My past two years getting my MBA at the Stanford Graduate School of Business have been the most transformative of my life thus far. (I’m not being hyperbolic, I assure you.) The Stanford GSB is not just a business school, it’s a life school. I discovered who I am, who I want to be, and what matters in life.
The educational experience expands far beyond the classroom. It’s all-encompassing. Some of my most important lessons were learned at 3am while traveling with classmates on the other side of the world. It’s nearly impossible to consolidate what I learned into a list of eight lessons, but here’s my best shot.
Lesson 1: Devour Diversity
I showed up at the Stanford GSB already enthralled with the power of diversity. In undergrad at UC Berkeley I wrote my thesis on “Making diversity in the workplace a strategic advantage.” I facilitated the “Unconscious Bias” class at Google as a side project. But truth be told, there wasn’t that much diversity at Google. Not like there was amongst by Stanford classmates. I still had a lot to learn.
When you show up to the first day of “Welcome Week” at the GSB, you’re divided into one of six “sections” with whom you take the bulk of your core classes the first year (shout out to Section 3). Rumor has it that these sections are meticulously curated starting the moment we’re admitted. As the legendary former Director of Admissions Derrick Bolton once told me, “each class is like an orchestra, and you don’t want to have too many tubas.”
I looked around on my first day of class and was in complete awe of my classmates. There were former Navy SEALs, professional athletes, Wall Street hot shots, even the guy that created Google Alerts. I was humbled to call myself part of this group.
I wondered if I should even be there. I was a former saleswoman at Google. Did my classmates think salespeople were stupid? I designed my own major in college. Would I be able to keep up in my accounting and finance classes? My Imposter Syndrome ran deep.
But Bolton told us that when it comes who Stanford admits into the business school program, “we don’t make mistakes.”
He was right. Every single person in our diverse section had a unique background, expertise, and experience that the rest of us could learn from. What I lacked, others had, and vice versa. By the end of the quarter, my section was like a fine-tuned orchestra, harmonizing and playing off one another. We each took turns being conductor.
My classmates helped me grow immensely as a person and expanded my worldview. My hope is I was able to do the same for them.
Lesson 2: Feedback is a Gift
I’ve gotten more feedback in the past two years than I have in my entire life. Giving personal and professional feedback is deeply ingrained in the Stanford GSB culture. It’s part of every group project, every presentation, and every night out at The Patio, our local dive bar. We’ve grown so accustomed to giving and receiving feedback that we worry our candor will ruffle some feathers in the “real world.”
We played it safe at first. During my first quarter, “constructive” feedback typically took the form of a disguised compliment. As we built up trust with our classmates, we learned to take more and greater risks. We gave feedback that was immensely uncomfortable to give.
Giving constructive feedback is risky. There are possible repercussions – you could hurt the other person or worse, ruin your relationship. That’s why people often conclude that it’s easier to not give the feedback at all.
How could Joe not know everyone thinks his tone is abrasive? Well, because no one’s ever told him. Taking the personal risk of giving constructive feedback is a gift for the other person because it helps them see their blind spot.
We learned to be immensely grateful receivers of feedback, and to take the personal risk of giving it whenever possible in order to help our fellow classmates.
Lesson 3: There’s Strength in Vulnerability
We’re taught to avoid making ourselves vulnerable from a young age. Turns out most people don’t like feeling emotionally exposed, uncertain, or at risk. We abhor asking for help or admitting weakness. But there’s enormous power in vulnerability.
Our vulnerabilities are what make us beautiful, interesting, human, ourselves. Being vulnerable with someone is how you form a true bond. It makes you feel connected to other people. It’s a cornerstone to falling in love.
The people I most respect, the strongest people and leaders I know, admit that they’re imperfect. It makes me respect them even more. When leaders take a risk and share their vulnerabilities, it shows they trust us. It shows they’re human. They’re relatable; they remind us of us.
Taking risks and sharing your vulnerabilities is a prerequisite for being trusted, respected, and known (both personally and professionally).
Lesson 4: Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
The most personal growth happens when you feel a little uncomfortable.
At Stanford we were encouraged to get out of our uncomfort zone every day. We role played firing our classmates. Engaging in conflict was celebrated. We gave public speeches we felt unprepared for. We filmed ourselves doing it. And rewatched it over, and over. While getting feedback from our peers.
We were taught to embrace a growth mindset. This is in contrast to a fixed mindset, which suggests that our competencies are innate. Instead, we believed our talents could be developed through hard work, practice, and feedback from others. We embody the growth mindset even in the way we talk to ourselves. Rather than saying “I can’t do financial analysis,” we would say, “I can’t do financial analysis yet.”
Challenge your assumptions about yourself, the world, how things work. Things that may have been true about you in the past might not be true now. Constantly checking in and challenging your beliefs is a crucial part of personal development. You’ll surprise yourself at what you learn and what you can do.
Anna Frances Ford is the founder and CEO of BrainsOverBlonde, a lifestyle platform for women who refuse to choose between femininity and success.