Entries in Theme #8 Emotional Quant Struggles (13)

Overwhelmed, Exhilirated, and Exhausted at Wisconsin

Sarah Baranowsky writes in her BusinessWeek MBA Journal  about the inevitable challenges of the MBA first term at Wisconsin Madison:

But before the halfway point, when exams are piling up and every waking minute is devoted to the program, the doubts creep in. You think, why am I punishing myself this way? You think, how did I end up here? You think, being a student is a crazy way to live. You think, I might not make it.

If you are heading to business school in the fall, you should expect to hit a low point sometime in November. Plan for it, because it will happen no matter what you do ahead of time. For my part, I started to see combinations of panic and fatigue on the faces in my cohorts first. I felt like I was doing reasonably well. Then midterms hit, and I fell apart. I realized that I don't know how to take tests anymore, especially tests that have anything to do with math (my last math class was more than 15 years ago). The stress plays out in everyone differently, but everyone learns one common lesson: the value of grace under pressure.

The upcoming holiday break is the light at the end of the first-term tunnel.

When the Gifted Converge

"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.

Fixed and Growth Mindsets Defined

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.

Fixed Mindsets Thrive on the Sure Thing

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.

Cultivate a Mastery-Oriented Mindset

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.

Quant Struggles Are Emotional: Boy Is That True!

Some more Tuck first year feedback:

I just finished reading some of the topics of your blog and they are right on target. I especially like the one about quantitative struggles being emotional. Boy is that true!

I came to Tuck with great business experience in marketing and strategy, but the large, well-respected company that I worked for was not big on quantitative analysis of our marketing programs. Even the strategy work that I did was mostly research and writing, rather than calculations. Using mbamath.com during the summer and attending math camp gave me the basics I needed to start ramping up for the highly quantitative fall terms.

Keeping Your Cool at Tuck

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.

Goals Drive Time Management Choices

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.

My Background:

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.

Another Quant Perspective from Tuck

My background:

I was a political science and international relations major in college and worked for the Federal government as a legislative aide in Congress. Thus, I had little quantitative background besides the beyond basic statistics and economics before coming to Tuck.

Getting In is the First Foothill, Not the Mountain –

This is absolutely true. While you should take some time before starting business school to relax, you should also prepare yourself for what will likely be a more rigorous course load than you experienced in college. It can be a shock – especially if you don’t have much experience with economics, statistics, accounting, and finance.

Protect Your Investment by Arriving Prepared

You are spending too much time, energy, and money on business school to risk failing. Preparation and some familiarity with the material will go a long way in helping you stay afloat in difficult and fast-paced classes.

Know Thyself: Confidence is King

Many people are intimidated by their classmates’ intellect and resumes. Don’t be. You were accepted to the same school, so don’t sell yourself short just because your classmates are impressive. This sounds simple ahead of time, but when classes are difficult and people begin to panic, it’s easy to lose confidence.

Summer Before B-School is Chaotic

Yes, you’re going through a big transition, but take the time to travel and relax. You won’t have this kind of opportunity for a long time, so take advantage now. At the same time, many people overspent during the summer and were struggling until loans came. Remember that (if you’re going to school full-time), you don’t have an income anymore, so you should probably adjust your lifestyle. Easier said than done, I know.

"Knowing About" Is Not "Knowing How"

I had heard about bonds but couldn’t price them and didn’t know what the Wall Street Journal indexes really meant. Let’s just say my paper thin knowledge of financial markets was passed over in the first 10 minutes of capital markets. Don’t convince yourself you know a topic because you’ve heard something about it.

Bankers, Engineers, and CPAs, Oh My!

While they may raise the curve in your classes, they can also be your best resource when you don’t understand the material. I was tutored by a CPA for Managerial Accounting. It worked very well.

(Limited) Time is of the Essence

Time management is the most important thing to master in your first year at Tuck. Closing my Outlook when I do work has saved me dozens of wasted hours. I highly recommend you try it.

Quant Struggles are Emotional

The worst thing to do when you don’t understand material is to let it get you down. Getting upset will keep you from asking the questions that you need to ask. The truth is that 20% of the class is probably confused about the same thing, so do your best not take quantitative struggles personally.

Quant Experience at Tuck

I asked some Tuck first years for their perspectives on quant issues as they look back on fall term. I'll be posting responses as they come in. Here's the first, which I've organized along the quant themes that I mentioned in my message to them.

First, the student's background:

Before coming to Tuck I majored in economics and spent three years working for a small executive search firm. This job prepared me very well for most aspects of business school, but did not include much quant experience. I did a bit of brush up work over the summer and came early for math camp, which was tremendously helpful. Not only was I able to remind myself of the accounting and economics I learned in college, but I also learned a lot of useful modeling tools that I had not seen before. Also, math camp was a great way to get to know classmates and get your mind ready for attending classes again.

