The most important lesson I learned at INSEAD

Thomas Jeegers

Talking to alumni before starting INSEAD, I was told that this year would be very intense. “The content of a full MBA programme is squeezed into ten months, but the intensity is not limited to the academic level”, they said. “You will meet plenty of amazing students, you will be taught by world-class professors and there will be great opportunities all over the place.” Several times, our discussions concluded with this unexpected piece of advice: “Sleep a lot before the programme begins, because you won’t have much time for that during your INSEAD year”. They were right.

I arrived on campus with high expectations and a burning desire to learn and experience new things.

This fire was not just limited to academic content, but also included soft skills such as leadership and storytelling. In addition, I was impatient to get the chance to practice writing, open my mind to new horizons and keep doing sport. Finally, I should not forget about the job search, which would focus on changing function, industry and location at the same time. In a nutshell, I had a great deal of ambitions to fulfill and challenging goals to reach.

The intensity in social interactions ignited on the very first day as we met dozens of fellow students. Thereafter, it was fuelled with every opportunity to meet, travel and party. With people from all over the world, trips abroad every weekend and parties almost any day of the week, there is no doubt that my goal to discover new horizons would be met.

At the same time, amazing opportunities showed up for each of the other objectives I had set myself to achieve. Looking for occasions to practice leadership skills, I took over responsibilities as academic representative for my section and as co-president of the INSEAD Fitness Club. Thinking about my job search, I also registered for one of the multiple case competitions, as it could strengthen my profile for my target industry. However, as the MBA programme ran on, scheduling conflicts rapidly showed up. This is where the real challenge started.

It became obvious that participating in every aspect of the MBA life with the limited time available was impossible. Quickly, very hard choices needed to be made. Should I attend the company presentation of this top consulting firm coming on campus or prepare for the case competition due in a couple of days? At the same time, fellow students organise this great event that I absolutely want to join tonight and a friend of mine is in town until tomorrow. Also, my team and I need to finish the group assignment in finance. Oh, yeah, and tomorrow morning, we go running before class, so I should probably get a good night sleep…

The question was not whether I would do something but rather which of these activities I would join.

By extension, it implied identifying which activities to give up, despite a sky-high willingness to take part in them. This kind of situation happened almost every day. Intensity I was promised, intensity I got indeed. Among students, we keep talking of “FOMO”, i.e. the Fear Of Missing Out, which we constantly face. It is basically the anxiety that we experience because of the myriad of activities that are impossible to combine due to time constraints. While this FOMO is a frustrating affliction, it also taught me the most important lesson of my MBA so far.

As trivial as it might seem, it is absolutely crucial to identify what your priorities are. It is a ten-month MBA programme: this is a very short period of time and it will go by in the blink of an eye. There won’t be infinite opportunities to meet such a diversity of cultures, to experience privileged relationships with top companies from all industries and to try out so many new things. Once priorities are set, it is key to focus on what matters when faced with difficult decisions.

For example, I can say that writing is my top priority, I can make a list indicating that writing is my top priority but as long as I am not spending my time writing, it factually is not my top priority. It is not only about setting priorities straight, it is also about acting accordingly. It is about taking time to do what you committed to do, even when amazing unique opportunities are available. It is about mercilessly making difficult choices.

If you are about to start your MBA, now is the time to reflect on what you want to take out of the programme.

So grab a sheet of paper and a pen, and write down a few of the priorities you will want to focus on. That is the easy part. Where it gets difficult is when you will be on campus and face uncountable amazing opportunities. I am not suggesting keeping the same priorities during the entire year: it is normal that they evolve as you experience INSEAD life. However, I would recommend being ready to say “no” and not to FOMO about it.

INSEAD’s MBA is an extremely intense experience, which will make such choices more frequent and even harder. Today, I am writing about it because I also face dilemmas that I have trouble ranking in terms of priorities. In addition, I already know that I will, to some extent, “FOMO” about it no matter what I choose. Nobody said that it would be easy to focus on the essential, but it is important to strive to do so. There is a balance to achieve between each aspect of the MBA life, but it is often hard to define where it lies. Be aware of your priorities at all times and you will save yourself a lot of frustration. Hopefully, by following these priorities, you will also reach the goals you have set for yourself on the way.