When Things Don’t Go the Way You Want

Susan Liu

It might be strange to imagine the MBA as a place for failures when it’s usually associated with success. After all, many of us are hoping that forgoing a year of work experience, paying not only a tuition fee but the opportunity cost of lost wages, will be worth the career growth that results from earning an MBA.

Like my peers, I want to make a transition post-INSEAD: after bouncing back and forth between New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Chicago, I’m looking to lay down roots in Asia for a long-term career on this side of the globe.

That said, I’m taking advantage of INSEAD as a safe environment for failure.

The stakes are lower in a learning setting, where I’m not letting down customers or managers; I am a student, and learning occurs through both successes and failures. Throughout this MBA, we will be applying for jobs, running for student leadership positions, working in dynamic study groups, debating with bright classmates, bonding with diverse friends – in short, there are plenty of opportunities for things to go very right, but just as many opportunities for things to go not quite the way we’d envisioned.

Clouds over Lau Pa Sat: signs that storms may be ahead
Clouds over Lau Pa Sat: Signs that storms may be ahead

At the start of the year, I ran for the position of Diversity & Inclusion student representative, excited by the thought of building bridges across people and cultures in one of the most diverse MBA settings in the world. During undergrad, I had allowed my fear of losing to overwhelm my desire to even try, chickening out of elections and auditions altogether. I didn’t want to repeat this mistake during my MBA.

Although there were two open positions for the D&I role, I was unsure whether I’d garnered enough support to be voted into the role in the two short weeks we’d been in Singapore. As it turned out, I hadn’t: I lost the election, marking my first major disappointment at INSEAD.

I had also hoped to focus on personal growth during this MBA. During our first study group coaching session, I shared my individual goal: to address interpersonal tensions directly instead of falling into my bad habits of ruminating in resentment or rallying outside support.

Since INSEAD intentionally designs study groups to be comprised of diverse backgrounds, I knew eventual conflict would be inevitable, so this was the perfect opportunity to work on my weakness.

Yet as the weeks flew by, I avoided crucial conversations and vented to third parties instead, seeking validation instead of resolution. I had failed yet again at INSEAD, this time at achieving my personal growth goal. As a result of my inaction, I had a limited appreciation for my study group members during P1, which kept me from fully engaging and hampered our initial group dynamics.  

These setbacks are just two of several less-than-ideal situations that have occurred during my time at INSEAD. But over the last few months, I’ve also become more certain than ever that by embracing these opportunities for “failure,” I’ve grown.

I learned to bounce back and pursue other extracurricular activities, taking advantage of all that INSEAD has to offer. I learned that it wasn’t too late to hold certain crucial conversations, and our study group emerged stronger than ever by the end of P2.

Through both these experiences, and throughout all the micro-moments in between, I have been lucky to be surrounded by classmates – friends – who have been willing to listen, support, and encourage me.

Rainbow views of Downtown Singapore: Finding bright spots in a dark situation
Rainbow views of Downtown Singapore: Finding bright spots in a dark situation

As we continue our Zoom classes while hunkered down inside our Singapore apartments, unable to see each other regularly, I’ve realised how easy it would be to write off this MBA experience as a failure because of the impact of COVID-19.

It’s certainly not the year any of us had hoped to have, and the circumstances of this “failed” year feel completely out of our control. And yet I’m confident that despite what might be the biggest disappointment of them all, we can emerge with new learning about our own resilience to the world’s challenges and with new inspiration for how we can use what we’re learning to help those who are most in need.

The best part of the MBA is this: whatever we do, we’ll be doing it together.

Because of this, I don’t see this year as a failure at all; if anything, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be weathering the storms of a pandemic during an MBA abroad. INSEAD is a place for successes, and for failures; best of all, it is a place for learning – not only about strategy, finance, or organisational behaviour, but most importantly, about the reach of our individual and collective resilience.