3 Ways MBA Students can build Resilience and Mindfulness

Most folks in an MBA class aren’t used to dealing with failure, especially the kind of failure that’s as ‘public’ as it is in our small community at Foster. I recently read about the “Duck Syndrome,” a term coined by Stanford students to describe the need for students to appear smooth and perfect above the surface, but in reality they’re frantically paddling to stay afloat. When you’re the duck, the only thing that you can you see, think about, and feel is that frantic paddling. With that feeling comes the fear that you’ll be perceived as less than perfect all the time. 

Beneath the surface, everyone has ‘automatic negative thoughts’ (ANT). They’re the angry thoughts you get while you’re stuck in traffic. They can also be the random thoughts that pass by in times of disappointment, like “I’m a failure” or “I’m just not good at interviews” or “maybe I’m just not cut out to be a consultant.” Every perceived failure becomes amplified in your mind, and these thoughts can be tough to shut out.

Automatic Negative Thoughts, Birdman-style. Fox Searchlight PIctures
Automatic Negative Thoughts, Birdman-style. Fox Searchlight PIctures

I was first turned on to the concept of ANT thanks to an episode of “Invisibilia” (if you haven’t checked out that podcast, do it now, it’s spectacular). The brief idea about ANT is that everybody gets these negative thoughts from time to time, but you shouldn’t assign meaning to them…but that’s easier said than done. It’s easy to get dissuaded from certain companies and career fields when your dream company doesn’t give you that dream internship offer. You might take that rejection as a sign that you’re not good enough, and it might cause you think that you are inferior. Some people can ignore these thoughts and push through, but some people might recoil and let these thoughts become beliefs.

Luckily, there are ways to deal with these thoughts. Mindfulness has been getting a ton of press these days, and there is a lot of research to reinforce its positive benefits. It’s been used to build resilience in Marines and reduce stress. It can physically change your brain and it might even be able to change your DNA. Mindfulness makes you aware of the thoughts you are having, and helps you recognize them for what they are: just passing thoughts that have no meaning at all.

So, I tried three things this quarter to practice mindfulness, and here’s how you can incorporate them too:

Meditate

After the craziness of the first quarter, I tried to incorporate mindfulness meditation into my routine. I started with a free app called ‘breathe’ for iOS, where you enter in your mood and the app recommends a couple of guided meditations for you. Each meditation lasts between 3-7 minutes and requires you to have a quiet spot where you can sit down for a while and close your eyes. The speaker is great, and I thought it would be a great (and free) way to get started with meditation.

The result?

Hard to say. I did it every day the first week and it gave me a renewed feeling of calm and peace for the first several days. It felt great. I had a solid handle on the heavy workload and I felt positive and optimistic. But by the 4th day I got overwhelmed with the hectic schedule of the first week case competition and internship search. I fell behind on sleep, and ramped up the coffee intake. I missed internship application deadlines in favor of sleep and coursework. On Friday morning, the day of our case presentation, I was exhausted. I compensated with a couple of cups of coffee, but then I couldn’t focus on the mindfulness meditations prescribed by the app. Our team didn’t move on to the final round of the case competition. I played around with the app for a while longer, but ended up quitting at the end of the first month.

I have since moved on to a new (paid) app called Buddhify, which came recommended from LifeHacker. It has a good variety of guided meditations and it’s meant for active folks who are on the move. It teaches you to practice mindful movement, not just the standard ‘sit down in a quiet area’ kind of meditation. Loving it so far, and I think it’s a much better option for busy students.

Talk to people

When my classmate Ken proposed a meeting to talk about how he practices mindfulness, I decided to give it a try. We met in a small team room with a group of 5 of us MBA students, and prior to this meeting we had never had a chance to work together or interact on a meaningful level. Rather than more guided meditation, Ken led us through a series of questions, and each person had a chance to respond. These were pretty deep questions that you never would have a chance to talk about, and it allowed us to connect on a more emotional level. The session focused on creating self-awareness and practicing attentiveness, which might seem kind of ‘fluffy’ but I really enjoyed it. By the time the hour was up I was feeling pretty drained, but happy for the experience and for the opportunity to know some of my classmates on a deeper level.

While I’m not sure that this improved my mindfulness, it was therapeutic and I definitely walked out of the room feeling pretty great. I recommend that you find people to talk to about your experiences as much as possible. Your environment, social network, and relationships can build your resilience.

A couple of us also had an opportunity to receive some resilience training from the MBA program office. The class taught us about reframing our thoughts and behaviors. One example was to think about your failures and the belief you had at the time. Your partner would then help you refute those beliefs and provide ideas on improvement. This was fun, and a great way to get encourage conversations and build your support network.

Get moving

While exercise might not improve mindfulness, exercise can decrease mental clutter, increase your willpower, and improve your resilience. It forces you to be in the moment. I stopped climbing to focus on snowboarding, but the lack of snow hurt my ability to find that flow state. The weather was also too cold and rainy for bike rides or running, so I was kind of at a loss.

