I spent most of last week catching-up with my friends in San Francisco — many of whom I had not managed to see over the past three months since I started at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB).
So the number one question they all had for me was: “how has school been so far?” And as someone who is visual, I couldn’t help but respond: “Do you remember the acceleration stripes in Mario Kart that you could drive over? Well, that’s how the last few months have felt to me.” Yes, business school felt like the acceleration pad in Mario Kart.
Former and current students warned me about how they had never beenthat busy in their lives, about how overwhelming it was and how little they got to get done outside of school. And truth be spoken, that’s exactly how it felt to me as well. Yet as opposed to using words like busy and overwhelmed, I would rather describe it as crazy intense. The following is meant to be a little recap of my experience at school so far.
Overall, it’s been a lot of fun — on all dimensions (some more than others). Yet there have been many “lessons learned” along the way which are often lessons that extend beyond school and find a lot of application in life.
#1 School is this massive buffet — know your appetite!
You are in this new environment which I compare with a massive buffet that has so much more food that you can possibly eat. You want to try it all, but what’s the fun of nibbling just a little bit of everything. So you look at it, and you feel overwhelmed. Where shall you start? What shall you eat? It all looks tasty, it all looks interesting.
That’s basically school. And turns out that the more “appetite” you have for something particular, the easier it can be for you to navigate this massive offering. The more you know what you want to get out of the experience, the better. Doesn’t mean you can’t go around and taste things (aka “explore”), but at least you can still feed yourself on the things you really have an appetite for. Personally, I felt the ideal division between “appetite” and “tasting” would be 70/30.
#2 Your brain is ON! Like … ON FIRE!
I didn’t realize this until two days after our finals when my brain finally started to slow down: throughout the entire three months, it felt like my brain was ON with no break at all. It was always working, digesting massive input, constantly making decisions, trying to make sense of this new environment that I was part of. And this wasn’t just limited to the academic portion of the experience. Even the social aspects of business school can be quite an energy drain on your brain. Especially in the beginning when you are keen on getting to know your new classmates. So the winter break came just in time.
What happens is that you wake up with that massive to-do list on your mind and you go to bed with the same list that now only seems longer than what you started the day with. This can be quite a mental burden because you feel you are constantly behind on, well, all aspects of life. On that note, it really helps to set expectations right with family and friends before school begins. I had a few friends outside of school who seemed to have felt “neglected” by me.
One thing that helped me keep my sanity was an (almost) daily workout routine in the morning with a classmate. I wasn’t able to fully disconnect (it would have helped to keep airplane mode on until after the workout), but it did help start the day in a fresh manner. Another practice I would like to add next quarter to keep a healthy balance to the campus craziness is meditation.
#3 Gratitude versus Regret
Early on I noticed the difficulty to make decisions. Building on top of my buffet analogy, it seems that for every Yes-decision you make, you have to make two or three simultaneous No-decisions along the way. There are always multiple talks, events, parties going on and you are constantly challenged to prioritize one over the others.
What is important is to go to sleep at night and be grateful for the things you were able to do as opposed to feel regretful for all the things you wanted to do but didn’t have time for. Here again, the more you know what you want to get out of the experience, the easier it is to feel appreciative for your Yes-decisions.
#4 Am I learning anything here?
There is so much going on each day that it’s hard to look beyond tomorrow. At best you look at the next week, but with all the deadlines, events, options at hand, it’s hard to zoom out and to look how you have changed beyond yesterday or last week. As a matter of fact, it’s really hard to pinpoint the exact return on your investment.
As mentioned in a recent blog post, the concept of morphing explains why it’s so difficult to identify changes as we are going through the experience. Yet comparing the the end of something with the beginning, allows us to see some contrast, the change that wasn’t very visible as one is going through the actual experience.
If I was going to question the value and return of each class or interaction, I would just drive myself crazy. I would spoil the fun. An investment in education like that requires a decent level of “good faith” that there is a very big long-term component even though the actual experience goes for only two years. That this is an investment whose biggest benefit one might reap 40 years down the road. Judging the return just on basis of these two years is very short-sighted.
That said, I did learn a lot. Yet just like during my undergrad, I feel that I learned most things outside the classroom. Maybe because the school environment outside class allowed me to apply some of those things I learned in the classroom. Or maybe because some of the classroom learnings will have the most relevance once we are out of school and get a chance to apply them in a work setting.
On the aspect of learning, there are two important things I would recommend. First, it’d be really nice to have a way of capturing the things you are learning at school (a journal, a daily list of “lessons learned,” running a public blog, etc.). Most classes have a no-laptop policy so one would have to find other ways to capture things in a timely manner. Second, I found it important and useful to do a “start/stop/continue” exercise after my first quarter. What are the things I want to start doing, stop doing or continue doing.
#5 That social life…
Undoubtedly, social life is a big component of any business school experience. And undeniably, it’s a big component at the GSB as well. The fact that we are “only” ±400 students (compared to other schools that have up to more than twice that much), there is a feeling that there is a chance to actually meet most folks of my year. Not instantly, but over time.
Personally, it was quite clear to me from early on that this experience is all about the people. With that in mind, I made a massive effort to facilitate 1:1 conversations with as many classmates as possible. Something that really helped me connect and empathize with my classmates. While not very scalable (one can only do 1–2 per day), it allowed me to have some sort of meaningful conversation with those folks that I talked to.
I found time for these things by making a deliberate decision to reduce my participation in 1:many events. Something that turned out to be a “mistake.” By the end of the quarter I realized that while there are different ways of being social (coffee chats, going to parties, etc.), and that it wouldn’t be right to be social in just one way. Doing more of one type, won’t compensate for not doing any of the other. It’s ok to do one more than others, but it’s still important to do them all if one wants to have a comprehensive social experience.
Given my very social nature, I ended up becoming friends with a lot of individuals, but less so with groups of people. Not necessarily something “wrong,” and certainly something that I have other folks say as well, but it did create a feeling along the lines of “who is my group?”.
Going back to my experience of being back in SF to catch up with friends, I realized that the Stanford experience is quite different from what my previous four years in SF/Silicon Valley/Tech Entrepreneurship looked like. They are both bubble-type experiences, but they are different.
Maybe this is also just because I’d rate the content of our first quarter as more “corporate-focused” than “entrepreneurship-focused” — something that will be more the case in the following quarters. I can see how the next quarters might feel more like a merge between these two worlds that I have gotten to experience and enjoy.
In a nutshell, it’s been a lot of fun, very intense, and I’m excited for the remaining 1.5 years ahead :).