Promises to Myself

Our journal-writer has learned that saying no doesn't necessarily work in B-school and that the quality of the learning trumps the quantity of the work

In this journal entry, I will continue to explore the topic of the MBA workload. If you are a prospective MBA student, you need to know about it. If you are a current MBA student, perhaps you are struggling to manage it better, as I am. In my last entry, I was in the thick of an intense first semester. Now I am reflecting after a restful winter break.

I will begin with a story: A few years ago, I was managing a small practice of 30 or so consultants. One of my best team members was leading one of the practice's most successful long-term engagements. She made those projects hum. Stroll past her cubicle and you would immediately see the evidence: a current checklist on her whiteboard, best practice guidelines for consultants rolling onto the project, and often one or two people lined up at her desk, having a brief and always high-energy exchange before tackling the next task in the pipeline. More important, everyone loved working with her, from staff to clients. She met her commitments, always with a smile, and often with a statement that's music to my ears: "I have a few ideas about how to do it better next time."

Then one day I stopped by her cubicle to find out how things were going and saw something new—a worried look on her face. Nothing too alarming, just a little peak in the workload. But as the weeks passed, the worried look did not fade and the peak turned into a plateau, although I continued to hear reassurances from her project manager that the situation was temporary, that while, yes, the team could use some extra help, they would also be O.K. if no help was available. But the project's fearless leader was not O.K. Those worried looks continued, and although I did not hear complaints, I did hear facts as I pushed her for details. Like how many weekends in a row had she worked? Like did the client really know what he was asking?

Learning to Say No

This brings me to the point of this story. (And yes, it does relate to business school. Read on.) One of my defining skills—a skill that has played a significant role in advancing my career and has given me an edge as a manager—is the great art of saying no. No is not a roadblock or an end to the conversation. No is a path forward, an opening to negotiation and an opportunity to reach a shared understanding of priorities. No is a simple word and one to be used sparingly, but it is a true friend.

The subtle skill of saying no in a productive way ("No, but here's what I suggest instead") makes the difference between short-term good and long-term great. Not coincidentally, it also makes the difference between a stressed-out team and a happy team. And that's the view I took as I inserted myself into the process to get weekends back for the project's leader, coach her in how to set priorities and share more of the effort with teammates, and gain our client's support in making sure that his favorite consultant continued to keep his projects humming.

Now that I'm in business school, I am finding my ability to say no in a productive way, an ability that I developed on the job (and notably after college), does me little good in academia. If anything, I am more frustrated because I can see a better way but can't do anything about it. Individual survival, simply completing the work in front of you, is the only real objective.

The Pressure to Do It All

I went into the program knowing I had already succeeded in some challenging work environments. In these places, I could not expect anyone to limit my workload but me, and over time I learned that putting on the brakes, maintaining a balance, and prioritizing made my time more valuable, not less; made me more sought-after for leadership roles; and made me happier than many people who simply took whatever was thrown their way.

I went into first semester thinking I could put this same skill to work at school. I was wrong, supremely wrong. At school no one cares that you can align priorities with business objectives. (What business objectives?) The pressure to "do it all" is unavoidable. And I am smacked daily by a heavy dose of irony as one of my greatest assets as a leader works against me in a place meant to mold talented, driven people into, well, into leaders.

As I reflect on the first semester and look forward to the next, I know I need to retool my strategy for setting limits. I spent winter break thinking: What were the basic limits that I set in working life? What are the most important things to make room for? As a result of this reflection, I am committing myself to four promises for next semester. These promises may seem small. In fact, they are a shadow of my previous intricate formula for work-life balance. But they are a beginning. I am posting these promises to myself on the refrigerator in my kitchen:

(1) I will do strength training and flexibility exercises for 40 minutes every other day. It's a small but achievable supplement to my daily walking commute to campus. Likewise, I will make time to support my husband's exercise regimen, which fell apart along with mine last semester.

(2) I will take one day each weekend to enjoy time with family and friends and do anything but schoolwork. Exceptions are allowed, but never for more than one weekend in a row.

(3) Most important, I will tuck my kids in at night at least three times each week, because that's inevitably when the big topics get covered. (Mommy, will I die someday? Mommy, how far away is the moon?)

(4) I will let my grades suffer, if necessary, to meet these goals.

Learning Should Be a Pleasure

About halfway through the semester I found myself in an age-old debate with a second-year MBA student. He took the position that academic life is the best life. Why? Because at the end of every semester comes a massive sigh of relief—a sense of total relaxation and rest that he has only experienced as a student. "So in other words," I said, "The removal of pain is pleasure." And he said, "Yes, exactly." And I said, "I guess that's my trouble. I don't agree."

Now, I am reflecting on that conversation. I have to smile and concede that, yes, I have not felt this relaxed in a long time. I am finding pleasure in the small tasks of life—planning my son's birthday party, shoveling snow and breathing in the cold air, even cleaning out the fridge. You name it, I love it. But as I continue to reflect, I must say that I still don't agree with my second-year colleague. More precisely, I mean the entire learning experience can be, and should be, the pleasure.

Quality of learning trumps quantity of coursework any day of the week. That massive sigh of relief at the end of the semester is driven entirely by quantity, but it's the quality of learning that brings us the opportunities to meet the right people and to see better ways of doing business. Those small moments of insight sprinkled generously throughout the semester will bring me back for the next year and a half. Quantity, the staggering workload that students are not in position to question, has nothing to do with it.

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