Entries in Theme #3 Confidence is King (21)
Linda Craib writes in her BusinessWeek MBA Journal about her plans to boost her quantitative skills before entering Yale's executive MBA program:
Because I'm a woman who has had an nontraditional path to business school, I am spending the next year of my life strengthening the quantitative skills I need to become a business leader. With degrees in nursing and art history, this time leading up to Yale provides me with a wonderful opportunity to further prepare academically. My goal for the coming year is to see the beauty of mathematics beyond simple calculation.
A student who just completed the first year at a top school responds to the growth mindset posts with the following comments that identify common ground by recognizing that everyone faces a transformative challenge to overcome during the intense MBA first year:
Hmmm, that's interesting. A more accurate (from my vantage point) statement is that most incoming students have anxiety about SOMETHING, which may or may not include quantitative considerations. For example, the international students had anxiety about writing/speaking/reading in their non-native tongue and being able to keep up with native speakers; the quant jocks had anxiety about having to present and speak in public; finance and accountant types were worried about excelling in leadership and integrative thinking courses.Additionally, I think the level of anxiety across all of these types was roughly similar, underscoring the fact that it probably was not necessarily the subject they were worried about, more so than the dramatic change in their life circumstances.
"Two men say they're Jesus; one of them must be wrong" is a line from a Dire Straits song that I've always liked. Adapted to the MBA domain, not everyone can be the top student in their MBA class. When confronted with competitive challenges in a group of top performers, Carol Dweck describes in her book Mindsets that people with the fixed mindset perversely may, consciously or unconsciously, reduce their effort to avoid a deepset fear of trying and failing.
Here's an anecdote from Dweck's book about a former violin prodigy struggling at Juilliard:
This prodigy was afraid of trying. "Everything I was going through boiled down to fear. Fear of trying and failing....If you go to an audition and don't really try, if you're not really prepared, if you didn't work as hard as you could have and you don't win, you have an excuse....Nothing is harder than saying, 'I gave it my all and it wasn't good enough.'"
Later in the book in the context of changing mindsets, Dweck describes a student's progression from a confident fixed mindset...
I'm naturally gifted. I don't need to study. I don't need to sleep. I'm superior.
...that crumbles upon encountering resistance...
Uh-oh, I'm losing it. I can't understand things, I can't remember things. What am I now?
With some insight about mindsets, he was able to change his perspective...
Don't worry so much about being smart. Don't worry so much about avoiding failures. That becomes self-destructive. Let's start to study and sleep and get on with life.
Carol Dweck describes her book Mindsets as being for a general audience after years of writing academic psychology research papers and books. Following some introductory chapters, applied chapters cover issues in sports, business, and relationships. Then Dweck addresses parents, teachers, and coaches about their impact on the mindsets of those under their care. The book closes with a workshop-oriented chapter about changing mindsets.
The studies Dweck performs all seem similar in that she has people answer some basic questions about their outlook and then she follows their performance in various domains. The questions ask how much the subjects agree with statements like "you have a certain amount of intelligence, and you can't really do much to change it" (fixed mindset) and "you can always substantially change how intelligent you are" (growth mindset). The focus is not on whether you have a lot or a little ability in a certain area but the extent to which you believe that you can change your ability level with effort.
She finds again and again that the mindset revealed by these self-perceptions lines up extremely well with peformance in challenging circumstances. To change mindsets, she encourages us to examine our mindsets in areas of relatively low ability and realize that similar dynamics are at play in areas of relatively high performance.
What really pulled me in was the section about artistic ability. While it seems crazy to me to believe that a person cannot substantially improve his or her quantitative ability through effort, I readily accept that I'm just not artistic. And never will be. My drawings on cards to family and friends still have only stick figures. Dweck shows how people with this mindset about their artistic ability were able to do competent (not great) self-portraits by committing to take a relatively short class in drawing.
Where the fixed mindset prevails, people shy away from challenges that will identify them as incompetent. Shift to a growth mindset, however, and you'll be surprised what can happen. It's not about who you ARE in some fundamental sense. Rather, it's about getting out of your own way and allowing yourself to BECOME more capable through steady effort.
