Me, Myself and I… Discovering identity at INSEAD – part II
“I am more than the sum of my achievements”
Four periods of the MBA done and less than one period is left. The past nine months have been a total whirlwind. Never have I experienced something as unique, intense, or wonderfully intimidating as undertaking an MBA.
Now, with graduation around the corner, I am faced with a pressing question; How do you make sure that, after having gone through a period of such deep personal disruption and chaos, you are able to enter your next environment as a wiser and more capable version of yourself?
The answer, according to Professor Jennifer Petriglieri, is simply the level of self-awareness one has obtained during a year of transformation. Expanding and elevating ones thinking requires making the time and space to reflect on the experience and the people involved. In so doing, we are able to develop a deeper understanding of the nuanced facets of our identity.
I am not sure if I will ever fully understand how the MBA programme has affected and shaped me, but I am willing to give it a try.
Here is my story.
Period 1 & 2 – Separation & disruption
I arrive at INSEAD on 30 August 2013 in very high spirits. Feeling so lucky to be admitted and incredibly curious, I promise myself to make the most of every second of the programme.
At this point, I feel pretty clear about who I am: the banker who became a fieldworker in Africa and who wants to save the world (or die trying). With a clear head and open heart, I create a set of ground rules for how I plan succeed and stay focused during my MBA;
1) Don’t fall for peer group pressure, focus on what you want to do
2) Accept that you can’t be the best at everything and keep your ego in check
3) Try to not care about what other people think or expect, you have solid values and are good enough as you are
How will I ever be able to do this?
A couple of weeks in, I have already broken every single rule.
The feeling of gratitude towards my admittance has been replaced by a nervous anxiety about meeting deadlines and handing in deliverables.
Surrounded by quite a few ex-consultants and bankers, I feel that most people seem to share a different view on life and work from mine. Shareholder value wins over social value in every discussion. I start questioning myself; are my values wrong? Should I also define money as the ultimate measure of success?
For the first four months of class, I am assigned a seat next to a young English guy who has a Masters Degree in statistics. He spends his time writing out the proof of the mathematical theories that my qualitative-wired brain struggles to even conceptualise. I feel hopelessly lost and mediocre amongst such super achievers, who speak so many languages and have spent their lives jet setting around the world. Am I really good enough for this place?
Nothing in the INSEAD environment has any familiarity with my previous contexts and it makes me question my past as well as my dreams for the future.
Louise’s diary – 23 November 2013
Why do I feel so torn? Why am I so scared to stand up for what I believe in, and what do I really believe? On one hand I desperately miss Africa, on the other hand I want to forget all about it. The world seems to have a very different view on success.
Louise; are you strong enough to define your one path and follow your heart instead of your head? When you came to INSEAD you were so sure, what has happened? Don’t let yourself down.
I am totally confused. Surrounded by strangers who now define my reality, I find myself constantly trying to make a fabulous impression on everyone. For some reason it feels important that every person here likes and approves of me. I do get along with people and we share a lot of laughs, but a little voice inside me keeps whispering; “Just wait, soon people will realise that you are not as fun or smart as you pretend to be and they will move on.”
I go to bed late at night after spending every waking minute surrounded by people, yet I feel lonelier than I have on even the darkest of African nights. I can’t help but thinking: what am I doing at INSEAD and who am I, really?
Period 3 – Re-emergence
It is January and we are four months into the programme. I am now in Singapore, surrounded by some well-known faces but also a bunch of new acquaintances.
Things are slowly starting to become familiar. I have made some wonderful friends. People are a lot more human than I first thought they were. I am taking courses that are more focused on softer skills; leadership, organisational behaviour, and strategy. I finally get solid, strong grades. I feel accepted and included, both academically and socially.
Louise’s diary – 20 January 2013
Today I feel so much happier. We are all amazing at INSEAD, in our own ways. I have met some wonderful people who also believe in an unconventional world. We are here for ourselves, but education does not have to be selfish. INSEAD is a medium to help people to better navigate this complex world. Try and learn as much as possible even if you find some courses hard, you can use the seeds of wisdom to do good for others.
PS. You can feel differently every day and it is perfectly ok as long as you stay true to yourself.
The answer lies in self-reflection, followed by action. At the point when I felt the most out of place, I received advice from a classmate to take a few minutes every day to write down my thoughts and feelings, what I was struggling with or what made me happy.
Louise’s diary – 15 February 2014
Everything is well. I am good enough just being myself with my thoughts, beliefs and ideas. There are so many sides to me; I can represent more than one thing. In fact, if I can make the banker and the social worker co-exist, I will have reached success.
