Follow Elon Musk’s Advice and Skip the MBA

bunpa paning459
3 min readJun 3, 2021


Getting a top-tier MBA has always been an expensive proposition, setting you back something like $200,000 between tuition and living expenses (not to mention lost income). This year there may be even more reason to think long and hard before going to business school.

First, you’ll face unusually stiff competition. Applications at top schools are way up as people look for shelter from the economic storm caused by Covid. Plus, the virus may continue to disrupt in-person instruction, so you could end up battling your way in just to study online.

But there’s another fundamental reason you might want to give business school a miss, this year or any other. For many, a biz degree is simply a waste of money. Just ask Elon Musk.

Skills beat degrees.

As my colleague Jeff Haden noted in a recent column, the Tesla and SpaceX boss thinks too many companies are run by MBAs. “There should be more focus on the product or service itself, less time on board meetings, less time on financials,” Musk said.

Instead of going to school to master back-office intricacies, he encourages would-be business leaders to focus on learning what it takes to actually make things. That belief is reflected in his approach to hiring — Musk focuses on skills not degrees, and isn’t bothered by candidates without formal credentials.

Could you save several hundred thousand dollars if you too focused on skills rather than credentials? There are tons of great resources, from online classes to recommended reading lists, out there to help you plug gaps in your business knowledge. And a new one might be of particular interest to those tempted by top-tier business schools.

Degree comparison portal DegreeQuery recently dug into publicly available syllabi from Ivy League schools to find the most assigned books in various subjects. If you’re looking to craft a DIY business degree, you could do a lot worse than starting with their list of most popular business books assigned at Ivy League schools:

  1. Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking by M. Neil Browne. This book “helps bridge the gap between simply memorizing or blindly accepting information, and the greater challenge of critical analysis and synthesis,” according to Amazon.
  2. Organizational Culture and Leadership by Edgar H. Schein. A classic textbook on, you guessed it, organizational culture and leadership.
  3. Essentials of Organizational Behavior by Stephen P. Robbins. This textbook is now in its 14th edition, so it must be pretty useful.
  4. The Management of Innovation by G. M. Stalker and Tom Burns. Published in 1961, this is “one of the most influential books about business organizations ever,” Amazon claims.
  5. Business Finance: Theory and Practice by Eddie McLaney. Save yourself even more by checking the older editions of this one — the price drops from $75 to $3.
  6. A Theory of Human Motivation by A. H. Maslow. Heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? This is where the idea comes from.
  7. Critical Analysis of Organizations: Theory, Practice, Revitalization by Catherine Casey. This doesn’t look like a light read at all but it tackles an interesting theme: new, critical takes on the subject of organizations and how people behave within them.
  8. Defining Moments: When Managers Must Choose Between Right and Right by Joseph Badaracco. A discussion of navigating those moments when your business and values are in conflict.
  9. Business Intelligence and Analytics: Systems for Decision Support by Efraim Turban. “The only comprehensive, up-to-date guide to today’s revolutionary management support system technologies,” says Amazon.
  10. Corporate Finance by Jeffrey F. Jaffe, Stephen A. Ross, Randolph Westerfield. Another classic textbook, now in its 11th edition.

Happy studying.