The fixed/growth mindset distinction gives me great insight into the fear that many of my pre-term math camp students have about quantitative ability. I tell them that there's no reason to know anything about finance, accounting, economics, statistics, and spreadsheets until they've studied the subjects. But, like I would feel walking into an art class, some of them are convinced that they just "can't do math" (at the high level their MBA courses will require, anyway) and they are about to be discovered as admissions mistakes. Unfortunately, that mindset can be self-fulfilling.
Back in March, I posted about an article I read about mindsets written by Carol Dweck. Since then, I've read her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. It's a quick, engaging, and wide-ranging read. I believe that it is extremely relevant to understanding how MBA students react to the overwhelming rigor of the MBA first year. I'll start with a quick post containing an anecdote from the book and then I'll provide an overview of the book's structure and some definitions in a separate post.
Basking in the warm, self-affirming glow of their hard-earned acceptances to top MBA programs, admitted students will soon need to leave behind the big-picture talk about career goals and get down to the nitty gritty of a fast-paced curriculum that includes demanding quantitative courses in finance, accounting, economics, statistics, and decision science.
I'll shift references from medical school to business school in one of Dweck's anecdotes to address incoming MBAs more directly:
Most students started out pretty interested in [business]. Yet over the semester, something happened. Students with the fixed mindset stayed interested only when they did well right away. Those who found it difficult showed a big drop in their interest and enjoyment. If it wasn't a testimony to their intelligence, they couldn't enjoy it.
"The harder it gets," reported one student, "the more I have to force myself to read the book and study for the tests. I was excited about [business] before, but now every time I think about it, I get a bad feeling in my stomach."
In contrast, students with the growth mindset continued to show the same high level of interest even when they found the work very challenging. "It's a lot more difficult for me than I thought it would be, but it's what I want to do, so that only makes me more determined. When they tell me I can't, it really gets me going." Challenge and interest went hand in hand.
I just read an article in Stanford Magazine that seems on point to the distinction between students who thrive and others who struggle in the crucible of the MBA first year. The article describes work by psychology professor Carol Dweck, spelled out in more detail in her recent book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
It resonates with my experiences being a grad student and more recently observing MBA students as articulated in two of my 8 MBA Quant Themes from the Major Posts links on the right: #3 Know Thyself: Confidence is King and #8 Quant Struggles are Emotional. The students who struggle most are not necessarily those who are the least talented or even those with the worst objective performance. Those who thrive seem to have a different mindset.
You finally achieve your way into an elite MBA program and the big issue is how you deal with challenges and peers in this setting. Do you have a fragile performance-oriented mindset focused on outcomes driven by inate talent or do you have a robust mastery-oriented mindset focused on improvement driven by effort? The article, and presumably the book, which I haven't read yet, argue persuasively that the learning-oriented mindset is a more effective route to success in challenging environments. Best of all, it can be learned.
Here is an excerpt from the article:
[Carol Dweck collaborated] with then-graduate student Carol Diener to have children “think out loud” as they faced problem-solving tasks, some too difficult for them. The big surprise: some of the children who put forth lots of effort didn’t make attributions at all. These children didn’t think they were failing. Diener puts it this way: “Failure is information—we label it failure, but it’s more like, ‘This didn’t work, I’m a problem solver, and I’ll try something else.’” During one unforgettable moment, one boy—something of a poster child for the mastery-oriented type—faced his first stumper by pulling up his chair, rubbing his hands together, smacking his lips and announcing, “I love a challenge.”
Such zest for challenge helped explain why other capable students thought they lacked ability just because they’d hit a setback. Common sense suggests that ability inspires self-confidence. And it does for a while—so long as the going is easy. But setbacks change everything. Dweck realized—and, with colleague Elaine Elliott soon demonstrated—that the difference lay in the kids’ goals. “The mastery-oriented children are really hell-bent on learning something,” Dweck says, and “learning goals” inspire a different chain of thoughts and behaviors than “performance goals.”
