4 Lessons from 200 days of an Executive MBA

This month, I launched a podcast with one of my Kellogg Executive MBA classmates. The next day, passing a colleague in the hall, she said, “I was suspicious before. But now I know you don’t sleep!” Well, I hate to burst anyone’s bubble. But I do sleep. As do the other 65 people in my class. Why? Because the first big lesson we’ve learned at Kellogg is this:

  • You can do seriously hard stuff. Really, you can. I’m not much of a gamer, but I liken my experience in B-school to beating a level in a video game. The next level doesn’t get easier, it gets harder. But somehow, you get used to it. And when you go back and play the lower levels, they seem so simple. This is the feeling of adding more to an already full plate. Parents understand this phenomenon better than anyone, I think. You can’t imagine what you used to do with all your free time. And now, though you have less time, you somehow find ways to use it more effectively.

I had the good fortune (or perhaps we’re just glutton for punishment) of seeing my husband go through his Executive MBA program at Notre Dame just before I started mine at Kellogg. So, I knew first-hand how quickly the time goes. One moment, he was preparing for a test, and the next moment, he’s in a cap and gown. Lesson #2 is key in this moment.

  • Time to focus on yourself and your personal development is rare. Cherish it. In my program, classes start at 1:00pm on Friday afternoon every other week and end between 4:00pm and 6:00pm on Saturday afternoon. It’s tempting to work until 11:55am on Friday and then race from the office to Evanston in time for my 1:00pm class. It’s also tempting to quickly leave on Saturday afternoon to catch up on Netflix at home on the couch. But what they don’t tell you at the beginning of B-school is that your money’s worth in the program largely happens in these “buffer times.” A major part of any business school experience is the time you have outside the classroom with your classmates. This time is as integral to your development as the time spent hitting the books. I’ve learned to take the time to arrive early on Friday morning, spend time with my classmates, get to know their struggles, their businesses, their personal lives. And though I sometimes do trade school for the couch on Saturday nights, I do my best to stay for dinner at least every other weekend I’m on campus and then head home.

For me, going to business school was bigger than just the education I would receive. I left my undergraduate experience unfulfilled. I don’t get involved in alumni events or support the school as a donor or advocate. Going to graduate school was an opportunity for me to gain an alma mater and to develop an affinity for a school that I’ve never had before. Herein lies the third lesson:

  • I finally get it! Purple pride really does exist, and it’s bigger than a degree. Business schools are known for being separate and apart from the larger university. I would be lying if I said I didn’t first say “Kellogg” and then say “Northwestern.” But nonetheless, every weekend I’m in Evanston, I force myself to go for a walk on the lakeshore and take in the beauty of the Northwestern University campus. I go with classmates to buy the swag from the bookstore, and even though I have no idea who actually won March Madness, I cheered for Northwestern in their first trip to the “big show” ever. After years of watching friends and family show so much pride in their colleges and universities, I finally understand that affinity, and damn it feels good.

The week I started B-school, I bought myself two greeting cards and posted them in my office. They say “Have diploma, will travel,” and “You go Girl! You’re on your way!” And they’re held on my bulletin board by my “Defy Gravity” pin from the musical Wicked. They serve as a constant reminder of lesson #4.

  • Keep your eye on the ball and your heart on the goal. It’s incredibly easy to lose sight of the goal in this process. When I’m starting cross-eyed into the abyss of a linear regression, it’s easy to think, “WHY AM I DOING THIS?” Those graduation cards remind me why – to accomplish something I never thought I would…or could. They also remind me that this period of life – B-school – is so short. In just 14 months, it’s all going to be over. I can stop taking tests and start taking vacations again. What lies at the end of that time no one will ever be able to take from me.

My “How Many Days” app tells me there are now 408 days left in my business school experience. And one third of the way through, I look forward to the many more lessons I’ll learn on this journey. In the meantime, Go Wildcats!