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Three Lessons I Learned at Harvard Business School

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Last week, I graduated from Harvard Business School. HBS had been my dream for as long as I can remember, yet the experience and the lessons I’ve learned over the past two years were vastly beyond what I could ever have imagined or anticipated. When I get asked whether the business school was worth it, my response is always “YES, but not in the ways I had expected.” My degree didn’t make me a better financial modeler. I didn’t start a billion-dollar company. And I don’t associate its value with the interviews and the job offers I was able to secure. To me, the value of my education is instead in my personal growth. I left HBS a better leader and a better person – a more confident, more experienced, and more purposeful version of me who sat in my very first case-based class discussion two years ago. In reflecting on my experience, three key lessons stand out.

 

We conceive our own definition of success.

One of the things which surprised me most during my first few weeks of business school was the diversity of the people around me – not only in terms of my classmates’ vast array of different backgrounds but also in their individual priorities and longer-term goals. Having spent the entirety of my own career in investment banking and then in private equity, my definition of success had become somewhat…rigid. I had forgotten how much bigger the world around me truly is. Prior to business school, I viewed success only in light of my professional pursuits. Like many of my colleagues in finance, I measured my accomplishments through the lens of job offers, promotions, and year-end bonuses. While utilizing these metrics had always seemed to me as perfectly normal, removing myself from the “bubble” of high finance made me realize how little the rest of the world cares about the relative prestige of our firms or our year-end class ranks. I began to see that I had joined some sort of endless rat race, and I began to understand that continuing to run would never lead to a happy or satisfied life.

 

For me, climbing the never-ending staircase of professional pursuits stopped whilst I was in business school. In engaging with classmates from all over the world and in a vast array of different career paths, I learned that success is multi-dimensional. I learned that what ultimately matters is not my perception of how others view my success, but rather, how I choose to define success for myself. I am still joining a private equity firm post-graduation, but my priorities have shifted away from caring most about my firm name or job title, and instead toward focusing on the value I will add to the organization and the impact I hope to leave on the world. I think we all get there eventually, and perhaps your definition of success will never alter as drastically as mine did, but the acknowledgment that your path is yours and yours only is an important, and freeing, truth to keep in mind.

 

“Networking” matters – but not for the reasons I thought it did.

As someone who very much identifies as an introvert, the mere mention of “networking” is enough to make me cringe with dread. The uncomfortable small talk, the forced smiling and nodding, the unspoken but mutually understood underlying motives – it all just feels so…inauthentic. In college, there was nothing I hated more than awkwardly shuffling in my heels in a crowd of fifteen other eager students, all fighting to get their 10 seconds of generic question-asking airtime. While I haven’t overcome my aversion to these experiences, business school taught me to reframe what the notion of networking means to me. Instead of viewing these situations as some sort of means to an end, I now approach the conversation with genuine interest and curiosity. People are, at their core, fascinating – each personal and professional decision we make is driven by a lifelong accumulation of experiences, challenges, and failures. In shifting my perspective away from viewing networking as a necessary recruiting evil, I not only began to enjoy the experience, but I also start to form much deeper connections. The more comfortable and natural these encounters felt, the more I began to see the true value of networking. I have always been intrigued by people’s stories, and through the simple act of asking about them, I’ve been able to vastly improve the depth and significance of new relationships. I also learned that the art of networking transcends far beyond professional realms. Some of the best connections I have made whilst at HBS have been with my professors and with my classmates. Whether it be a new friendship, a novel perspective, or thought-provoking advice, each and every person we encounter can teach us something new – we just have to be willing to listen and keep an open mind.

 

Change is indicative of growth.

A few weeks before the end of my first year at HBS, I was sitting in one of my professor’s offices in a state of sheer panic. I came into business school thinking I knew exactly what I wanted out of my professional career – the industry, the geography, the sector. I had actively pursued those goals and had been successful in securing several internship offers. Many of which, only one year ago, I would have labeled as my “dream job”. Yet, I sat in my professor’s office experiencing some sort of existentialist crisis, in the form of this gnawing and growing feeling that maybe I didn’t want the same things anymore. And for some reason, this realization was making me feel guilty. Why wasn’t I overjoyed with elation and gratitude? My professor’s response surprised me – she told me that the transition away from all the things I thought I wanted was a good thing. It signaled growth. If my dreams, desires, and understanding of myself stayed stagnant, what would have been the point of business school?

 

She was right. From that point onward, my relationship with change began to…well, change. I used to think that changing your mind, altering your goals, and amending your plans were all things only done by uncertain individuals who lacked direction. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’ve learned to listen when my intuition signals that the path I’m on no may no longer be what energizes me. I’ve learned to embrace what keeps me up at night, excites me, and keeps me engaged. Change is personal growth, and only through an open mind, lifelong learning, and life experience can we begin to find our passions. I followed my gut feeling. I turned down the “dream job” and I accepted the one that better aligned with the goals and ambitions I hold now, not the ones I held one year ago. I certainly don’t have it all figured out, but that’s ok. As long as I listen to that gut feeling, hold onto a network of supportive mentors and friends, and remember to keep an open mind – I have confidence that I will make the right decisions.

 

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