Getting In is the First Foothill, Not the Mountain

Your quant struggle is directly related to your background and your aptitude for the material. For me I had seen most of the material in some form and learned it without too much pain. However, some of the capital markets material was totally foreign to me so that required a lot of work.

Protect Your Investment by Arriving Prepared

It is crucial to stay on top of the material in school. If you fall behind, it is all over. The amount of preparation also depends on your background. Some people need none and others need to spend most of their summer working on their skills. You have to know where you stand. At first, I did not want to do math camp because I did not think I needed to, but I am very glad I did and it left me feeling very comfortable to start classes.

Know Thyself: Confidence is King

Self-confidence is critical in school and beyond. So long as you are keeping up in your classes (even if you are having to work very hard to do so), this should not be a problem. People come to school to learn and if you are not being challenged it is not a worthwhile experience.

Summer Before B-School is Chaotic

The summer before school takes on a life of its own and differs widely among various students. It is important to get some relaxation in so you are charged when school starts. However, if you are a student who needs quant experience, the summer is the time to do it. Once school starts the schedule gets crazy and the time won’t be there for extra practice.

"Knowing About" Is Not "Knowing How"

B-school is different from college because everything is applied to real life. The other key difference between college and b-school is that the cases don’t give you direction, so you need to know exactly how and when to apply all the concepts you know.

Bankers, Engineers, and CPAs, Oh My!

In the beginning of b-school there is a serious gap in quant expertise across the class. It is important to remember that some people are CFAs and some are CPAs and that they can help you. Along these lines, don’t get frustrated by the fact that you will have to work MUCH harder than they will in the finance classes. That is just the way it is – they already went through this earlier in their careers.

(Limited) Time is of the Essence

Time-management is the key to first year. The programs intentionally overload you and it is important to keep stress in check and make sure to work efficiently.

Quant Struggles are Emotional

The big thing about the emotional side of it is to remember when someone else is having an easier time that they have probably studied this before. The best thing to do is to ask the pros for help if you are lost and not to worry that they are ahead – so long as you get it before the test.

Fast Pace and Confidence at U Washington

Anne Turchi writes in her BusinessWeek MBA Journal about the mixed backgrounds and fast pace of first-year core courses

Some people in my class are CPAs but have never supervised staff before. Others come to the program with a BA in Economics, but couldn't tell you the difference between a balance sheet and a balance beam. For this reason, our classes begin with the basics and take off from there. The trouble is, it seems we're covering from freshman level to graduate level material in one quarter. Perhaps I'm exaggerating, but the first two sentences out of my economics professor's mouth covered the entire quarter of preparatory economics I took at Portland Community College.

She focuses in on the issue of confidence as a key to first-year survival:

All of us here have spent time fighting off lack of sleep, brainwashing, and insecurity demons during these last few weeks. Lack of sleep and high demands make those little voices in our head louder — whether they are telling me, "You can't do math!" or telling another student, "Nobody can understand you when you speak English!" A large part of the MBA core is getting us to confront these voices and reject them. To realize that our insecurities consist of 90% lack of confidence and 10% lack of skill.

#8 Quant Struggles are Emotional

Quantitative courses are highly rational, right?  So difficulties in quant courses must just be a matter of figuring out how to solve problems correctly and moving through the material.  But that is often not my experience working with students.  Because of the self-confidence, high-stakes, and time-pressure issues mentioned in earlier posts, MBA student academic breakdowns can be highly emotional.  Regaining one's bearings in the midst of an academic meltdown can be very tricky.  Fortunately, schools have lots of resources to help.  But an ounce of prevention would be better than that pound of cure.

Posted on Thursday, November 16, 2006 at 01:05PM by Registered CommenterPeter Regan in , , | CommentsPost a Comment

8 MBA Quant Themes

I'll start with some of my thoughts about students' experience of the quantitative demands of the first-year MBA curriculum.  This is the mental landscape that motivates and orients my MBA Math work in the classroom and on www.mbamath.com.  My hope is that laying these ideas out and then asking for perspectives from other faculty, administrators, as well as enrolled, admitted, and prospective MBA students will help me to broaden my views, resulting in improved live and online teaching.

Here's my list:

  1. Getting In is the First Foothill, Not the Mountain
  2. Protect Your Investment by Arriving Prepared
  3. Know Thyself: Confidence is King
  4. Summer Before B-School is Chaotic
  5. "Knowing About" Is Not "Knowing How"
  6. Bankers, Engineers, and CPAs, Oh My!
  7. (Limited) Time is of the Essence
  8. Quant Struggles are Emotional

I'll expand on each of these themes in subsequent posts.