Friday, August 9, 2013

Good vs. True

I didn't post last month because I spent most of it in Ukraine revisiting the people and places of my now-previous life. And in addition to affirming to me the positive memories I had, it reminded me of both pleasant and unpleasant aspects that I'd forgotten. It's so easy to romanticize the past, and one could argue it's evolutionarily advantageous. After all, sorrow and regret can be debilitating. This got me thinking: is it better to remember only the good things, or to remember things as they truly were? In what situation would it be disadvantageous to see the past through rose-colored glasses?

It should be noted that one's past influences his future at the subconscious level if nothing else. At the very least, past experiences serve to form one's worldview, which drives decision-making going forward. At most, a person actively mines past experiences for specific insights to guide him in the future. In this case, it would clearly be better to recall accurately past events--that the lemon stand wasn't as successful as the lemonade stand, despite the fact that the lemon stand did find two loyal customers in Grandma and Grandpa.

But what about the case for selective memory, or at least memory with "positive spin"? Certainly such memory protects us from the anxiety and heartache of shame and loss? Imagine for a moment that a young person asks you for advice. You give her some piece of wisdom and send her on her way. Now imagine that she didn't understand your advice, or even worse, took your meaning for something entirely different. If you were to discover that she had misunderstood, you'd likely feel compelled to set the record straight--that you did NOT advise her to join a cult or some such thing--because you, like most people, feel a need to be understood.

When I lived in Ukraine, I found that people were more gratified by conversations with me when I avoided or minimized telling them when I didn't understand. Because if I furrowed my brow or revealed my confusion, the other person would feel at least partially responsible for the miscommunication. And so, when it wasn't a high-stakes, super-important conversation, I would simply read the person's emotions when his words were unclear. In times when the meaning of a sentence eluded me, I came to be quite adept at knowing when to laugh, when to look concerned, and when the conversation was coming to an end. You might say this is shameful, that it's unconscionable to pretend to understand and let someone go on thinking all is well. Some might call it "manipulative." But from my perspective, the point of those innumerable little chats with strangers was to show that I as an American was amicable and willing to take time to stop and chat. The point was not actually about the gardening anecdote itself. It would have been selfish and needlessly taxing to force the person to explain repeatedly, with increasingly simple words, exactly what was being planted, when, where, why, by whom, and with what tools. I would have been demanding not more than I was interested and willing to hear, but more effort than the other person was willing to afford the conversation. I had enough experience to know that my patience with my own limited vocabulary and interest in learning exceeded the other person's time and energy. So I often let him walk away feeling entirely understood.

It seems to me that rose-colored glasses are a boon due to our innate human desire to fix things. Let your friend continue to believe his joke didn't fall flat. Spare him the embarrassment. Let your sister remember her childhood piano recital as a revelation. Let people remember the old pond as a hidden oasis, not as the glorified marsh it actually was. But when a charitable view of the past threatens to misinform a future decision, you should seek to reveal the truth, even if it's your own recollection you're setting straight.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Gestation Period

How can you determine a person's potential? Is there a trick to it?

Toward the end of last month I spent a week with my father's mother and stepfather. Years before I was born, my grandmother divorced my biological grandfather and later married for a second time. During my time with the two of them, she told me that her second husband had seen in her a unopened flower bud that had yet to bloom. And she strongly feels that over the course of the last 30 years, she has been able to develop into the person she was supposed to become during the first 50 years of her life. Interestingly, I see in her second husband nearly all of the traits of her first husband that she says suppressed her development.

I wanted to know what my grandfather (her second husband) knew that I didn't. "How do you look inside someone and see what she's capable of? Is there a trick?" I asked. He laughed. "I have no idea. I don't think there's a trick, though."

Okay, so I didn't get an answer to that question. But I had another one: Why couldn't my grandmother see for herself that she wasn't developing to her fullest? That's a question I decided not to ask aloud.

But maybe that's just the way it is. Maybe people don't explicitly realize when their development has stalled. Maybe they have only a vague feeling of ennui. And was it in fact the characteristics of my grandmother's first husband that held her back? Were they really to blame? Or was it merely her perception of their culpability, and her subsequent resentment of them (and him), that made divorce the only course of action?

This fall I'm going back to school. It's comfortable and lazy to think it will be a period of great personal development. I say "comfortable and lazy" because it's a deferment of action. Why should I wait until then? What would the-person-I-want-to-be do in my position?

