“It’s a jungle gym, not a ladder… There’s only one way to get to the top of a ladder, but there are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym.”
― Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In
I read this quote last year and it’s struck a chord. To me, the jungle gym is an apt metaphor not only for my career, but also for life itself. Consider yourself lucky if you had it all figured out in your early 20’s. For many of us, we’ve fought through obstacles and coped with many mistakes before we eventually found our way to INSEAD’s hallowed campus.
If you had asked me a year ago, I would have never believed that I would soon be attending a top global MBA program in Europe. I completed my undergraduate education at two universities on the opposite sides of the world, in China and the United States. When I graduated, I promised myself that I would never get another formal education — I assumed a CPA would be enough to take me to where I wanted to be. Well aware of the “What Matters in Life” story of a Mexican fisherman who meets a Harvard MBA, I didn’t really consider the business school path until I made a career transition myself. It was only after I made to Manager — a career goal I had set in my early 20’s — that I was brave enough to face my true self and seek out opportunities outside of accounting. After embarking on a year-long journey of self-reflection and networking, I decided to apply for the only MBA program that matched my values and needs. I found no shortage of people telling me that I shouldn’t pursue my dream. “An MBA is too expensive,” they would say, or “MBAs have lost their relevance in the modern world.” But this felt just like when I, years earlier, wanted to seek a job in NYC and people told me that the safe thing was to stay in Indianapolis; or more recently that I should stay in accounting because I’d already made Manager. I’d done pretty well ignoring the people who told me to “play it safe.” So last year, I exited accounting, started an apprenticeship to learn the retail business, and went on to manage one of the most profitable businesses of a multi-billion dollar apparel company.
But that’s not where the story ends. A lot can happen in a year, after all. If you’d asked me 5 months ago, I would have thought it unimaginable for a woman to deliver a baby during an intensive one-year MBA program. But shortly after I submitted my application to INSEAD in March, I found out that I was pregnant. When I received the admission phone call, I was so happy and so scared at the same time. “What should I do!” I thought to myself. For the past several months, all I could think about was the immense impact that quitting my job and moving abroad to attend INSEAD would have on my life. How could becoming a mother possibly fit in all of this? After learning about my situation, people said that I wouldn’t be able to finish the program, and many were more excited about the baby than my MBA. But I decided to take inspiration from women who have done incredible things while pregnant. If Beyoncé could pull off a stunning Grammy performance; if Ali Wong could tape the Netflix comedy special “Baby Cobra”; and if Gal Gadot could perform her debut feature in Wonder Woman, then why can’t I have a baby and pursue my dreams at the same time?
If you asked me only a week ago, I would have told you that I’m about to start an epic trip in Barcelona with my awesome INSEAD 18J classmates. I’d tell you that I’ve been fascinated by Gaudi’s architecture and Spanish culture for years, and I plan to take in all the beautiful sights Barcelona has to offer. But at 5pm on Thursday afternoon, the unthinkable happened. We encountered a devastating terrorist attack in La Rambla, one of the most popular tourist areas in Barcelona. I was just blocks away when the chaos began, on the top of a double-decker tour bus. More frighteningly, several of my classmates were close enough to witness it firsthand. At first no one for sure knew what was going on. We had been anticipating a group dinner at an INSEAD alumni’s restaurant that night for months. Should we be horrified and stay in the hotel? Or should we make the best of a bad situation and carry on with our plans? By the end of that night, more than 40 of us showed up at the dinner to meet our future classmates and network with alumni. We were not afraid because we had each other.
A few weeks prior, I attended the 17J graduation in Fontainebleau and a speech by Professor Andre Calmon stuck in my head. As he said, “the world has changed quite a bit since you first decided to take the GMAT and do an MBA. In many ways, these past couple of years have been marked by direct challenges to the values that INSEAD stands for. Peace, multi-culturalism, diversity of thought and joint prosperity. We live in revolutionary times, and I’m counting on you… not to predict, but to design the future…” The world is indeed changing fast, for better or for worse, and we INSEADers are here to make the best of it.
Life is a jungle gym. It does not always go smoothly. Many of us took the long way to get to INSEAD, but we’ve learned our lessons, and our purpose has become clearer. We can’t always plan for every situation, but every day we adapt and grow. In a year’s time we will each have had our own unique and life-changing experience. And I can’t wait to share yours with you!