Takeoff

Dear Reader,

One week into arriving in Fontainebleau to tackle this one-year MBA, and I am already deep into activities, classes, and social events. It feels like it’s been ages since I’ve put my other ‘regular and normal’ life on the sidelines 6,000 kilometers away but it’s only been seven days.

The “Integration Week” has been the most intense, action-packed week I have ever lived! Three months ago, I received the thrilling phone call from my Admissions Officer announcing the great news. After having spoken to many alumni, but also in light of all the accepted students of my cohort reaching out to me, I had a feeling I was entering a world of its own. In fact, only a few hours after receiving the official letter from INSEAD, my future colleagues were already contacting me to get acquainted. I already felt I was right there on campus! Getting to meet everyone over the web, and through reading the different introductions of my peers on different social platforms, I instantly understood I had entered a special community. My future peers were a group of overachievers and self-motivated leaders in their respective fields. I realized I had stepped in a unique world, an organization where the sum of all individuals is so much stronger than each single person.

It is in this state of mind that I left snowy Montreal, in the first few days of the New Year. I thought I knew what an intense first week lay ahead me, but it turns out I had know idea.

We had 20 different conference speakers talk to us over the course of the week, all of them passionate at communicating with their audience and involved in the development of the students. The personnel and professors take great pride and interest in contributing to INSEAD, and their doors are always open. Furthermore, you’re encouraged to reach out to them for help or to expand on subjects of interest.

I must also talk about classmates: I wonder how it is that so many talented people as my peers ended up in the same establishment. In my former universities, at work and in different activities, I met lots of driven people, but never that many in the same environment. The students bond right away, whether it is with your 7 roommates in a 17th century country house, with the previous intake in student clubs, or with teammates from your project team. Each one is there to help you push your limits, get out of your comfort zone, and support you. This culture of empowerment among the student body comes from each MBA participant, but it is also fostered by INSEAD through policies such as non-grade disclosure and the explicit encouragement for all to have an open mind and an inclusive mindset. Having more than one hundred nationalities on campus helps promote this acceptance culture as well.

During a discussion on general management, I spoke up and mentioned that I was surprised to see as many people interested and curious about so many diverse subjects as I was, and that I could really associate with the student body unlike any other environment before. At this point, the professor addressed the 75 students and made us reflect: “Show of hands—how many of you came here at INSEAD to be led in the group?” I didn’t see one hand stick up. “You are all leaders here. You want to take charge and want to get results, and that’s why we want to help you develop this leadership, and that’s what makes you feel so at home here.” I take it that’s the environment I associate with here, and I’m pretty certain this self-enlightening journey is just getting started.

Not even one week after starting the program, and I fully realize the depth of what all the alumni are saying when mentioning their year at INSEAD changed their lives.

I am really excited at the prospect of starting other classes next week, and I’m looking forward to sharing different stories with you for the coming year, a year that I am sure will make me a transformed man.

Cheers,

Ed

INSEAD application reflections

Life is filled with precious moments that money can’t buy. Receiving INSEAD’s admission letter is one that I will treasure for a long time. To thank those who helped me, I want to share a few key lessons I learned throughout the process.

Be consistent and coherent.

From the outset I asked myself what my three most important values are and I used them to form the backbone of my essays. The coherence it created made it easier to incorporate experiences that best demonstrate those values. Attempting to showcase everything will only make your profile unmemorable, so be selective and tell a good story.

Focus on strengths.

One of the mental obstacles I had to overcome was to stop worrying about my weaknesses. During the initial stage of research much of my focus was on how to address the weaknesses in my profile, but soon I noticed others were doing much of the same thing. I came to realise that expanding on my strengths pays more dividends than trying to become the ‘perfect’ candidate, and I shifted my focus immediately . How you write gives away your confidence, so focus on what you are good at and really shine.

Persistence trumps talent.

I went to at least a dozen MBA related events, and they were filled with people of extraordinary intellect. Talent alone may get you lucky once, but to be consistently ‘lucky’ it takes persistence and work. I don’t have a high GMAT score or a flawless resume, and I started my application from scratch and learned from trial and error. If I can do it, so can you.

Overall, the pursuit of an MBA is a rewarding journey in itself regardless of the outcome. I guarantee that if you put your heart into it you will experience self-discovery along the way, and that in itself is well worth the effort.

‘Predictably Irrational’

It’s 10:31pm. In 89 minutes time we will embrace the first day of P3. P1 and P2 passed in a flash, and to be frank, it is difficult to translate the experience into words adequately. Nonetheless, I feel somewhat compelled to share a few perception shifts I experienced in the past four months, and I hope that gives a glimpse of what INSEAD has to offer.

Managing Uncertainty

Prior to INSEAD I managed my life via apps, calendars and spreadsheets, and I was not bad at it. That sense of control I depended on was challenged at INSEAD, with an intense schedule and multiple events taking place at the same time. I tried to fight it by doing more spreadsheets, adding more calendar entries, and having less sleep, and soon I was burned out. Eventually I realised that the schedule was not meant to be exhausted. I have to choose between a company presentation and lunch, a weekend in Belgium and a finance tutorial, and a night of peaceful sleep and a halloween party. INSEAD taught me how to refine my judgements when faced with ambiguity, and how to adapt to a fast-pace environment with composure.

