Falling Short, Gracefully

April 14, 2008

I recently celebrated the one year anniversary of my decision to come to Darden, and it caused me to take a moment to pause and reflect on that decision. This anniversary coincided with the race for many things at Darden this year: the race to devise my bidding strategy for second year courses, the race to position myself in the clubs and leadership positions I want, and the race for financial aid. It is this last race that was particularly significant last week, when I discovered that I had fallen short in my bid to earn a prestigious and generous fellowship at the Darden School.

I fell short a year ago, as well. I had applied to only a very few select schools. My time during the application process was very short in supply, owing to the fact that I was still deployed to Ar Ramadi with my Army unit, and had other priorities to consider. Darden, by any definition, was a reach school for me. I first discovered the school while reading through a book I ordered from Amazon while doing my research in Iraq. My subsequent research turned up a plethora of solid feedback and testimonials. However, there was one school that was ranked higher to which I applied. This school is in the top three of most polls, and it is located in my home state, which was appealing.

I thought I knew what I wanted… or at least I had convinced myself I did while I completed the essays. Either investment banking or general management (the polarization of those two fields should indicate that I really had little clue at the time what my final plans are). Everything I read and everyone I talked to indicated that I should be sure that I have a cogent plan moving forward, and that I needed to communicate that to the schools during the admissions process. During my Darden interview (over the phone from Ramadi), I told the interviewer that I thought general management would be my focus, but that I would leave open the possibility that something would catch my attention, and my passions, and that I would like to have the opportunity to run with it. She assured me that this was fine at Darden. I told the same qualifying statement to my interviewer at the competing school a few weeks later, and it was not nearly so well received. And I didn’t get in.

I was already esctatic to have been admitted to Darden, and I was emotionally past the fallout by the time I received the decision. The first mailings from Darden had arrived, and there was little that could lift my spirits more while sitting on a cot in a bombed out building on Forward Operating Base Ramadi than reading about Charlottesville, the case method, the alumni network, and everything else Darden. I decided to give myself fully to the Darden experience, and that has since proven to be one of the wisest decisions I ever made. In fact, and this may just be a bit of Virginia-sweetened sour grapes, I have a distinct impression that I am happier here than I ever would have been at that other school, which will, in fact, remain nameless.

So, I missed the fellowship, granted by a very generous alum. But four of my classmates did receive the award, and are all friends of mine, and I can think of no one more deserving. I grew a great deal from the experience of applying. The self reflection and personal inventory of plans and passions were well worth the effort and the emotional risk. I was honored to have been considered among the finalists, and I know that I can put forth this effort toward a myriad of other merit scholarships offered for Darden students in their second year (point of fact, I am already enjoying significant financial aid, as do most Darden students, which is important enough that I cannot understate its value to the school and the community at large) and be successful.

At Darden, I have been able to find my way to the career that interests me most. It turned out to be consulting for the short run, and probably private equity for the medium run. The long run, well, is just speculation at this point, but at some point I would like to start my own business. I am very glad that I came to a school where I was allowed to figure that out along the way, without necessarily having to commit myself too early to something that I might turn out to hate later. I would not have made a good investment banker.

And so it is with everything in life: it’s not about the falls, it’s about how you pick yourself up after, and how you move on. That’s what says the most about you, and that’ s what’s made all the difference for me thus far.

Time management is a critical skill for business school. If you don’t have it when you arrive, you quickly obtain it. The first year at Darden is notoriously rigirous. But, to be honest, I found it to be manageable thus far. I held up well in through the first three quarters, as we pushed through the cases and through the new material. My learning team, probably my favorite single academic institution here at Darden, pulled together, buckled down, and honed our analysis of each case each night.

You learn some tricks along the way. At first, everyone worked for hours on every case and attended every social function and recruiting event. Then, one by one, we all realized that sleep is not an entirely voluntary part of life. My learning team decided to split the course load. We all read the cases, and each of us brought our own analysis to our learning team meeting, but we began to be less in-depth in our individual analysis. We assigned two people to each case, on a rotating basis, to thoroughly digest the material and put together an intuitive analysis. The “case leaders” were responsible for leading the rest of the team through their treatment of the work and would also teach any associated new skills required.

