What do you really learn in business school? And how do you learn it?
I went to business school in 2016 in large part because I wanted to improve my emotional intelligence.
Almost right away, as I started my MBA program at MIT Sloan School of Management that fall, I had a formative experience.
Learning via peers
A month into my first semester, I was working on a group project. One of our tasks was to interview employees at a company. I was in charge of coordinating interview logistics.
Our seven-person team of MBA students consisted of four Americans and three internationals. I split our team into smaller interview squads. I explicitly told my teammates that I wanted to include at least one native English speaker on each interview squad — just to make sure that there would be nothing lost in translation.
The interviews went flawlessly. It wasn’t until later, during our structured feedback process — that one of my international teammates told me:
Your comment about native English speakers was hurtful.
I was caught by surprise. But I immediately realized my mistake.
I hadn’t considered how a non-native English speaker might feel upon hearing my statement.
I had been proud of myself for considering potential language barriers. I had been overly thoughtful in one area, and not very thoughtful at all in another.
I was insensitive. I was tactless.
In retrospect, the language element didn’t matter for our success at all. And even if it did, I could’ve been smarter, more subtle about the way I assigned the interview squads.
A truism about business school is that most of your learning comes from the people around you. Through my peers, I experienced hundreds of lessons like the above.
There is something incredibly unique about being in close proximity to 400 ambitious peers for two years.
While we came from different backgrounds and had different goals, we were all about the same age, and we felt like equals.
We were in a safe space — in the temporal, physical, and psychological sense — isolated from the rest of the world. We studied, worked, ate, drank, played, and travelled together.
It felt surreal.
For a fleeting moment in time, we were on the exact same journey. And we were all there to learn from and help one another.
There is something special about the size of the MBA program that I attended. There are only 400 students per year. It’s a number big enough for you to find your tribe, but it is also small enough for you to meet everyone.
400 is a great class size for gossip to spread. And I don’t use the word “gossip” in any pejorative way. We are all social creatures. Gossip is how we learn. It’s how we warn and protect. It can be a great force for good.
The chatter I heard during business school was eye-opening for me. And I’ll share one particularly memorable story.
See the next page for two other ways that MBA students learn in business school; click here for Poets&Quants‘ 2018 story on Yishi’s startup experiences while at MIT; and follow Yishi’s journal at his blog, including the first part of his journey here.