Students for whom performance is paramount want to look smart even if it means not learning a thing in the process. For them, each task is a challenge to their self-image, and each setback becomes a personal threat. So they pursue only activities at which they’re sure to shine—and avoid the sorts of experiences necessary to grow and flourish in any endeavor. Students with learning goals, on the other hand, take necessary risks and don’t worry about failure because each mistake becomes a chance to learn. Dweck’s insight launched a new field of educational psychology—achievement goal theory.
Here are some comments from a Tuck first year, who looks back at the fall and winter terms.
Given my background (Chemistry Undergrad followed by pharmaceutical manufacturing) I will try to describe my approach and what I would do differently.
Pandora's Box. Tuck sends a big box of pre work material, to me the box was frightening and just looking at it filled me with fear. I decided that because accounting was first and the book seemed reasonable I would start with it. The accounting book is pretty self explanatory and a good warm up.
Hindsight is 20/20. What I wish I had done sooner was back up what I had learned by reading the other accounting/finance material. I looked at MBA Math too late, and looking back the content is really good. I would recommend that for anyone coming from a non quant or non business background to look at their MBA syllabus and at the very least do the MBA Math sections that apply to the first term. For me those would have been accounting and working with spreadsheets (decision science).
You, Yes You! The first term is so overwhelming that any preparation you do up front will be worth it. If you are like I was and ignoring the pre- work material then you are exactly the person who should be doing it!
Searching for Elusive First Year Equilibrium. One of the sections that I did from MBA Math was economics. Being familiar with the basics such as supply and demand curves and how they shift provided me with a solid foundation, if you haven’t got it by the first micro econ class you will be left behind.
Finance Basics Not Covered in Class. The most fundamental thing I learned at math camp was understanding the concept of NPV & perpetuities and being able to apply it. That stuff was never really taught in class and I was so glad I had gotten to grips with it before hand.
Algebra Algebra Algebra. Algebra was not a problem for me but do make sure you are comfortable manipulating equations and substituting variables as you will do this all the time.
Listen Up, Becoming a Student Again is Tough. One last thing, it is actually worth listening to the MBA Math lectures and practice learning from lectures. MBA lectures will be more interactive but it is a skill to listen and process information for any significant period of time.
David Thanairongroj, a first year at McCombs School of Business at University of Texas in Austin offers tips to prospective MBAs in his BusinessWeek MBA Journal about prioritizing their efforts during the application process and in the period between being admitted and arriving on campus, including these comments about quantitative preparation:
While waiting for your acceptance letter, one extra tip I highly recommend for non-business majors, even if you're an engineer and are good with numbers, is to take a financial accounting, managerial accounting, and finance class at a local university or community college before school starts. More than likely, you will already be at a disadvantage against a third of your smart classmates who have business degrees. I can guarantee that you'll be better off having some background in these courses rather than learning this material for the very first time in a very fast-paced environment.
Here are some comments from a Tuck first year that should provide some pointers to prospective students who are willing to prepare but want some help prioritizing their efforts. I particularly like the emphasis on efficiency and the difference between going to bed at midnight and 2 AM.
My Background: I have a science background, majored in biology and psychology at Middlebury College, and following that worked in market research, then consulting in the pharmaceutical and life sciences industries.
Here are my two cents:
If you are somewhat of a poet, or even if you have seen this stuff before but haven’t touched it in years, preparation before diving into a full-time MBA program can be incredibly useful. Given the time pressures of the first term, spending an hour here and there over the summer before starting your program will go a long way. Here’s what was most useful for me:
- Familiarizing myself with the basics. You can’t expect to remember specific formulas and all of the mechanics, but to gain or revitalize a basic understanding of excel modeling, the time value of money (e.g. discounting cash flows, annuities, perpetuities, etc.), statistics, implications of supply and demand, etc. will significantly pay off. Remember, though, that no one problem is the same, and therefore no solution is identical to the next. It’s not about memorizing formulas or finding out all the answers, but rather it’s about gaining some comfort, efficiency, and proficiency in how to approach problems and how to employ some simple tools to aid you in rational decision-making and problem-solving.
- Building the toolkit. Learning simple excel formulas can help cut down the time it takes to solve problems. You may understand how to work financial formulas, but learning to do so quickly in excel can save enormous amounts of time in the long-run. It’s the difference of going to bed at midnight and 2am. Trust me.
