2 years ago, I began writing weekly posts under a category called “MBA Learnings.” I thought it’d be a great excuse to share what I’m taking away from my experience at graduate school. While some of these started out as lessons from the classroom, the series has evolved into a collection of mammoth posts that attempt to frame the experience (classroom lessons are part of regular posts). The hope with these posts – such as today’s note on relationships – is that they are applicable to life as much as they are to graduate school.
In a meeting with senior administrator at school yesterday, she wondered why many just “get through” the experience when there is so much more you can absorb. My thesis is that it is similar to life – it demands a clarity around priorities that only comes after a certain amount of thought. The following 6 links hope to frame the landscape to make the thinking process easier.
1. I’m in, Now what? – An attempt at helping you structure your transition to school once you are admitted.
2. Advice to an incoming student – A long “expectation setting” post that breaks life at school into a tension between 6 priorities
3. Designing for introversion – An introvert’s guide to thinking about the MBA experience
4. Lessons learnt from internship recruiting – Lessons + a guide to how to think about the summer before school. I have, since, written a more comprehensive guide to a job search.
5. The recruiting journey through self doubt – A few thoughts on dealing with the emotional aspects of the recruiting process.
6. Digging into my 1st year process – A reflection on how I approached my 1st year and what I learnt
This final learning is one that has been many years in the making. The reason I picked relationships for the final post is because it is never an easy topic to write about. To approach this, let’s first ask the question – why is it so much easier to make friends in high school and in college than at work? More folks have “best friends” from their college and high school days than from work. That isn’t to say it isn’t done. It just happens lesser than one might expect.
While youth and malleability are a factor, my sense is that high school and college allow for two important factors that help with forming deep relationships – shared experiences and slack time. Shared experiences are powerful in forming relationships. Hours and hours of slack time help deepen those bonds as you learn about the little things about each other. At work, while working in teams on intense projects often creates those shared experiences, it is less common to find work projects that result in plenty of slack time.
Graduate school lies somewhere in the middle – there are shared experiences if you take similar paths. But, that is a big if – there are very few students who would even have the same academic journey as you. And, slack time is rare if you decide to keep busy. There are many who will admit to never having been as busy at work as they have been at graduate school. But, and this is where things get complicated, you expect to build friendships the same way you did in your college or high school. You also expect to build out a “network” – whatever that means. So, the business school dream ends up becoming about walking out with this amazing portfolio of friends who will refer you to dream jobs and partners on your course to building that great global business. So, you might be tempted to attend every social event, every dinner, every evening at the bar and build that “network.” As you might imagine, all this gets overly strategic and stressful very quickly.
My recommendation would be to call bullshit on everything before you get started. This is hard to do because you have to discipline yourself to cut through the noise to get to what matters. I clearly remember a good few instances when I found that very difficult. The strategic intent involved with “building your network has irked me” from time to time. But, I’ve learnt to get over that. The key with environments that offer a lot of opportunities to find your own approach.
If I had to boil what I’ve learned about friendships in graduate school (and life?) into 3 things, they would be the following –
1. Understand your own priorities and align your actions based on those priorities. This gets down to the question – what really matters to you? Do you care about having a broad network of global friends? Or, do you care about having a solid group of 3-5 friends? Do you care that these friends are international or would you like all of them to have similar backgrounds? There isn’t a right answer here. The key is to be intentional and to be consistent with the kind of person you are.
For example, I care a lot about a few deep relationships and my hope with school was no different. I just cared a lot about having 3-4 friends at the end of the experience that I would have a relationship with. But, I was also interested in getting to know people and hearing their stories – something the school environment uniquely enables. So, I would set up time to go for walks with people. I’ve probably taken walks with 2-3 new people 1-on-1 on average nearly every school week over the past 2 years. Whenever someone suggested we should grab coffee, I’d take them out for a walk. But, when given a choice between depth vs. breadth, I would choose depth.
2. Engage deeply in some communities or maybe even create your own. Going back to the idea of combining shared experiences and slack time, activities or communities help with both. It doesn’t matter if it is the running club, band or entrepreneurship club – it matters that you engage in communities that you care about. These sorts of communities enable you to meet diverse people with whom you can build relationships based on shared values and beliefs.
You can also create your own little communities, of course. A couple of friends created an activity where they spent time with individuals doing an activity the individual loved. Another duo regularly hosted dinners where the conversations were based on meaningful themes. Another brought the same group of foodies together to eat at various restaurants. I was part of a group that showed up every Friday evening at a spot to discuss our lessons for the week.
Communities are especially important if you seek to build relationships with people different from you. Most relationships need to make their way from knowledge -> understanding -> trust. If you and I grew up in the same place, it is easier for us to understand each other and, then, to trust each other. But, if we’re from different continents, we need an excuse to really get to know each other and, slowly, understand each other. The flip side of this long process to understand each other is that the trust that emerges is one that, like all things hard earned, is very special.
3. Learn to let go – expectations are relationship killers. This is a general life lesson but one that is incredibly applicable to relationships. Expectations destroy relationships. All relationships are two way streets – it can only work if both sides are equally keen to make it work. When it works both ways, we aptly call it “chemistry” – because the reaction between the two produces an outcome that is different and better. But, it is hard to know when things work out well. It generally requires a lot of experimentation. Reactions also happen at different speeds – some are instant, some happen over a longer period of time.
My experience here is that you attract people based on who you are. If you are a person of good character, you attract people of good character. In the long run, it all works out. That doesn’t mean it is easy to let go in the short run. Whenever we put in the effort to give to people around us, it is really hard to say – “Hey, I’ve given this everything and did so because I cared. But, I don’t expect any reciprocation from the other end.” But, doing so makes life much happier. Just be patient with yourself – if my experience is anything to go by, this is something you’re always working toward. :-)
One last thing. Relationships are never easy. When we attempt to build them – whether it is a friend or a significant other – we have to give ourselves to people and choose to be willing to extend ourselves. This means coming face-to-face with our own insecurities and our desire to be loved. As is the case with these attempts, we will often meet with failure and breaches of trust. The takeaway from those experiences shouldn’t be to stop trusting altogether. It should be to get better at picking people.
We have many influences in this life – our diet, the information we consume, our environment, etc. – but probably none more so than those we spend time with. Every once a while, we will come across people who not only make us feel loved but also push us to be the best version of ourselves. When that happens, hold on tight and enjoy the ride.
In the end, all we have is each other…