to start your own business, you're better off skipping the MBA and learning business on your own.
Does self-study have inherent advantages in addition to cost and flexibility?
It gives you the freedom to explore unexpected connections. For example, one of the books I recommend is Deep Survival, which at first blush appears to be about wilderness survival. Odd for a business reading list, until you realize that the human mind reacts to threatening workplace and negotiation situations the same way it responds to physical threats. Learning how the mind works under stress is enormously beneficial -- and you can learn the most by examining what happens when the human psyche is pushed to the absolute limit.
Examining edge cases can teach you more than focusing on more "normal" situations. By teaching yourself, you can explore the world more broadly to make unconventional and useful connections between topics. That depth of knowledge makes you a more insightful and more flexible person.
Also, degree programs are designed for the benefit of bureaucratic credentialing organizations, not necessarily to help you get the best results. By studying on your own, you can optimize your studies to get better results in less time.
The 80/20 principle applies to learning a new skill. Learn the 5 percent of concepts that provide 95 percent of the value of business study, and you can go surprisingly far, whether you're starting your own company or doing great work for someone else.
Do readers need some kind of "prerequisite" to do well with the your study program?
Most people assume business is complicated, so they're intimidated. The truth is that business isn't complicated - it's just not taught very well. Business isn't rocket science, but you do have to know what businesses really are. Once you've mastered the essentials, you're in good shape.
So, you get a great education with your book. How do you prove it for potential employers without that piece of paper?
That assumes you want to work for someone else. The fastest way to become a CEO is to start your own business; If you work for yourself, you can make your job as great as you want it to be. No interview required. And if you deliver valuable things, customers don't care about credentials.
That said, employers respond to results. The Personal MBA isn't a resume point. With the concepts and skills you learn, your work will produce real results.
How do you recommend people doing self-directed study stay focused? Isn't it easy to get distracted without the structure of traditional education?
There's no way around it: learning new skills takes time. How much time is mostly a matter of how you structure the learning process. Set aside dedicated time to learn every day, and eliminate distractions. I find blocking my internet connection and turning off my phone does wonders -- interruptions kill your concentration, and affect your ability to retain and use the information.
I also find that immediately applying what you learn is the key to making the concepts stick. If you're reading a book about business planning that recommends an approach, pull out a notebook and actually do what the book recommends. Reading is never enough -- you must apply what you learn as quickly as possible if you want to reap the rewards.
By the time you finish a book, you should have at least three action items related to what you learn. If you don't, you're probably wasting your time. If, a few pages in, you don't think the book will help you, put it down and read something else that will.
Have you seen your book really help any of its "graduates"?
No matter who you are or what you do, learning the fundamentals of business can make you more successful. The good news is that learning the essentials isn't difficult or expensive -- you can learn them yourself, and be the master of your own destiny.