December 6, 2010 12:06 am

‘Comparison is the death of happiness’

The day I was accepted into the MBA programme at Saïd Business School in Oxford was one of the happiest of my life – I could not stop smiling. I called my friends and family to tell them the good news. Everyone had something encouraging to say. “The world is your oyster,” said my grandfather.

My life was suddenly filled with possibilities and the promise of a bright new future. All those hours of mind-numbing GMAT study and application writing had finally paid off. My acceptance felt like the ultimate endorsement of all my efforts and achievements. In my mind, the subtext of the acceptance letter said: “You are worthy of an MBA education. You are unique and we need you to contribute to our programme.”

By that time, at the age of 25, I had worked my way up and made a name for myself in Canadian business journalism. My career had progressed quickly: after an entry-level job at a television station, I wrote hourly newscasts for television anchors, co-hosted a morning radio show, reported on news at a major Toronto station and hosted my own daily business radio show. As a radio host, I interviewed fascinating business people, including Donald Trump and Steve Wozniak.

As I looked back at my career and forward to my MBA, I felt I had something to be proud of. However, I knew that completing my MBA would be an uphill battle. I did not have the typical MBA corporate work experience and I had no quantitative background to speak of. Therefore, in the months leading up to the programme, I braced myself for a challenge. I tried to familiarise myself with Microsoft Excel, undertook pre-course reading and sought advice from former MBA students.

But nothing could truly prepare me. During my first week at Oxford, I met my classmates: 234 outstanding people with amazing stories to tell. I met entrepreneurs, engineers, doctors, lawyers and consultants. I met a classmate fluent in five languages, a woman who ran an Aids education programme in Africa and a former professional basketball player.

While some classmates were impressed I was a “radio star”, I felt my star fading as I met people whose achievements dwarfed mine. It was an exciting, humbling experience. Then, suddenly, classes and tutorials began.

Parties, dinners, networking events and recruitment drives began in earnest. I was invited along to every activity imaginable: gliding, coffee tasting and salsa dancing, to name a few. My calendar and e-mail inbox were so full that I barely knew where to begin. As I tried to keep my head above water and struggled with my courses, my classmates were running out to parties, taking part in sports and chatting up recruiters. It seemed like everyone else was doing better and more.

The school swarmed with classmates in business attire, rushing to finance and consulting recruitment events. I began thinking: “Maybe I should be going too – am I leaving my job search too late? How do these people have time for class and recruiting events?”

It seemed I was never productive enough, and my “to do” list kept growing. A refrain began playing in my head: “I’m not doing enough. I’m not quite good enough.” Thankfully, after speaking with my classmates, I found solace in the fact that I was not alone. This “I’m not good enough” feeling was universal.

People said: “You’re blogging for the FT, you’re our class rep, you’re studying and you’re going to parties. How can you say you’re not doing enough? I feel as if I’m not doing enough, compared with everyone else.”

Meanwhile, other classmates were suffering MBA buyer’s remorse, asking: “Did I do the right thing? I’ll graduate with a mountain of debt. This is difficult on my relationships. Is it really worth it?”

This is the essence of the MBA experience: you come in feeling good about yourself, then the MBA knocks the wind out of you and beats you down, only to eventually build you back up again.

The other day, a classmate told me: “Alanna, this stress is artificial. The MBA is designed to stress you out and see if you can handle it. Don’t worry so much.”

This advice brought to mind a statement by Philip Delves Broughton, author of Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School about the MBA experience. He wrote: “Comparison is the death of happiness,” and he was right. Constantly comparing myself to my investment banker classmates was counterproductive.

The stress induced by comparison is the only way to explain how 235 competent, self-confident people from different industries and backgrounds can all come together and start to experience paralysing self-doubt.

I have learnt that the main thing to keep in mind as an MBA student is that you have limitations as a human being. You cannot possibly do what everyone else is doing, but that’s OK. Focus on yourself, focus on what you want and block out the external noise. Admittedly, this is difficult. I wrestle with it daily.

But recognising that we cannot do everything is a key step towards a productive and fulfilling MBA experience, which is ultimately the main goal.

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