You landed great jobs out of college, you had success, you studied for the GMATs, you put tons of time into your application essays and you got through the stress of waiting to hear back from a mysterious admissions committee. One or two crazy schools said, “Sure, let’s give this guy a shot.” You were ecstatic — you called your mom, grandmother and told anyone who would listen, “I got into business school!”
But, then what?
I’ve had a bit of time to reflect on my business school experience at MIT Sloan and want to offer what I thought were some of the most valuable insights and experiences I had. They are probably not what you expect (hint: no one will care what grade you got in finance in 5 years), but I hope they can help you get the most out of your experience:
1. Choose to be a leader
When I entered business school I was a bit mystified by “leadership” and what it really meant. I didn’t necessarily think of myself as a leader at the time since I didn’t have a formal leadership role with direct reports in my previous job. However, at some point during business school, I realized that leadership was a choice — a shift of mindset. It was not a formal title, position or number of direct reports.
I actively thought about and worked to cultivate my leadership style, digging out feedback from the past to understand my current style. In addition, I was inspired by a talk from the late Don Davis, the former CEO of Stanley Works. I remember him using the phrase “servant leadership,” a philosophy where leaders focus primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities they belong to. This style resonated with me and helped me define my own personal leadership style, one which I continually reflect and refine on.
Developing this style doesn’t start and end in business school — it’s something I grapple with every day. To stay focused on developing this style, I often ask myself the question “how would a leader I admire act?” in the workplace.
2. Get out of your comfort zone
Business school gives you a range of opportunities and a safe space to look like a fool. From participating in a choreographed New Kids on the Block dance to learning how to dance the Irish Jig from a world champion classmate (seriously) to taking an Improv class where we learned how to deal with uncertainty and emotions, there are countless moments helped me stretch myself and grow.
This philosophy applies inside the classroom as well. The class that stood out the most was “Literature, Ethics and Authority” taught by an incredible comparative literature professor. I took it solely because I had never taken a literature class before. I was blown away. We dove into a range of stories from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience to the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Throughout the class, we tackled tough questions of fairness, justice and equality. After viewing Hotel Rwanda we had a lively discussion on the battle of individuals versus institutions as seen through General Dallaire’s struggle to get NATO countries to take timely action during the Rwandan genocide. There is no business situation that compares to Rwanda, but these discussions helped me to develop a deeper understanding of an individual’s role in the world and some of the potential limits we face in solving the world’s toughest problems.
3. Start crafting your “story”
In business school, I underestimated how much I needed to market and sell myself to employers. I was a top performer at a consulting firm before graduate school and I thought everyone would want to hire me. I was naïve and I was wrong. On paper I was great, but I wasn’t convincing anyone. I faced a string of painful rejections and I ended up landing a job towards the end of the recruiting cycle.
Upon reflection, I realized I got that job because I had thought deeply about what I was bringing to the table and what made me unique. I now like to call these my “superpowers” and I continually refine them by thinking through what value I am offering to my current or potential employer. I now also directly ask some version of this to people that I interview: “What are the three things that make you stand out? As you move beyond the structured hierarchy of entry level roles, convincing people that you bring value to the table is more important than ever in creating opportunities.
4. Start gaining a better understanding of “what matters”
If you can’t define “what matters” you will have a hard time managing trade-offs when you start working again. The best time to start thinking about this is during business school because there are endless amounts of good opportunities. If you are able to say no during school it will be much easier once you are in the working world again. The most successful people I know can always answer the question, “What do you value most?” — and it doesn’t have to be overly complex. It may be as simple as taking a lunch break every day or never missing a dinner with your family. As long as you define what matters to you, you won’t resent the hours you spend working after graduation and you will have more energy in all aspects of your life.
I’ve given you four pieces of advice, but if you have to remember one thing it’s this: practice gratitude. Catch yourself when you are caught up in the stress of competing for some of the most incredible jobs in the world to remind yourself just how lucky you are.
Now embrace that burden and dream big.
I originally wrote this for CommonBond.
Just published! The Pathless Path is Paul's book about walking away from a "perfect" job with a promising future and starting over again. Through painstaking experiments, living in different countries, and a deep dive into the history of our work beliefs, Paul pieces together a set of ideas and principles that guide him from unfulfilled and burned out to what he calls "the pathless path" - a new story for thinking about work in our lives. Learn More & Buy The Book Here