The Anatomy of B-School
I arrived in New York City on December 28th, 2010. Two images stand out in my mind that capture that day but also the structure of what was to come.
One memory is of dizzying beauty of the park, discovery, Bergdorf window displays, the Plaza, children bundled up from the cold in designer coats and hats like little dolls…the physical beauty and the nostalgia that Manhattan bleeds. Everywhere was something I had imagined or seen in a movie.
The other memory is of arriving to the climax of the blizzard, trying to ford my suitcase over a snow bank after the wheels broke and sitting, freezing, wet pants, the gypsy cab driver helping me out of the bank -- and thinking, "wow, this is really hard."
This place that felt like possibility, a switch turned on, an open circuitry of firing synapses…..would also prove surprisingly inhospitable to carrying out basic tasks like, say, shopping for groceries! Or getting more than one household item on a subway! It required head down focus and a plan. It required execution. But how could I process all this newness with my head down? I felt tugged in two directions: call it, Bed Bath and Beyond vs. Central Park South. Execution vs. Wonder.
It was an omen of things to come. I would find Columbia Business School to be Manhattan on steroids; density within density, a jam-packed bubble of movement within a jam-packed island of movement, with all the beauty and possibility and newness that is Manhattan as well. This balance must exist in any intensive business school experience, but it is amplified here, as everything is. Trader Joe's on a Sunday evening is Watson on any given Monday.
Even though it's been nearly a year, I'll admit I still struggle to get my bearings sometimes, to stay open and focused at once. Though I chalk part of it off to my California origins, this seems too easy. So recently, I made a mass inquiry: How do you cope/balance/work? How do you look around (outward, expand, open…words like these) and still execute (contract, focus, bang it out….words like these).
I've always been fascinated by that question, and I'm not alone. There's a great website called "how we work" that compiles snippets of the working lives and delivery mechanisms of famous people throughout time (drinkers, nappers, amphetamines, etc.). I wanted to know what outlooks enabled some people to deal -- or even thrive in, the tug that left others feeling overwhelmed. What was their balance?
The responses were amusing, less on coping and more on detailing the anatomy of being overwhelmed:
"I don't shop for groceries, Target items, or run to Costco anymore because it's just too damn complicated. I have no doorman and since everything is done by delivery, I hate ordering online and having anything shipped to my apartment. So mostly the biggest transition for me is the complete and utter lack of convenience to do anything."
"I go to class for an hour and a half, come out and I have 35 emails. I don't have time to be away from my email. You have to read them all because you never know what you'll miss." (Our relationship with technology….a subject for another article: I'm looking at you, David Lerman!)
"I try to stay on top of my calendar, stick to the plan for the day. But you're always running into people pulling you in other directions. Infants are hard-wired by instinct to turn their head if you run your finger along their cheek. They think it's time to nurse. That's CBS!"
I got so many different responses, but the thing that linked them all was this sense of dichotomy: that what is so difficult is not executing, per se, but the fact that the anatomy of focus is so different from the anatomy of wonder, and we have to be contortionists to be both. And we want to be both, constantly, all the time. The tug is palpable in Watson. It's like a heartbeat, the pull of priority versus the FOMO (fear of missing out) of what's out there tonight. How do you ensure that you both make time for everything (new opportunities, surprise passions…the life that chooses you?) and that you focus, that you stick to the path you described in your application essay about going into X with a focus on Y. Knowing that choosing, that limiting yourself in some measurable way is necessary to getting anything done, but not knowing when to limit.
One of my favorite responses was from a classmate who I have been in organizational awe of since day one. He does everything well, and yet has that openness that makes his executions seem flowy, never forced or overwhelmed. Randomly a champion swimmer, randomly perfect posture, an easy smile….and then maybe it isn't random. I even wanted his notebooks. Like, where did you get them? If I write in these notebooks will I have your balance? (I know the answer to that).
He said: "Balancing existing interests, new curiosities, and short-lived flings (not the romantic kind, although, perhaps those too...) is all part of the joie de vivre. I am at full speed from 7am until midnight, with no downtime. Dinner, drinks, conversations, even walking home from Brooklyn when the trains aren't running--I see the value of crunching numbers, but in ten years (months? weeks? days?), I will still have the friends I've made, cherish the memories I created, and, perhaps most importantly, may have embarked upon a path I never would have seen had it not been for those conversations. I see something shiny and I look and see if I want to EXPLORE it. I listen and think about it but then I decide quickly. I don't shelve things. I'm double, triple booked. I have a calendar and I will say no or say I have to get back to you. I'm never bored, I never have downtime. I don't spend a lot of time on Facebook."
It's a lot to digest. You're crammed into this subway but amidst it all are people who are shiny and amazing in some way, and it's up to you to find out how. You can keep your head down to the path you charted, or you can look around. The very density that makes everything hard gives openness such a high hit-rate. It's embracing life at close range.
I think I used to see balance as something you did, something you finally ‘got' after enough New Years' resolutions. But like anything else, if you love it you will do it well. It's those who love the tug that thrive. Floating in it rather than trying to beat it, the beauty in the balance.
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