Outsider on the Inside

Business school is a place where a handful of successful people in their twenties and thirties are handpicked by the Admissions Gods to receive a free pass to acting ten years younger for two years.

It makes sense. Take people who’ve spent the last few years of their lives hacking it at the office, put them back in a classroom, and they’ll start acting in a way that feel familiar to them: the way they did back when taking notes and drinking cheap beer was their only certainty for tomorrow.*

When lunch hour rolls around, I find myself back in high school, an outsider again scanning the room in search of empty seats. While the groups change somewhat based on special lunch talks, ad hoc group meetings, and company presentations, there are definite cliques in business school. Even though I feel I could sit pretty much anywhere in E62 Cafe, I could easily draw a ‘Mean Girls’-style map of the natural groups and seating patterns in the school lunchroom.

There are many more groups than these, and these types of groups are by no means unique to Sloan, but to call out a few: the first years still adjusting to school and stressed about core classes and cover letters; the partygoers who mysteriously manage on minimal sleep and make unfairly intelligent remarks in class; the international students bound by a shared culture, region of origin or language spoken; the inevitable and impenetrable “Bro” cohort.

In business school, as in high school, it’s tempting to follow the herd in order to feel a sense of belonging: to stay out one more hour and down one more drink even when your body is desperate for sleep and sobriety. To sign up for that class or go on that trip that’s supposed to be “amazing” but doesn’t really interest you. To drop your resume or go so far as to accept a job out of the collective pressure to get hired somewhere, anywhere, “it’s only for a few years!” To give into the fear of missing out and the fear that you’ll end up with nothing to show for your education save for a few good stories and empty pockets.

I’m guilty of doing or considering doing all of the above.

Despite the abundance of groups and cliques, and despite having a handful of people I feel close to, I often feel like an outsider. I couldn’t tell you where I “belong,” and to be honest, I’m not sure if I even belong anywhere. The only thing I am sure about is that I’m not the only person who feels this way.

This is what nobody will tell you about business school: even with all the fun, it’s two years of feeling adrift: academically, professionally, and personally. It’s a social crucible that can confuse you to the point of forgetting who you are and why you came here to do — not just school-wise but life-wise. While I’ve found support and solidarity in my peers, I’ve also blindly adopted others’ thoughts and actions as my own and absorbed their ideas of “what’s best for me” even when they’re out of whack with my sense of self.

So to my peers in MBA programs and to those reading who will eventually be in MBA programs: I challenge you to be selfish. I don’t mean stepping on others to get ahead or by willfully hurting people. I mean taking the time to reflect on what you, separate from the words and deeds of others, really want. I mean finding the courage to choose yourself and your priorities, whether that looks like taking a night to yourself to watch Netflix or waiting a few extra months to apply to your dream job instead of someone else’s dream job. I mean not apologizing for who you are and what you want.

The people in business school are remarkable and it’s true, you should seize every opportunity in your two years of enrollment. But you don’t have to be friends with everyone — you don’t even have to like everyone. For whatever it’s worth, remember you’re a MBA student for only two years. You’re you for the rest of your life.

And for whatever it’s worth, if you’ve ever felt like you just didn’t fit in here, you were never alone.

The outsider on the inside,

Erica

*The main differences now? The notes live on computers, and the beer doesn’t come as cheaply: the money for it comes directly out of your own bank account and the hangovers don’t go away as quickly

Originally published at mitsloan.mit.edu on December 17, 2015.