Monday, August 30, 2010

Combating Compromise: A reflection on business school and beyond

The big news is that I moved to India. The bigger news is that I got a job. And the biggest news is that I got what I wanted! So here's a celebratory reflective rant before I move to Bombay, begin work and get too busy...

Come September, another unsuspecting class of starry eyed, bushy tailed, high fliers will begin their much anticipated journey into Business School. I vividly remember the first half of 2007; an admission to Wharton and a US Visa under my belt, my world could not be more perfect. Life was all about farewells and shopping and a little well deserved idleness after a grueling application season. I had not an inkling of the treacherous recession that was lurking around the corner. I believed, rather naively in retrospect, that I was set to power down a straight line path to the career of my dreams. Those were glorious times!

However, for more than a year after graduation, I had to contend with an unsettling mix of a sense of achievement and a slightly nagging discontent. Until recently, I was steeped in an elusive search for that perfect job. The recession might be to blame for my unattractiveness as a fresh graduate in a shrinking Financial Services market. But given that I was caught in an impasse, I had time to ponder. And I did conclude that I could have done things a little differently while I was at Wharton. I could have tweaked my thought process a little and gotten a wee bit more out of my time at school. Hindsight grips my pen as I write about my lessons, about the questions that once crowded my mind and the now obvious answers.

Business school is all glamor from the outside. It is a chimera of infinite possibility; it even has a misleading aura of invincibility. Maybe it is a result of the highly selective nature of the admission process. Be it the GMAT or the 2500 words of descriptive essays or the other intangible admission criteria of US B-Schools, it is designed to skim only the very top of a highly competitive applicant pool. Hence my admission to Wharton ushered in a mild complacence that the ride ahead had to be smooth, a complacence that made me decide not to take up the pre-MBA internships that I had lined up. I chose to spend a month at home reading books instead. Who would want to work when you can wake up at noon and spend the rest of the day with Douglas Adams and F.R.I.E.N.D.S?

Surrounded by immensely successful people from astoundingly diverse backgrounds, the first few months of business school can be humbling, even intimidating at times. The popular career choices and the “cool” jobs invitingly dangle in front of you. The allure is irresistible. The pressure to conform is high. Despite being amongst the youngest students in my class and never having encountered so much choice at once, I held my own pretty well. The first semester passed by in a whirr of academic rigor, heavy networking with recruiters, extracurricular pursuits, parties and socializing.

Before I knew it recruiting season was underway and I was being interviewed for summer internships. I’ve always believed that regardless of the outcome, true satisfaction lies in walking out of a test feeling that you could not have been better prepared. And that is the very satisfaction with which I walked out of each of my interviews. But by then the country was already spiraling into recession. And I walked into a reality where firms had cut their internship offers to half the usual number. When you do the math, there were a larger number of students with relevant backgrounds than the number of available jobs. I, a career switcher, simply didn’t measure up. So there I was, with no offer and a little bewildered at the end of the formal campus interview period.

It seemed earth shattering. It made me question my abilities and my methods. I wondered if I was really as competitive as I thought I was. I questioned if I went to B-school a few years too early. Everything that I could have done came rushing to me like an epiphany. Why didn’t I see this coming? Why didn’t I preempt it? I could have done the pre-MBA internship and been less of a career switcher. Or maybe I should have taken up some freelance projects during school to add relevance to my background. Why was I not proactive enough to reach out to Wharton alumni early? Why did I wait for things to be handed to me? Did I delude myself that there was an easy way? As I said earlier, the misleading aura of invincibility served to cloud all cautionary instincts. And I could not forgive my complete lack of foresight and my irrationally casual approach to a future I claimed really mattered to me.

The rampant self doubt and contempt was finite after all. For a dream is a dream. And you simply cannot allow past mistakes and an economic recession to rampage through it. For four long months I spent every waking minute on my job search. I taught myself new skills I could talk about in interviews. During the semester I did unpaid freelance work, in return for a line on my resume. I called every good friend of mine and asked for help with no hesitation whatsoever. I cold called anyone I thought could help me. I was looking for a Finance job in a shrinking market. Irrational, I know! I guess I just played the numbers game. I figured that if I knock on a hundred doors one was bound to open eventually. And it did. I got a buy-side internship in India that was way better than anything I had hoped for. Yes, through a cold call!

My real triumph at that time was in admitting that I was partly responsible for my less than ideal situation. The triumph lay in still mustering the strength to stay away from the path of compromise and continuing to put in effort towards what had become a more difficult dream. The reward really was a newfound courage, patience and maturity that enabled me to go on a sinfully fun trip to Peru with no internship in hand. And on a much envied cross country road trip across the US in the face of my chillingly large loan and the bleakest of job prospects. Maybe it dawned on that I won’t stay 25 forever…

This begs the question “What about Plan B?” I realized that the real Plan B, at least for me, was all the unconventional and proactive measures that could make Plan A work. Not everyone has their entire career figured out while at school. But everyone has immediate aspirations, which in bad economic times may seem unattainable. You can use the time at b-school to test for yourself if conviction can conquer the need to compromise, if the extra mile is better than diversion. Recession or boom, I feel that this is my most important lesson, as valuable to me as my Wharton diploma.

Business school seldom prepares one for failure, or for uncertainties. In fact, for the risk averse, it is a rather expensive insurance against uncertainty. In a way, I’m glad that I was faced with a recession of such monstrous proportion at the beginning of my career. Because I learned how to deal with it when my opportunity cost of the lesson was negligible. I owe it to my attitude for the tenacity to stick to my dreams and spend a year after graduation doing relevant things that got me the job I wanted as soon as the market improved. I owe it to my idealism for helping me to stick to my claim that I am indifferent to location as long as I get the career I want. Most importantly, I owe it to all the the amazing
friends and family I'm blessed with, without whose helping hand, sympathetic ear and precious time I could never have survived what has doubtlessly been the most testing period of my life.

So here I am, ever the optimist, sauntering once again on a path to the career of my dreams. Here I am, about to start my new job, glad that my world is smiling again…