Managing Network

In the years of my working life, I interpreted the term ’networking’ as much as I needed to impress my direct report. I gave little thought to it in part due to my introversion and in part due to an occasionally negative connotation I felt towards the term. Coming to INSEAD changed my view. After attending over a dozen of networking events, reading, and discussing cases with fellow classmates, I came to realise that networking is not only about growing LinkedIn connections or making small talks at cocktail parties. It is about listening, asking well-thought questions and making people like you.

Managing Self-Development

I have a habit of writing goals down and revising them regularly to track progress, and I used to derive satisfaction from ticking off the list. A week ago I reflected on the goals I set for INSEAD. They were met, but the satisfaction was not there. It then dawned on me that I was doing it all wrong. GPAs and job titles are only validations to serve my insecurities; they do not provide real development. I experienced growth when I succeeded in cracking an unfamiliar subject, when I was able to dissect a case study from different angels, and when I shared a laugh with others whom I barely knew. INSEAD MBA has more than a job and a certificate to offer, and to grow from the experience one must be willing to let go of presumptions and maintain an open mind.

Just as Daniel Ariely pointed out in Predictably Irrational, our assumptions about making decisions based on rational thought may be flawed. I now truly come to appreciate my ‘irrationality’ and I look forward to more interesting turmoils in the coming months.

The human side of the MBA

I love my section. Everyday I feel lucky to be in a class full of fun, smart, energetic, ambitious, interesting and collaborative classmates. In P1, our section successfully pulled off several fun class pranks on our professors that scared (in a good way) some while amused others. My 70 classmates from my section come from over 40 countries. While I’ve always known that each person has a fascinating story, I really didn’t know just how incredible each one was until last week.

The new initiative, “Talk IN”, made me appreciate INSEAD and my classmates even more. It was inspired by the Stanford GSB MBA talk where students share intimate stories about themselves—beyond the standard questions of “where are you from,” “what did you do before,” and “what do you want to do after MBA?” It’s certainly not for everyone since it can be uncomfortable for those who are more private so only those brave enough to share their stories will volunteer to speak.

Not many classmates knew what to expect with the talk but in just 20 minutes, the first speaker stunned the class by exposing her past failures and insecurities. It was shocking for many of us to hear that our seemingly perfect classmate had such a tumultuous past. On the surface, she seems like the model MBA candidate: driven, intelligent, confident, international and accomplished. However her intimate stories exposed a different person – someone who also has fears and vulnerabilities. It took incredible courage to share a story like hers and it allowed our class to get to know her at a completely new level. With just one story, she broke down the superficial barriers by reminding us we are all human.

The next day, more students opened up and shared stories in our business ethics class. My fellow classmates shared stories about their experience with war, medical ethics, theft, etc. We soon concluded ethics is highly subjective depending on the culture we’re in. The in class discussion that our classmates shared were even more profound than those in our business ethics case studies and I learned so much just from listening to their stories. What surprised me most was that some classmates who appeared to be extremely positive actually had major hardships in their lives. Also some shy classmates I have never really talked to revealed touching stories that made me see them in a completely new way.

Coming to business school, students often forget that behind the facades of success, we’re all human. Initially, most students only show off their best sides; vulnerability, however, is sometimes even more powerful and genuine than a perfect façade. We are all human—we make mistakes; we yearn for belonging; and we want to feel loved.

For me, the biggest lesson of this week was never to judge others by my first impressions of them. I’ve met so many people in the past two months that it’s easy to make quick conclusions about a person. Talk IN reminded me to give each person a chance to share their story beyond their standard “MBA story.” Just listen. You’ll be surprised at how each person, especially those you least expect, has something remarkable to say.

The Philosophy of Statistics

Out of all the classes from P1, statistics was the class I surprisingly learned the most from about life.

One of the most powerful lessons I learned was that everything is random. In the beginning of our statistics class, the professor asked how many of us actually knew we would be at INSEAD five years ago? Not surprisingly, almost no one raised their hand. This raised the next question – do we really know where we will be in 5 years? What does this tell us about the future?

Statistics quickly became a philosophy class where life lessons overtook the mechanics of regression and hypothesis testing itself. This class made me think twice about given “facts” and more cautious about how I interpreted data.

  • Don’t judge people by outcomes because outcomes are random, judge them by process.
  • We tend to pay more attention to familiarity than merit.
  • We are more anchored on the past than we should be.
  • Insight comes from extremes therefore never ignore the outliers.
  • Everything is possible, some things are less or more likely.

Thankfully the professor made the class very digestible with stories about monkeys, elephants, weirdness, bullsh*t, etc. Furthermore, INSEAD really lived up to its “work hard, play hard” reputation because our section of 70 students celebrated the end of this class with zorba dancing with our Greek professor!

Although many lessons sound intuitive, this statistics course put many things into perspective. Our gut feeling is messed up so never jump to conclusions too quickly because we should always ask ourselves: do we really know what we think we know?

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