Luckily, this quarter Emily Palmer (another MBA classmate) hosted some Office Yoga sessions. I had the opportunity to do one session, and found it enormously helpful. I also resumed rock climbing recently – I found both yoga and mindfulness has helped me improve my climbing significantly. Mindfulness makes you more deliberate and aware of your thoughts and movements. The combination of exercise, mindful movement, and training from Buddhify seem to build a lot on each other.


Have you tried to build resilience or mindfulness in your life? If you have some more advice and tips for how you are dealing with stress, please share your knowledge below!

Key Takeaways from Winter Quarter at Foster

I can’t believe that I am officially a third of the way through the MBA already. Time is flying by – I haven’t felt anything like this since Officer Training School. If the first quarter at Foster was all about academics and time management, then the second quarter was all about balance. You had to make trade-offs between coursework, career management, consulting projects for real-world clients, and extracurricular activities throughout the quarter. I’ll be honest, the internship search was my highest priority this quarter.

It’s been a real blur, but I found that writing helps solidify things in my memory. You can call this an ‘after action review’ of sorts, and I highly encourage you to try it out as well. Here’s what I learned:

Leading Teams and Organizations

Trust data and research first. If you read Fast Company, Forbes, or any other business magazine, you’ll see that there’s a ton of articles on the subject of leadership. However, not all of it is supported by data or evidence, and a lot of it is just conjecture on the part of the author. This class taught me to value information that is backed by some kind of data or research, and appreciate anecdotal advice for what it is.

Corporate/Competitive Strategy

Strategy is all about tradeoffs. As MBAs, we want to do everything to the best of our ability, but there’s never enough time or money to do it all. Companies can’t do everything or pursue every opportunity either, and this class gave us a way to figure out which tradeoffs to make. 

Business Statistics 

This was absolutely eye-opening for me. When I was in the Air Force, I spent a lot of time trying to learn as much about data analytics as I could, but I honestly didn’t know where to even start learning. This class demystified data analytics for me…it’s like the clouds parted and I could see the way forward. I found out that I love working with datasets and getting real insight from them. I was also really happy with both of the speakers we had. It’s very inspiring to hear companies talk about how they’re using exactly what we learned in class and applying it in real business situations. 

Teamwork

I am so grateful to have had 6 people on my team this quarter. The internship search was in full swing from week one and never let up, so it was great to divide up the work so everyone could focus on interviews and applications. My team relied heavily on each other for support, and I can’t tell you enough how much that was needed this quarter.

Gratitude

My team implemented something very cool this quarter: gratitude. We started each team meeting by going around the table and listing three things we were grateful for. We did this to help build up each other’s resilience and also find out about what was going on with each other’s lives. While this took some valuable time from each team meeting up front, I think that in the end it made us a more cohesive team overall. This led us to have better discussions and make better decisions, and most days we ended up finishing half an hour early. 

 

If you haven’t done a review of your last quarter, I highly encourage you to give it a try! What do you want to remember from this quarter?

ApplyFailRepeat: Advice on the MBA Internship Search

Ahh, the MBA internship search. I wrote about this earlier in the quarter, and now that the Winter Quarter is ending I feel like I have more insight into the process. One thing my classmates and I are finding out quickly is to expect a lot of rejection, especially when you are a career changer. The above video does a great job of summing up the process of doing a lot of informational interviews and company research, applying for jobs, and then getting the rejection letter. It’s times like this that I really appreciate my fellow classmates who are going through the same process. One nice thing about having a small class is that everyone knows each other and is genuinely happy to hear when classmates get that internship offer letter, but the downside is that word spreads pretty fast. Failure seems much more publicized in our small community, which amplifies social pressure and anxiety. 

One thing I’m struggling with is trying not to follow the herd. I came into the Foster MBA program with certain career goals in mind, but it’s really easy to get caught up in what your classmates are doing. It’s a great time to re-read the letter of advice from Stanford. I didn’t understand it in the Fall quarter, but I definitely feel the pressure in Winter Quarter. Here’s the advice from the letter:

On Recruiting:

“Again, take it easy. Everyone who wanted a summer job got one. I ended up playing picky and landing my ideal job two weeks after the school was out. (Most others had jobs long before that.) If you want a non-traditional job or one that is very different from your past experiences, you may want to prepare yourself for a lot of rejections-something that you may not necessarily be used to. Summer jobs are much harder to find than permanent jobs, due to fewer spots. If you just keep in mind that you will eventually have a job, you can take chances and experiment with the summer job search. This could be a very valuable experience for the permanent job search.”

By now, I’d say at least 33% of the Foster Full-time MBA class of 2016 have at least one internship offer. Due to the nature of MBA internship recruiting, consulting firms and large companies like Microsoft and Amazon tend to recruit much earlier…and they take a ton of MBAs. It’s great to see so many classmates get picked up for these amazing opportunities, but you definitely feel the pressure if you’re looking for something different, or you’re failing where others are succeeding. 

I see some classmates panic and start applying to every available opportunity that comes up. I feel the same pressure as well. Luckily, re-reading the letter seemed to help, and I’m extremely grateful to get a lot of advice and help from alumni, second years, and classmates. If you’re struggling with this, I hope you re-read the letter and reach out.

Update 12/7/15: A few weeks after I wrote this, I accepted an offer to intern at Nike over the summer. That turned out to be the best possible result that I could have asked for.