MBA Journal: Embracing Failure

Photograph by GK Hart/Vicky Hart/Getty Images

Recently in my entrepreneurship class, we discussed the phenomenon of the successful startup. How could a small, scrappy company one-up a more established competitor with infinitely more resources? The answer: A small, scrappy company could afford to be bolder, to take more risks, because it had almost nothing to lose, whereas its competitor had to protect everything it had built.

The same is true on an individual level. The more you have, the greater your fear of losing it. This is a particular concern for business school students. Hailing from a variety of geographic locations, industries, and functions, my classmates are diverse in their race, religious affiliation, and sexual orientation. Yet regardless of the differences in our backgrounds and experiences, each of us is similar in that we have tasted success and long to consume it in greater quantities.

Before quenching our appetite for achievement, however, we will likely experience a multitude of failures. Attending business school is a humbling experience.

Does this “B” not stand for brilliant?

Clumsy and never quite clear on the rules of the game, I had resigned myself to being picked last for sports teams as early as the second grade. When it came to academic projects, however, my experience was quite the opposite. I was used to being good at school.

Today, while I’m unfortunately no more athletic than I was as a kid, I’m feeling a lot more insecure about my academic abilities, too. The material is challenging and my classmates are extremely intelligent and highly driven. We all entered UCLA Anderson expecting to receive As, because we have always received As, but a forced curve dictates that this will be true for only 20 percent of us.

As for the remaining 80 percent of us? We may be sacrificing our flawless academic records, but in return, we are learning that a B is far from a catastrophic event. We are gradually growing more comfortable with the notion that we may not always accomplish everything we have set out to achieve.

Is the champagne bitter, or is it just me?

Finding a job typically involves receiving many “no”s before you finally get a “yes.” This is especially true when it comes to MBA summer internship opportunities. Larger companies—those with structured internships and predetermined MBA hiring goals—typically look to hire in January or February. While not all students apply for these internships, many submit their résumés for as many as 20 or 30 different positions. Of course, no student can take more than one internship, but the sheer number of MBAs applying for any given role means that many applicants will have to be eliminated at every stage of the process.

I’m not sure whether it is more frustrating to be denied an interview at a company where you would love to work or be rejected in the final round despite your careful preparation and perceived connection with your interviewers. Neither possibility is comfortable, particularly for a group of overachievers accustomed to reaching their goals, but most of my classmates will likely experience at least one of the two during the course of the interview process. I have already had the opportunity to experience both.

To be clear, every UCLA Anderson student who wants an internship has historically received one, but until each of us has secured our summer plans, the sting of being passed over for an opportunity can be quite painful. To exacerbate the situation, as one student is being turned down, another is receiving an offer. We all want to support our friends, but it can be hard to crack the champagne and celebrate when you have spent the day opening rejection e-mails and imagining a lifetime of unemployment.

Are you sure this won’t kill me before it makes me stronger?

As business school students, steadfast in our quest for success, the possibility of not achieving our goals is too terrifying to even contemplate. This fear, however, is counter-intuitive; without becoming comfortable with failure, we will always be limited in what we can achieve.

Sales people, those whose primary responsibility is to bring in new business, tend to cope incredibly well with failure. Most experience it on a daily basis. They become desensitized to it. The failure is no longer personal. It’s merely an occupational hazard. For the rest of us, failure may be less a part of our day-to-day lives, but as we gain exposure to it, we too can become stronger. Ultimately, practice makes perfect—the more you fail, the less it stings, the stronger you get, and the easier it is to cope with subsequent failures.

If pursuing an MBA is about learning to become a successful business leader, we must embrace the opportunity business school offers us to fail in a low-risk environment and leverage it to bolster our level of comfort with failure. Once we do, giving ourselves and our employees the freedom to fail will offer us a competitive advantage as leaders and managers, discouraging us from clinging to the status quo and promoting innovation and thoughtful risk-taking. And, as a more immediate benefit, once we learn to tolerate the sting of failure, that champagne will not taste quite so bitter.

In between journal entries, you can keep track of Yael’s business school adventures at the Business Schools Facebook page. Follow the Bloomberg Businessweek B-Schools team on Twitter.

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