I was floating on a tube on the Colorado River, basking in the sun and laughing with smart, interesting McCombs first-year MBAs when I thought, Life doesn't get any better. Orientation was winding down and I would soon encounter an academically grueling semester. I tried to savor the moment, knowing the team-building seminars and 6th Street escapades would soon be replaced with textbooks, case studies, and spreadsheets.
Before every big change in my life, people have said to me, "You can know something is coming and try to prepare yourself, but ultimately, you just have to experience it,". Each time, that advice has translated differently. Sometimes, the underlying meaning was, This is really going to stink. This time it meant: There are going to be highs and lows, but you'll be learning, surrounded by smart people, and your opportunities are endless. Overall, the highs drastically exceed the lows.
Despite small frustrations and the occasional setback, I love business school with a passion heretofore reserved for Shiraz, Mozart, a well-choreographed production number, crÃ¨me brulÃ©, and Jane Austen. Here are some highlights from my first semester.
Marketing is Math?
The list of core classes for the first semester was daunting: accounting, finance, statistics, economics, and marketing. As a more qualitative student, marketing was my beacon of hope. It was first thing in the lineup, 9:30 a.m. Monday morning. Great, I thought. I'll get this semester started off right. Wrong! Our first assignment was a marketing math problem set. And the fun didn't stop there. My study team had the pleasure of being first to present our analysis of the first case study, about a beer company that was considering a new product launch. The case involved cannibalization and my team had crafted an elaborate spreadsheet and PowerPoint slides, complete with cartoon pictures of cannibals in the right-hand corner. It's marketing, I figured. You have to have a sense of humor.
Unfortunately, cannibals or not, the professor had major problems with our calculations. We had made an error, but we couldn't figure out where. Up in front of 60 people with egg on our faces, I attempted to fix our spreadsheet on the fly. (A word to the wise: Don't do that). I left class frustrated. I thought marketing would have more to do with big-picture ideas. Where was the creativity? So far, I felt like all I had done in marketing was arithmetic and modeling. Weren't we supposed to do that in finance? Even wosre, I still didn't know how to calculate cannibalization.
To my professor's credit, he set aside time to go over the calculations with me, and when he did, it made complete sense. In our effort to do well, my group had overcomplicated things. The right answer was much simpler. I was also lucky to have a phenomenal peer advisor, a second-year student. She had been extremely successful in marketing and assured me that it wasn't all science—there was some art to being a good marketer. Most importantly, I had to let go of my ego. Because I had a background in marketing, I thought it would be my class to shine. But our professor had a different way of thinking about marketing, and his way didn't come easily to me. I couldn't deny how important quantification was becoming in the marketing world, so I just had to embrace his process. Once I did, I was able to really learn something.
There are three big takeaways from this:
1) Keep It Simple. MBAs want to overcomplicate everything, but some things really can be taken at face value.
2) In business school, angels take the form of second years and professors. Reach out to them.
3) Let go of your ego. One of my favorite sayings is, "It's a poor workman who blames his tools."
I could blame the teaching style, the class format, or the case method, but ultimately, I was the one who needed to adapt. When that happened, a glorious realization occurred: Numbers are my friends. Numbers win arguments. Numbers put stakes in the ground. Numbers confirm assumptions, land bigger paychecks, and nail interviews. I love numbers.
Poets vs. Engineers
Glorious realization aside, some people love numbers even more than I do: engineers. If you are one of the business school "poets" you may find yourself fighting the urge to smack the engineers when they ask questions such as, "What's the derivation of that?" during microfinance. Or maybe your statistics professor will ask you to imagine the normal distribution curve as a 3-D plane, and just as you're beginning to wrap your head around that doozy, some engineer will ask: "So, what's the formula for the residuals?"
I had never taken a class with engineers before, so I didn't understand these questions. Why would they make it more complicated? I felt like I'd gotten to base camp, out of breath and ready for a Power Bar, and the damn engineers would want to dissect the Power Bar for fun instead of pitching a tent and resting for the next leg of the journey.
After getting to know my engineer friends better, I'm grateful they are the way they are. Their learning process is different from mine, but their deep grasp of concepts means they can explain something five ways, and sometimes only one of those ways resonates with me. Also, engineers are good sports and able to laugh at themselves. They would never get mad at me for writing this.
Throughout the semester, I marveled at how available our professors were to us and how much they cared about our learning progress. My marketing professor averaged a 30-minute e-mail response time and made great efforts to show me the creative side of his marketing method, while my finance professor won me over with his common sense approach to finance. Our accounting professor became everyone's favorite with his week-end review sessions and "Asset Shuffle" routine, and our statistics professor often stayed at work well past 10 the nights before we had problem sets due.
Additionally, my study group, Study Team A (a.k.a. "The A-Team"), couldn't have been better. We were the poster-child study team: diverse backgrounds, experiences, and cultures. We got along great, evenly divided the workload, and really enjoyed one another's company.
I've been away from school for three weeks and I'm eager to get back. There are summer internship interviews to prepare for, and I'm beginning a spring internship at a local private equity firm as a member of the Venture Fellows student organization. I'm also going to Russia in the spring on a study tour and have a whole new schedule of classes to navigate. More than anything, I want to see my friends. We're a long way past icebreakers and floating on the river. Each one of us has survived the first semester, and even for the most prepared, it was full of surprises. You can know something is coming and try to prepare yourself, but it's much more fun to just experience it.
Kathleen Voboril is a full-time MBA student in the class of 2010 at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas.