On Being Vulnerable

In their quest for transparency, prospective MBAs often ask me both what I most appreciate and what I find most challenging about business school. While my previous blogs have made clear the many aspects I appreciate, I’ve yet to share one of the dimensions I find most challenging: the pressure to be all-around awesome.

By: Ada Wan
January 21, 2014

In an era in which presidential selfies instigate a media circus, firms specialize in online reputation management and Botox is old news, the importance of one’s personal brand dominates our collective consciousness. Fewer places, I would argue, is this domination more total than in business school, where we are taught how to tailor our resumes and field interview questions to project a picture of utter competence, confidence and composure. To promote our personal brand, we agonize over the subtle differences between “smart casual” and “business casual” and enroll in dining etiquette courses to learn how to eat—with style and class, of course. This past summer, I even received a brief tutorial on how to arrange my desk to promote my personal brand. (“Uh… neatly?” I ventured when asked for my opinion on how one should strategically arrange one’s desk.)

The Curse of Being Awesome
Around the time that I underwent the eye-opening tutorial on strategic desk arrangement, I started wondering if we weren’t taking things a little too far in trying to constantly maintain this veneer of perfection. While no one would recommend sharing our deepest childhood fears in your final round interview at Bain, I am hard-pressed to believe that all is “awesome” all the time, as we often tell one another even outside of the classroom and the interview room. Similarly, although one’s latest epicurean tour of western Europe, six-figure job offer or record-breaking triathlon merit celebration, these endless success stories eventually blur together into one homogeneous stream of superhuman awesomeness that, I confess, I find rather stultifying and boring.

Also, at least to me, this never-ending broadcast of awesomeness seems disingenuous in its blatant divorce from reality. As what experts consider the most medicated, addicted, in-debt and obese cohort in history (at least, in the United States), I would venture that our lives, families and communities are far from awesome all the time, and both personal experience and conversations with my peers confirm it. Perhaps because I am short, smiley and generally unintimidating in demeanor—or perhaps because my alcohol allergy renders me one of the few wholly sober members of the group at 1 in the morning—I have learned from them that not all is awesome. Life is messy, and business school does not confer an automatic invulnerability to this messiness.

Over the past year and a half, I have grieved with couples after miscarriages, sat with friends struggling with depression and tried to be an ear for classmates facing marital conflict. Nor dare I claim invulnerability myself during this time. Although my quickness to smile and laugh has earned me the nickname of “Funshine” among some, many a time, disappointments and self-doubt have led me to seek help from both friends and the school’s health center.

Redefining "Normal"
All this is not to say, of course, that I believe we should adopt a “glass half-empty” approach to MBA life and ruminate, Eeyore-esque, on all that is wrong. At the same time, however, feigning perpetual invulnerability not only runs the risk of Pollyannaism but also denies us of what makes us human: mistakes, fears and—I’ll be the first to admit it—not-so-awesome days in addition to the awesome ones. (Not to mention, research suggests that practicing inhibition instead of self-disclosure can detract from your long-term physical and psychological well-being on dimensions such as hypertension and immunological function.)

Ultimately, in sharing these thoughts, I guess, I am hoping that my fellow MBAs, present and future, feel less alone when they are having a tough time. Instead of clinging to the veneer of invulnerability, I hope that they feel comfortable reaching out for help—from their friends, from me or from someone else they trust. After all, as I told a classmate just earlier tonight, “It’s totally OK to not be OK sometimes. In fact, I think that’s what we call ‘normal.’”

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About the author

Ada Wan

Internship: Google