I can master chaos. I can push myself outside my comfort zone and still be fine. I can find my expression to stand up for what I believe is right. Actually, this is necessary if I want to attract like-minded people. The only thing I need to think about is who I need to support me in every pursuit. Supported by the right people, I will always be fine.
Jump. You will survive. If I want to get what I want I have to. Over and over again. The only one stopping me from achieving my dreams is actually myself
Writing down on paper how you feel can be quite intimidating. There in black ink, a piece of you and your vulnerabilities, fears, and dreams, in a brutally honest way.
Gathering all those pieces and re-building the jigsaw puzzle of myself was difficult and time-consuming. But the past few months had provided me with great insights as to how I feel and behave in different situations.
I decided to see the chaos and the discomfort as a gift and an opportunity to make myself wiser about myself.
Otherwise, the anxiety and the stress had all been for nothing.
Period 4 – Job search and preparation for INSEAD after-life
The job hunt is in full swing at school. Finally knowing that I am capable, where should I aim? We all belong to a generation that believes we can, and deserve, to have everything. Can we really have everything we desire?
To me, having it all means possessing the freedom to make the choices we want. Deciding what to do after INSEAD is a matter of narrowing down a million options to three choices; geography, industry and position. With each choice, you rule other a number of other possibilities. Self-awareness helps in the prioritisation process.
In March 2014, when pondering job options and reading my diary in retrospect, I make a few notes to guide myself in the coming months of job search;
1) Your life trajectory will continue to be a series of disruptions, re-emergence and plateauing. This is how you thrive. Buckle up and enjoy the ride!
2) You can make friends in any environment, so make time to invest in people. Learn from others point of view instead of being intimidated, this will help you expand your own mind. Love and support from people will be key to your success and happiness, so take care of your relationships
3) It is clear you want to work with purpose. You take the greatest joy from helping others fulfilling their full potential
4) You can do anything and live anywhere but with every choice comes a sacrifice. Think about this when you decide where to go next
Looking at my ambition when I came to INSEAD, wanting to save the world as a social worker, does not feel so obvious anymore.
I miss Africa and its people. So for sure, I want to work with the region. I have also understood the importance of investments to deliver sustainable impact. Could I make these things co-exist in one workplace?
At the same time, I also realise that I might have to make a trade-off between personal and professional ambitions. Being surrounded by all of the different nationalities at INSEAD has ultimately inspired me to be more Swedish and re-connect with my roots.
Which jobs can deliver on those premises? I start making a list, and to my surprise it is much longer than I expect. It includes a seemingly contradictory spectrum of everything from impact investing and journalism, to even consulting…
Adding consulting to the list feels very awkward at first, and I wonder whether I am clouded by the ambitions of many classmates. Soon I realise that it’s actually not about the job itself. INSEAD has helped me to see beyond the job title and made me look at a profession as a channel of achieving the things I care about. My identity has developed into something deeper than just a objective, professional definitions.
What identity lies behind that nationality?
Then I get a call from a Swedish friend and serial entrepreneur, asking if I am interested in establishing an incubator in Nairobi for agricultural research innovations. I immediately know in my heart that this is it.
I would never found the nerve to accept such an offer, had it not been for INSEAD. This year of separation, disruption and re-emergence, has given me the freedom and the courage to go after my dreams.
I now fully understand why I decided to come to business school, and what a successful MBA experience really looks like for me.
Period 5 – Marking an ending and re-integration
With only a few weeks of the INSEAD experience left, I have my first encounter with the professional world. During the P4/P5 break, I sit around a table with my start-up cofounder as well as entrepreneurs, impact investors, and government organisations in Nairobi. Together, we discuss the establishment of a Swedish-African partnership for driving incubation and commercialisation of agricultural ideas.
In this moment, I realise that all the pain of the INSEAD chaos was worth it. I have re-emerged having found a lifestyle that expresses my new identity, where I can truly live out this new post-INSEAD version of myself.
I am hugely excited about the next phase of my life, but scared, too. As we re-integrate into our new environments, we are also leaving an environment behind that has gone from unknown and chaotic to becoming our home, filled with wonderful friends and memories we have made during this year.
Next, we will be thrust out in the real world, expected to deliver like never before. I have butterflies in my stomach.
Wherever we decide to go after INSEAD, will be just the next step of the rest of the journey. We, as global citizens of the world, are likely to continue to live our lives as a series of separations, disruptions and re-emergences. Our identities will continue to evolve with time and always become richer and more nuanced.
This is my story. I look forward to hearing yours.
Thank you for reading this blog. Want to stay in touch after INSEAD?
I will continue to write about my future adventures and post-INSEAD reflections as louise.emerging.