MBA Journal: The Path to Amazing

Photograph by Scott Lewis/Bloomberg

College Hall looks like something out of Harry Potter. The oldest building on Penn’s campus, it’s noteworthy to many because of its imposing design and striking green coloration. But to me, it’s special for a different reason: College Hall is where I took the last exam of my first year at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

We, the Class of 2013, poured out of various buildings after our marketing final and joined up on Walnut Street, drawn eastward like moths toward Center City Philadelphia. The walk marked both the conclusion of a grueling finals week (five exams in as many days) and the realization that we were officially halfway done with business school. Some said it with relief, some with sorrow—but all with disbelief at how quickly it went.

As I think about how to describe my experience so far, I find that I’m holding two images of Wharton in my head. On the one hand is “Little Wharton”: studying with Kathleen, making pizza with Alex, having Jamie and Ann over to watch Project Runway. On the other is “Big Wharton”: sailing yachts around the British Virgin Islands, causing mayhem in Park City, going on lavish trips to Morocco, Thailand, Israel. … I mostly witness Big Wharton from afar (or via my Facebook news feed), but it’s tough to think of myself as lame as I post my own pictures of black-tie parties or trekking in Patagonia to the bewilderment of my friends outside school. Ridiculousness, it seems, is all relative.

While it’s not a nonstop party, there is certainly always a party to be had if you’re looking for one. Often a large one. It’s neither accurate to pretend that this excess doesn’t exist, nor fair to make it seem as though everyone is living this way. There are board games to be played and movies to be watched, too. But I’d be lying if I didn’t mention the “work hard, play really hard” motto that seems to define the experience of so many students.

For some, it’s because they have money to spend, and they view these two years as a blessed reprieve from the brutal job that’s waiting for them after graduation. For others, it’s “What’s another $10,000 of debt when I’ve already racked up so much?” For most, it’s the realization that, along with the education we’re receiving, these opportunities are special, and fleeting, and that if we don’t seize them now, we never will.

And what of my transformation? This was a difficult thing to gauge while I was in school. Just as I would start to get the hang of a class or a concept, it would end, and I’d move on to a new challenge. I could never quite get comfortable, which left me wondering how much I was really learning—my knowledge seemed tenuous, fragile. I had fleeting nightmares of showing up on the first day of my internship, realizing I was completely unprepared, and slowly backing toward the elevator before sprinting to my car and speeding off.

These nightmares were short-lived. The more distance I got from school, the more able I was to see how each shred of knowledge had woven itself into an increasingly solid foundation. I learned and accomplished many things over my first year, but here are the five that most surprised me:

1) Finance. I get it now! Discounted cash flows. Dividends. Leverage. The clouds parted for me one day in Professor Kaufold’s class. I heard choir music.

2) Marketing. It’s less that I learned marketing, and more that I realized what “marketing” really means, and in so doing, I found a place where my left-brain/right-brain balance is not just tolerated—it’s required. (Brand management, by the way, is not for the faint of heart. If you disagree with me, try spending six weeks in a simulation crafted by a statistician with a flair for the savage.)

3) Saying yes. There were metaphorical summits, like getting up in front of a room of strangers and giving a rapid-fire presentation at a PechaKucha night (it’s worth a Google to find one near you). Then there were literal summits, like Mount Betinelli on Navarino Island, the most remote and pristine place I’ll likely ever set foot. I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone and in so doing have given myself reserves of confidence that I’ll continue to add to and draw upon, both personally and professionally.

4) Saying no. A necessary complement to No. 3 above. Steel yourself against the fear of missing out. If it’s not in line with your goals, saying yes would merely take you away from the things you really should be doing.

5) Recruiting, etc. This is probably where I got the most concentrated dose of “professionalism.” For perspective: Before business school, my name appeared on my résumé in bright turquoise letters, all lowercase. I’ve come a long way. I still giggle at the pageantry of the application/interview courtship, but if you’re gonna play the game, you might as well learn the rules.

All in all, are these things I could only have learned in school? Well … no. Which is obvious, and evidenced by the successes and accomplishments of those without an MBA. But here’s the thing—I, Lindsay, hadn’t learned them yet, and if I’d stayed on my previous path, it’s fairly certain I wasn’t going to.

People tend to refer to B-school hyperbolically: It was the best two years of my life. My highest highs and lowest lows. But let’s be honest—for some people, it’s just school. I didn’t come here to cause mayhem. I came to learn stuff and get a degree that says I learned stuff. Frankly, I don’t want these to be the best two years of my life. I’d rather they be two amazing years that help put me on a path of continued amazingness. And from what I have experienced during year one, I’d say I’m well on my way.

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

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