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!

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