- Stress. We all know the first semester of business school can be stressful, but what amazes me is how easily that stress can be countered. Just taking the time to become comfortable with the basics before you start gives you confidence to excel and one less thing to think about. The mechanics become second nature, and any preparation you’ve done allows you to focus on the big picture – which of course is most important.
Kirsten Grenoble writes in her blog about her first term at Penn State (Smeal). She's busier than ever but clearly has her confidence intact and is thriving. Time management is emerging as critical:
I am busier than ever before in my life (and I was pretty busy the first time through school) and the thing that goes is sleep.
Professors in this program have high expectations. While many assignments are collected, most of the work is not. You are expected to KNOW the readings in order to participate in class and to do well on quizzes and tests. Some professors even cold call in class. Trust me…you really want to do all of the readings.
So, for the first time in my academic life, I find myself truly challenged. I’m working much harder than before and I’m loving it. In the first mod I struggled through accounting and, surprisingly, found that I really enjoyed statistics. Our management class rocked my world - this class alone should convince you to come to Penn State – and even though I had taught public speaking I still learned a lot in our communications course. Through all the demands, you start to understand that it’s not about learning balance sheets and motivational tactics. The real goal is to teach you time management. I’m happy to say that I know a lot more about that now and I’m sure the current mod will help me hone that skill even more.
Here are some advance preparation suggestions from a first year at Tuck from the start of winter term.
Coming to Tuck I knew I had strong quantitative skills, but felt that I did not have the necessary background in Accounting and Capital Markets in particular. I would recommend to any student coming to a school such as Tuck to take full advantages of the opportunities available to get up to speed prior to starting the course.
One reason for this is that the core curriculum is so intense that any head start that you have can only make life easier. For this reason I both utilized the materials sent out by Tuck over the summer and attended Math Camp.
I was surprised by just how large a percentage of some of the courses is outlined in the materials. For example, the summer reading on Microeconomics gave background for virtually the whole course. Math Camp backed up a lot of the summer material and also helped to "clear the cobwebs" in a more formalized classroom setting. It introduced a whole range of topics I had not studied before and was specifically tailored for the Tuck course to ensure the information was relevant.
Some concepts which we spent a whole session studying in Math Camp were not even discussed in class once term had started, as their understanding was assumed. For example, I had never used Net Present Value before Math Camp, but was soon using the principle in my regular class homework with ease.
I would also recommend that anyone concerned about their quant skills should look at the Syllabus for their school (Tuck has the syllabus for each course on-line) to get a feel for the topics and material likely to be covered.
I believe that, between them, the summer materials, Math Camp and mbamath.com gave me an excellent grounding in the quant required to be successful at a top business school.
Observation #2 from Hugo Lorenson, a Rotman first year:
A close corollary to # (1). Grades are a necessary evil to business school. Some schools have grade disclosure policies, while others don’t, relieving students of some of the pressure of getting great grades. However, even for those schools that do have grade disclosure, it is important not to place undue emphasis on your GPA. Granted, it is hard to do this: job recruiters ask for your transcript as part of your application materials, and the high opportunity costs related to attending and paying for business school push students to maximize their marketability as MBA grads.
Unfortunately, though, a lot of things are out of your hands: bell curving, group assignments, and the inherent subjectivities of the marking process make it difficult for students to guarantee themselves great grades across the board. I have seen students agonize over a B+ when they thought they deserved an A-. To maintain your sanity, you have to recognize that grading is largely beyond your control. What is within your control is working hard, and doing your best. Alas, that simple recipe will not always translate to grades you’re happy with, but at least you’ll be happier and better adjusted when confronted with disappointing results. Remember that grades are only one component of who you are as an MBA student: your professional background, extracurricular interests, and networks are just as-if not more- important in many contexts with employers. Persons who place huge emphasis on their marks tend to be less well-rounded students, which places them at comparative disadvantages when recruiter interviews kick in.
As a Tuck professor who has to assign grades to MBA students, I can attest to the imperfection of the grading process, especially when work is done in teams. Also, keep in mind that students who receive the best grades are generally those who had prior experience with the subject matter. Routinely, the students who learn the most in my class do not receive the best grades.
