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Graham Matthews is an MBA student at Ivey Business School.
Graham Matthews is an MBA student at Ivey Business School.

MBA Diary

A calm mind is needed amid the MBA ‘tornado’ Add to ...

Graham Matthews of Toronto is an MBA student with a focus on marketing and entrepreneurship at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School in London, Ont. He was previously a director with Vivid Connections, a firm that specializes in research consulting, strategic planning and people development. This is his first entry for MBA Diary.

It’s easy to lose yourself in an MBA.

Before coming to business school I would say that self-awareness was a personal strength of mine. That’s not to say that I always made great decisions, but I usually felt a sense of clarity about myself, even with the uncertainty of leaving a job I loved to return to school at 30.

The MBA experience has certainly shaken that foundation. The makeup of an MBA classroom is instantly disruptive to one’s own world view. From Day 1, I was surrounded by people with incredibly diverse backgrounds, not just culturally but professionally and personally. Within the first week, Ivey’s career management team paved a path for the year ahead: developing our personal narratives, coffee chats, interview practice – all toward landing us a job we’d each be happy with. Then course content ramped up quickly with a steady flow of new concepts, readings, case discussions, competitions and group work. Conversations with 150 new friends outside the classroom dug into past experiences, future ambitions, questions and confusions.

Imagine standing in the middle of a tornado. All you can do is try to keep your feet on the ground, but no matter what you do you end up twisted around.

So what would you do? Do you focus on “the plan?” Do you revert to the familiar? Do you become the tornado?

In all cases, being mindful of yourself and your priorities is most important. One risk of going through an MBA experience, particularly an intense one-year program like Ivey’s, is that you begin to take on the identity of those around you. Long-term career ambitions, job applications, salary expectations, how you talk about your background, how you spend your free time, which MBA course work to do (and not to do) and so on all become priorities.

My advice to anyone – business student or not – is to take time to reflect. What are your personal priorities? What are the components of a life that will make you happy? What are the sacrifices you’re willing to make, what are you not willing to give up? And then what does that mean for you as an MBA student or as a professional or as an individual? Of course we can’t control everything, even in our own brains, but we do have some autonomy and there’s power in that.

It’s also important to stretch yourself and jump into the tornado. In many ways that’s what this MBA thing is all about. Every week I’m here at Ivey I evolve a little bit, some weeks I evolve a lot. Some of these personal shifts are temporary, some will stay with me longer term. So I just try to take a moment every once in a while to be reflective about where I am.

By being mindful of our own identity and priorities we unlock a level of vulnerability. We can talk about our weaknesses as well as our strengths. We can describe what’s important to us in a corporate culture because we know what’s important to us. I would like to think that hiring managers pick up on this. If you’re a fit for their business, they will believe it because it’s coming from an honest place. If they don’t think you’re a fit, that’s fine. I’d rather we both know that now than in six months.

This is hard to do, in large part because we don’t have complete control of our brains and they are complex. I have found myself seriously considering roles that I almost certainly would not be happy with and was unable to explain how I got there. It’s a tornado, after all, and sometimes I don’t realize how much I’ve been twisted around.

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