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Being Human

I bumped into him during my last week in San Francisco, as I was leaving lunch to run errands. Although my internship had ended the Friday before, that last week in the city was busy—marked with good-bye’s, packing and preparations for the start of school on the other side of the country. Notoriously bad with directions, I was checking Google Maps on my phone when he asked for a dollar, and without so much as looking up, I mumbled something and brushed him off.

I don’t know exactly what it was that made me stop, but one block later, I snapped out of my smart phone-induced stupor. Appalled at my own rudeness, I turned back. “I actually don’t have to be at my next appointment for an hour,” I said. “I’d love some company for lunch if you’ll join me.”

Over Burgers & Curly Fries 
Patrick was his name, and he had had a craving for Jack in the Box for the longest time. He ordered a bacon cheeseburger but couldn’t decide between strawberry and vanilla for his milkshake, so we convinced the cashier to concoct a half-strawberry, half-vanilla swirl. Even though I had already had lunch, I didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable if I wasn’t eating, so I quickly scanned the sides menu.

We went wild and got a large order of curly fries to share.

For the next hour, Patrick—a Bay Area veteran—regaled me with stories of San Francisco over his milkshake, burger and curly fries. While a cognitive impairment distorted his speech and made it hard to follow, I got the feeling that he didn’t have a chance to have someone listen very often, even though he had a lot to say. So, I tried my best to listen and understand as he shared what was on his mind, ranging from his relationship with his ex-wife to his latest fashion philosophy: even though it was a hot day, he preferred to wear all of his clothes on his back because, well, he didn’t have anywhere else to put them, for one, and he also knew the temperature would drop precipitously once the fog rolled in that evening. Oh, that deceiving San Francisco summer….

So engrossed I was in his stories that I lost track of time, and by the time I checked my phone, I realized I would soon be late for my next appointment. I asked him if he wanted anything for the road or for later, and he asked me for a gift card so that his food wouldn’t get cold by the time dinnertime arrived. I picked up the gift card, hugged him good-bye and left, feeling inexplicably sad.

A New Pace of Life
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my biggest fear in coming to business school is that I will succumb to self-absorption. Whatever my intentions were coming in, the pace of MBA life leaves little time—at least for me—to think about anyone else, especially those who aren’t within my immediate social sphere. When my classmates and I are not in class, we are networking, casing and undergoing mock interviews. Between interviews, we lead extracurricular clubs, most of which are designed to help us get our so-called “dream jobs.” Time at home is spent tweaking resumes, conducting industry research or gulping down the lunch we forgot to eat four hours ago.

By the time weekends and vacations roll around, we understandably feel justified in spending that time on ourselves—going out, traveling or partying, etc. Sure, we may put in some volunteer time by offering our consulting services to nonprofits, but even in this capacity, we remain at least one degree removed from so many who share our community—people like Patrick, whose utter lack of interest in my career aspirations and professional credentials actually made for quite a refreshing respite from the rest of my life.

The Crucible Effect
This is not to say, of course, that I regret coming to business school—I don’t at all. Both professionally and personally, I’ve grown and learned so much here, and my previous posts attest to my love for this school. Rather, in some ways, this high-intensity, perpetually stimulating pace of life makes for a welcome crucible that is forcing me to learn how to prioritize those things that matter to me most. Carefully stewarding the tremendous privilege that is being an SOM student is important to me, no doubt. However, it is not more important than breaking out of my cloistered Ivy League bubble to get to know--and care for--friends like Patrick. True—our lunch together will never feature on my resume, earn me a distinction or even win me any awards for that oft-used but still nebulous management concept that we call servant leadership.

But for me, encounters and friendships like this are simply what it means to be human. And I won’t forget that this year.