Letter to myself as First Year MBA

You can feel the walls of Sage Hall at the Johnson School closing in as the Fall Semester begins again…a new crop of MBA students with the best intentions are about to get sucked into the vortex of over-achievement: club officer role competition, speed networking, Fortune 50 recruitment, and finally the “Core” curriculum where you are expected to absorb an incredible amount of case studies and quantitative material right from the get-go. First set of quizzes happen 7:30am in the morning and afterward everyone is wigging out because they are so used to academically crushing peer competition, but it’s different now. Later in the day, everyone will stampede their mailboxes to get the results of their quizzes. An elite few will be samba dancing as if they are on streets just liberated from a national dictator. However, most 1st year students will be peeling their face off those same liberated streets, because they don’t know what hit them.

I was one of those 1st year MBA students last fall semester stressed out from the challenges of all the above, peeling my face off the curb. The “Core” was a beast and frustrating because at the time I did not know the relevancy of half the things I was learning. (For those reading and not fully grasping difficulty of “Core” curriculum at Johnson, think how hard it would be to ride a bicycle while building it. You’ve got no seat, no handle bars, but you’re peddling, because if you don’t you will fall/fail.)

After the summer and a wonderful internship experience, I have a modified, more upbeat perspective. I more fully understand the importance of all those classes I learned during the “Core.” The MBA is less a silver bullet with a CEO nameplate and a six-figure salary. Rather, it is an immersion which expands your toolkit, your bag of tricks in analysis and managerial decision-making. There were situations at my internship where I did not know how to technically act on a problem. But I was able to illuminate where we should start and create a road-map. For example, there was one situation where I was doing A/B and multivariate testing and I had to determine whether the results we were getting had statistical confidence. I was able to ask the right questions and organize resources like my Statistics Professor and get clarification on the null hypothesis and the difference between H1 and H0, derive the formula for the p-value and make a recommendation to my team.

Or there was another instance when I was talking to a mentor within the company who worked in corporate strategy and I referenced running a DCF model in order to evaluate whether or not an investment should be green lighted based on the company’s weighted average cost of capital(WACC). When I was taking statistics and corporate finance the previous fall, I seriously thought I was wasting time because I would not need these things in digital business strategy and leadership training. However, in all of these situations at my summer internship I was able to engage my peers dynamically and add value by solving their particular problem. Over time, I recognized the more one is able to be in situations where they are a problem solver within a group paralyzed by uncertainty, the more they are perceived as a leader. And if there are enough situations where you are solving problems and are perceived as a leader, you will become the leader. That’s the power of the MBA.

And so what the MBA does is not give you all the answers but it boosts your self-confidence. You approach uncertainty almost thumbing your nose with Bruce Lee-like arrogance, because you know there is a solution to everything and you have the capacity to make it happen.

My best piece of advice to first year students is “Do not expect to get it all.” You won’t. The goal of the “Core” of any top MBA program is to dunk you into a pool of information up to your eyeballs, almost until you drown and have near-death experiences. These programs rock your confidence on purpose to make you stronger and better equipped in the real world.

An entrepreneurship expert once told me that venture capitalists aggressively scout out and place a special premium on those who have had near death experiences or been through 12 step programs. The reason is because VCs know the person who nearly dies and lives to tell the tale is the person who is committed to the success of the venture even when there is high risk and uncertainty. That is the person who VC’s put their money on. So don’t worry! I am certain you will be alright!