I'm off to go learn something.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Leap of Faith

(Preface: Before I say anything else, I should provide some resolution to the previous post: I've been accepted to the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago! I found out at 5:30pm on the day of the admissions decisions. It was the perfect conclusion to an excruciatingly lengthy application process.)

In The Art of War by Sun Tzu, we are told of Hsiang Yu, an army commander who did something quite unusual. After leading his army across a river toward enemy troops, he ordered all his army's ships burned and all the cooking pots broken. Retreat and camp-making both became impossible, and there remained no alternative besides victory in combat.


I find motivation fascinating. I'm often intrigued by the forces, great and small, that cause us to do the things we do. (If you're also fascinated by these things, check out Drive by Daniel Pink. Here's a primer.) Naturally I've been thinking a lot about business school lately. It's so expensive, I think. In fact, that was my first thought when I got the good news. I was in, but wait--do I really want to go? In an instant I switched from dying to get in to hesitant... and in the next instant I reminded myself that I was being irrational. I knew it was expensive from the get-go. It's irrational to want something for so long and stop wanting it because you get it. (Of course, to stop wanting it because you realized you only ever wanted it in the first place was because you couldn't have it is rational, but it requires an admission of previous irrationality. But if we refuse to change our minds out of a stubborn refusal to admit prior irrationality, then that too...

Anyway, why did I suddenly become hesitant? It wasn't because I suddenly got what I'd hoped for. It was because of the cost. I've never had debt before, and business school requires me to take on about six figures' worth. Now, I knew that from the moment I began applying to schools. I applied to schools that have amazing employment statistics. Every one of the schools I applied to boasts a median starting salary in excess of the (lofty) average debt students have when they graduate, and that doesn't account for the signing bonus, relocation package, and other compensation that many graduates accrue. And for me, the value proposition of business school is much more straightforward than it would be for the average applicant, who must consider lost wages and the needs of a spouse or perhaps children. But again, I've never had debt. I don't have a phobia per se, but certainly a strong aversion. I've been taught that it's bad, not to be trifled with... evil, practically. And like the vast majority of Millennials, I avoid it entirely. I've never even carried a balance on my credit card from one month to the next. Freedom from debt has allowed me freedom in other areas of life. I went to a state school that offered me a generous scholarship partly so that I'd have more freedom of choice later. There I got a degree in chemical engineering, and then bioengineering, and then I abandoned engineering because I didn't feel passionate about it. Without the pressure of student debt (and in the absence of passion), I hadn't really committed. I hadn't needed to. Attending business school will put me in a do-or-die situation. I'll need to land an internship this winter, and I'll need to get a full-time offer before graduation. I've never been in a do-or-die situation before. I've always operated over a safety net.

But wait a minute. I joined Peace Corps. I decided to do volunteer work in another country with no assurances of a future afterward. I agreed to abandon any network I had in the US and spend two years in another part of the world building a network I'd also abandon. I didn't know how to parlay the whole experience into a career; in fact I had no intention to do so. I simply decided it would enrich my life and I did it. I committed. And it worked out. Of course, I had NO IDEA what a professional risk I was taking--many of my fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteers have been looking for work for six months now--but at least I realized that quitting prematurely was not an option.

So maybe committing to something isn't entirely new to me. Maybe I have to commit again, only now the stakes are higher. Maybe the key to success in life is committing. Getting rid of the safety net. Burning the boats, and breaking the cooking pots.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Living, Striving

I didn't post last month, but it wasn't because I forgot. I wanted to wait until I had some news.

Since the first week of January I've had my hands full working at a nonprofit during the day and doing one-on-one tutoring at nights and on weekends. I've also been waiting to hear back regarding my applications to business school. Applying to MBA programs is a process that is sometimes described as "death by a thousand cuts." It involves research, campus visits, dozens of letters of recommendation, twice as many essays, and nervewracking interviews. On top of that, applicants need to take the GMAT or GRE and the TOEFL, perhaps more than once, which is a hurdle that demands its own considerable preparation. Altogether this takes several months. Actually, the successful applicant has spent years preparing for business school "in the background" by showing leadership at school, work, and in community involvement; by outperforming his peers academically and professionally; and by assembling an impressive work history (preferably international) punctuated by frequent promotions. In fact, creating a successul application might just be the most difficult step in getting a top-tier MBA. While it's typical for schools to accept less than 20% of applicants, approximately 99% of those who begin an MBA program complete it successfully.