And I began to pare down the events I attended. I didn’t go to every party, every company briefing, or every networking opportunity. I became comfortable narrowing my focus to the things I wanted to do the most.

This worked well, even through affectionately named “Black November”, and even as the recruiting season picked up in the winter and the hours available became fewer and fewer. And then, after spring break, a funny thing happened.

There are more hours in the day. I don’t have class until 10 AM (I scheduled my first electives this quarter, and I took the opportunity to take the classes I wanted in a slightly later time slot). Recruiting is over. There are more reading days on Fridays, which means 3-day weekends.

But these hours couldn’t go unfilled. Just in time, a slew of opportunities to give back to the program and to the community popped up. The onslaught of student elections, club leadership elections, new club meetings, and general volunteer opportunities meant that I had to choose carefully what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to help, to give back to Darden and to the community in return for the good fortune I’ve received since coming to Charlottesville. As a first year on the verge of becoming a second year, this is certainly my obligation.

I wanted to choose quality over quantity. I wanted to do just a select number of things, and do them well. And I knew my tendency to overload. I thought I did a good job of scheduling and volunteering. But this coming week is pretty intense… the first real week where I will be tested in many of the new roles I now find myself in. I’m hearing two cases as a Darden Representative at the University Judiciary Committee. It’s essentially a group of students that adjudicate over student offenses and breaches of the standards of conduct. I like it because it’s an opportunity to collaborate with undergraduate students from UVa. The organization is mostly run by upperclassmen at UVa, and it affords me an opportunity to assume an advisory role while also serving as an experienced judge in disciplinary matters. Underage drinking is not as sexy as some of the courts martial I participated in during my military career, but the fact that I will be working with students who will shortly be leading in whatever organization they aspire to join is truly engaging and exciting.

But that’s going to add 6 hours to my week of cases and classes. I also have been elected as the Vice President for Fundraising in the Consulting Club. That will add 6 hours of meetings this week as well, as I help the other club officers under the leadership of the club president fashion our annual plan for next year. Out-of-class assignments in class will add another 4 hours of work, on top of individual analysis I must do on my own. Workshops for scheduling classes for next year will tie up another few hours, in addition to the time I should dedicate on my own to making sure I schedule the right classes to help me in my future career and match up with my passions. And I’ve applied to be a second year career coach, which is an exciting opportunity to help first year students in their career search efforts next year. The interview is this week.

Even during the busiest times in the Army, I don’t think I had this much on my plate at one time, in one week. But as I looked through my Outlook calendar, I realized that I can handle this. There will be some late nights, sure, but I can do this. I can work a case or two ahead, so that I have a buffer for the truly insane days. My friends on the UJC and in the Consulting Club will make the meetings this week worthwhile and sustainable. Somehow, even though I thought I already brought solid time management skills with me to Darden, this program and my classmates have made me better. And I know that will make me a better manager later.

My closing thought is with Mohammed Hamadani and his family. Hamadani (his nickname) was an interpreter for a unit that I was privlidged to be assigned to for the majority of my first deployment to Iraq. He went on countless dangerous missions with us. When I lamented that I had to wash my dirty uniforms by hand, he offered to take them home to his wife to have them washed in their machine. He and his family suffered through many threats to their safety for his service to the US military in Iraq. One of our other interpreters was gunned down outside his home, another was kidnapped. When the danger became too great, they fled to Syria. They applied for visas to every free country on earth. Repeated denials and increasing poverty motivated Hamadani to consider the unthinkable: heading back into Iraq to earn a living as an interpreter. I sent him an email, imploring him to reconsider. I told him to consider Sweden, which has been very friendly to Iraqis seeking asylum. But Sweden had a long wait list, and Hamadani didn’t have enough time.

Then, a miracle happened. My old commander pulled every string he could, and Hamadani’s visa application to the US, made possible by special government program, was approved. Thursday night, I received a joyous phone call from a very excited Hamadani. He and his family had safely arrived in Kansas, and were undergoing inprocessing. I offered to do whatever I could to help him with his move. But he already has all he needs, all he wants. His family is in America, a country that he has already served more than 90% of the citizens that call it home. And they are safe.