As someone who has recruited MBAs for a management consulting firm, grades, very few of which are available when recruiting begins in the winter at most schools, are a real but modestly important factor in finding top quality candidates.
As someone who completed graduate school 13 years ago, albeit in a PhD rather than an MBA program, and has worked in financial services, consulting, and startup positions, I cannot remember a single grade that I received in grad school.
Observation #1 from Hugo Lorenson, the Rotman first year introduced in the previous post:
Sitting in my first business school class, I was immediately struck by the incredible diversity of the student body. Age, gender, race, professional interests and a host of other variables contributed to a classroom of markedly different people. Of course, some will have more direct business experience than others, which may provide a strong advantage in some of the introductory business-centred courses (accounting, finance, etc.). However, there are also courses where previous business experience is no more helpful than any other sort of experience, where better speakers and writers get the leg up. The bottom line is: there will be people in your class who "get it" better than you do, and some who have more difficulties than you. Recognize your own strengths and weaknesses in each class and seek to leverage the former and improve upon the latter. Don’t get hung up upon comparing yourself with others.
More student feedback on the Tuck quant experience:
My main thought from going through Fall A and Fall B is the importance of keeping one’s cool. There is a huge amount of work on top of other commitments. This stress adds to a tendency to become very uncomfortable with new terms / topics in class. The beauty of having been to Math Camp was knowing that the material wasn’t new. Even if the student can’t remember exactly what it is, they know they have seen it before and can reference notes.
Thanks to the Tuck students for sharing their perspectives. While there may be some specifics unique to Tuck, I suspect that the sentiments are relevant for prospective students targeting top programs other than Tuck. I welcome input from students in other programs.
Below is another Tuck student's perspective.
The highest math course I ever took was pre-calculus back in senior year of high school. I graduated from Harvard in 1999 having taken only one vaguely quantitative course. I did IT consulting for two years after school and did very little quantitative work there. In 2001, I moved to an environmental consulting firm. I built some Excel models and routinely used Excel to create budgets, but my job wasn’t very quantitative and involved almost no finance, mathematics, statistics, or accounting.
Protect Your Investment by Arriving Prepared
This is a must. It took me until the middle of Fall B to be comfortable doing math long-hand again. Even something simple like solving a pair of equations for two variables can be challenging when you haven’t done it in a few years. I could have used more preparation, but I’m very glad that I didn’t do any less. I had used Excel quite a bit at work, but people without that background really struggled for a bit.
Another aspect of preparation for me was figuring out exactly what I wanted to get out of the program. Knowing this helped me navigate some of the choices about time that I had to make this fall. The times when I was most frustrated were the times when I forgot this.
Know Thyself: Confidence is King
This has been a hard one for me. To be honest, I’ve really sucked at accounting and capital markets, and it’s been hard not to let that affect how I feel about other courses, in all of which I’ve done better than I expected. There was one night in Fall B when I was feeling especially miserable about life in general when I said to myself, “well, stats is going great…economics seems fine…mancomm [Management Communication] seems intuitive and I seem to be doing very well…I know most of the people in my class, no real complaints on the social front…the weather’s been great…but I’m really stinking up the joint in capital markets.” That class alone managed to give me a negative perspective on pretty much all of Fall B.
Summer Before B-School is Chaotic
I can’t relate to this too much in retrospect. Compared to the fall, it seems like a halcyon period of calm and tranquility.
"Knowing About" Is Not "Knowing How"
I agree; I’d add, “knowing how now is not the same as remembering how in 2 weeks” and “knowing how now may not be as valuable as remembering where to go to figure out how.” If that makes sense.
Bankers, Engineers, and CPAs, Oh My!
Having an analyst in my study group this fall definitely helped me enormously. I don’t know if I’d have made it through accounting unscathed without him.
(Limited) Time is of the Essence
You might consider re-naming this “you will not have enough time no matter what you do.”
Quant Struggles are Emotional
Couldn’t agree more. It’s easy to let frustration with a particular problem translate into “there’s no way I can understand this topic” in my head. It’s also easy to let that frustration extend into other unrelated areas, as I mentioned above.