Yesterday I found out that Dartmouth's Tuck School of Management could not offer me a place in their incoming class. That marked the fourth school to reject my application and thus the fourth significant disappointment since I began the application process nine months ago. And I must say it's exhausting to hope for something so long and not get it. To be completely honest, I've never wanted anything as strongly as I want business school. And at the risk of sounding vain, nothing has ever come so hard. The two results are that it's emotionally trying yet stubbornly appealing.

The whole process has given me plenty of opportunity to reflect on dreams and goals. How long can a person continue to hope for something in the face of repeated denial? I suppose the answer depends on how undesirable the alternative is. Some obvious examples come to mind, such as risking one's life to escape abject subjugation. But let's stick to the question's application to professional development. I've talked to people who have been applying and re-applying to business schools for two or three years. Some are now 32, 33, 34... and they say upfront that this year is their last hope. It's common knowledge that business schools prefer applicants at an early stage of their careers; there exist executive MBA programs dedicated to those applicants with more professional experience. These unsuccessful, repeat applicants, three (or more!) times more dejected than I, somehow find the will to repeat the life-consuming process year after year, writing four essays and wrangling two recommendations and taking off work for two visits and campus interviews and paying $250 multiplied by six schools--not to mention fees associated with essay services or admissions consultants... with nothing to show for it. No discernable fruits of their labor. With every rejection, the effort required to repeat the process must grow higher and higher. It must become more and more difficult to summon the energy to try again. Or does it? Does intial rejection cause an applicant to put forth less effort, thereby weakening his application, or does he redouble his attempts?

We all know that making something unobtainable increases its allure. Kids and adults alike long for that which they cannot have. It's one of the cornerstones of the luxury goods industry. Is it possible that unsuccessful business school applicants actually have more motivation to get in after initial rejections? Do his submissions actually get stronger and stronger? Certainly everyone must give up at some point. But which man is the coward--the one too easily discouraged--and which is the fool--the one who refuses to accept defeat? Which kind of person am I? Which kind of person are you? Which would you rather be?

I'm waiting to hear from one last school. If I'm not accepted there, I'll take it to mean that I simply don't have enough work experience, or the right kind, to get in. And I'll pour all my energy into making the career change I'm striving for. The career change that I've heard is only possible through business school.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Catch-up Digest

I've been incredibly busy over the past month. What have I been doing? I’m glad you asked.

In mid-December I accompanied my father on a business trip to Phoenix. Then I began volunteering at a local nonprofit every day. Then I went to the homecoming party of my friend Ashley K. Then I went to a holiday party for my Oklahoma friends. Then was Christmas at home. Then my family and I went on vacation for a week. Then came the last of my business school application deadlines. And that brings us to today!

Friday, November 30, 2012

A New Normal

In Ukraine I used to fantasize about what it would be like to be back in the US and drive again. After so long riding sluggish Ukrainian marshutkas on pockmarked roads, I imagined how terrified I'd be to drive fast again. I recalled this yesterday as I was doing 80 mph on I-94.

It's astonishing how fast we adjust to new circumstances. We can adjust to an increased (or decreased) workload, more (or less) frequent meals, and even life with (or without) loved ones. Whether things change for better or for worse, humans always seem to reach equilibrium pretty fast. Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert gave a TED talk in which he described the descrepancy between how (un)happy we expect to be and how happy we actually are following an unpleasant turn of events. The fact is, humans synthesize happiness when things go poorly. We're resilient like that.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving, Homecoming, and an Embarrassment of Riches

Today is Thanksgiving, and I have so much to be thankful for. The past month has been filled with sentimental goodbyes as I parted ways with friends I've made over the past two years. My departure from Ukraine has been extremely emotional and difficult, but I take this as a positive sign. I feel that the more difficult it is to leave, the more significant this experience must have been.

My homecoming was a surprise for my mother and my sister. My father secretly picked me up from the airport, and then we killed a few hours while waiting for my sister's flight to arrive from New York. My father and I got BBQ pork sandwiches for lunch (so delicious) and then went to Sam's Club for Thanksgiving-related groceries. This is the point in the story at which my mind exploded.