SEMESTER SERIES: CHARLENE THOMAS – Sanity List

I, personally, think that one of the hardest parts about business school (there are a lot of hard parts about business school) is the point at which you realize that everyone around you is really, really smart. It’s both a cool and intimidating thing; it’s something I can honestly say that I’d never experienced quite so overwhelmingly until I got to Emory. That isn’t to say that there aren’t really smart people just out there in the world, but there is definitely a cluster of really smart people here at Goizueta.

If you’re looking at a school like Emory for your MBA, then chances are that you, too, are one of these really, really smart people; capable of being really cool (and somewhat intimidating) to be around. You probably work really hard and have seen a ton of successes in your life because of it, and you’ve probably accomplished a whole lot, even though – to you – it might not feel like enough yet. After all, that’s pretty much what all of us are doing here: striving to surround ourselves with a bunch of people like you. People who can push us to think differently and scratch our metaphorical backs in the business world one day if we ever need them to.

At Emory, we focus on learning. Cutting back on all the competition in order to be way more “Kumbaya” about the whole school-thing, putting helping one another to be better first. Their most institutionalized way of doing this (that I’ve noticed) is their grading policy. Everything during the first semester in based on a curve. A certain percentage of the class has to receive the highest grade, a certain percentage of the class has to receive the second highest grade, a certain percentage of the class has to receive the third highest grade, and a certain percentage of the class has to receive the lowest grade in every class we take across the “core” courses. Grades “don’t matter” (unless you’re in that bottom bracket too many times, and then you can find yourself in continuation trouble), and that – theoretically – is supposed to help us really smart people not be such total psychopaths when it comes to test scores and studying. I think it works, to an extent. But it also kind of makes you pay a lot more attention to (and potentially become a lot more intimidated by) the people who surround you. Because for a full semester, you’re being directly compared to them, and your grade depends just as much on how well you do, as it does on how well they do.

Our class handles the forced grade distribution dynamic pretty well. I believe it’s fully because of the kind of culture Emory has established here – the kind that encourages teamwork and camaraderie. But it’s still a kind of stressful reality, if you ask me. It’s still being back in school, amongst all these geniuses, and maybe not fully understanding the coursework like they do, and – in turn – trying to remember if you were ever good at anything, ever. Like, ever before in your whole life.

You were.

You are.

I’ve learned that it’s all about managing your sanity list. It’s almost the holidays (December 13, to be exact), and I wish I could give you something more concrete and tangible in this post, like the clubs you should join here and why, or how to budget your money so you don’t have to become a “dancer” or something. But I did want to at least share something during the season of giving, and this stuff really did keep me sane. So, my un-concrete, intangible, keep-your-sanity recommendations for you are as follows:

  1. Stop thinking about everybody else. Don’t even start in the first place. You are going to be thrust into a world of close-enough-to-touch Stephen Hawkings, and in their pre-MBA lives they will have been anything from literal rocket scientists, to the lead drummer in a band too Indy and cool for you to have ever even heard of. They are going to be kickass at some things that you will just never be kickass at, and that is ok. It is ok that they can go out every other night and pass the test and you can’t. It is ok that you’re studying, like, a lot, even if it feels like you’re the only one. It’s all ok. (By the way, you are not the only one.)
  2. Find time to do things that aren’t school. You had a full-out life before you decided to go back to school. Like, with actual people in it who will remember you even after you’ve been engulfed by the alternate universe that is business school. You probably had a favorite food, a song you really liked, and a TV show you enjoyed too. There will be a cyclical point throughout your first semester when you will literally have to rack your mind for anything else you could possibly read/study/retain/practice as it relates to class. Those are the points when you stop racking your brain and instead you eat food or call someone you miss or remind yourself what sunshine is. Relax, and take a break from studying.
  3. Do not feel entitled to do things that aren’t school. Even though there will be the cyclical point when you get to take a break, you don’t get to just decide you’re entitled to all the breaks. It can’t be a TV marathon, and a bar crawl, and a dinner date, and then also that other dinner date because you were going to go to the grocery store but grocery shopping is hard. You aren’t always entitled to have the life you had before all this because your life is different now. It’s business school. It’s time consuming. Your time will be consumed and you will be happier the very moment you are willing to accept that.
  4. Remember who you are. It’s crazy how quickly things can feel like high school and college all over again, the second you throw a bunch of people who are generally the same age in a confined space and give them homework. You are going to be social and you’re going to make friends but you’re also going to get annoyed and eventually fight with those friends. When that starts to happen, it will also probably perfectly coincide with your first bad test grade and the thank you email you send to that recruiter, referencing Company X when he works for Company Y. All of these things are ok. You are not sucky at life. You are actually very good at life, or else you wouldn’t be here. People who are sucky at life are not bombing graduate level tests and cursing themselves for possibly insulting some big deal head hunter. People who are sucky at life wouldn’t even have some big deal head hunter’s email address in the first place. You are good at life and you are good enough to be great at this. But you have to remind yourself of that.
  5. Be a human. Get really, really mad, and cry if you need to, or don’t if you don’t. Vent and be emotional and don’t try to suppress the kinds of basic needs that “b-school” kids decide are circumstantially suddenly less basic, like food consumption and sleep. You are not that IBM Watson robot and you have to allow yourself to have reactions and needs. Would school be easier for Watson? Yes. But does Watson ever get to appreciate the sobering effects of best friend group texts and midnight pizza binges? No. It evens out.

You will have your own list; a modified version of mine or something different in its entirety. But, to the extent that it’s helpful…well. I hope that mine is helpful.