3 Lessons Learned from 2 Years of Business School

PACCAR Hall at nightThis week, I completed year two of the UW Foster Evening MBA Program. With just one year remaining, I wanted to share a few lessons I’ve learned over these last 21 months. Hopefully this will provide some insight to my family and friends as to how I’ve been spending most nights and weekends. I also hope it will encourage anyone who’s on the fence about business school to consider the many benefits, aside from just taking classes and learning about business.

Lesson 1:  Growth Begins When You Humble Yourself

I struggled getting back into the school mode. It had been over 7 years since I finished undergrad. The struggle wasn’t because I was unmotivated – I was plenty motivated. It came from fear and intimidation. I felt I lacked the experience of most of my classmates. My background was in politics and public policy. I’d never been exposed to a balance sheet, an income statement, or an NPV calculation.

I studied. I read the pre-class material. I attended TA sessions. But, when it came to “primetime” (all our classes in the Evening Program are 6:00 – 9:30 PM), I was literally afraid to raise my hand. Every time the professor would ask a question, I would first rehearse the answer in my head, then convince myself that I was wrong, and then remind myself I didn’t have 10 years of private sector experience like the guy sitting in the front row who knew all the answers. The cycle continued, and it was discouraging!

It wasn’t until the first quarter of my second year that I finally realized that, to grow and develop professionally, I had to humble myself and admit my areas of weakness. Our Management professor shared a quote with us that stuck with me: “I don’t know what I know until I hear what I say.” Once that clicked with me, the inner voice of fear went away. I was more engaged in classroom discussion, and I learned to embrace what I didn’t know. This is the “Growth Mindset” commonly talked about in learning environments. And it’s critical to success in any context.

Lesson 2: Focus on What’s Important but Not Urgent

The Career Management Office at Foster provides countless services for MBA students. But one of the most valuable program they offer is a mentor program that connects students with industry leaders in the region. Last year, I bid on and was matched with two local professionals – one a partner at a Bellevue consulting firm and one a former VP of Marketing at Boeing. Both were overwhelmingly generous with their time and effort. It was the consultant who told me about Stephen Covey’s “time management matrix.” He encouraged me to focus my time at Foster on those things that are important, but not urgent, like investing in relationships with classmates, professors, and program staff – not the urgent, unimportant tasks like toiling for hours over a homework assignment.

I applied to be a peer mentor my second year for first-year Evening MBA students at Foster. I was anxious when I found out I would be paired up with 11 different students and had to meet one-on-one with each of them during fall quarter. For someone who works full time, takes night classes, and is newly married, I protect my calendar at all costs. But I was committed to fulfilling my responsibilities, and I met with each of my mentees individually in September and October. It was so much more rewarding than I would have anticipated. Sure, they asked me for guidance about what to expect during their first year at Foster, but I had just as many questions for them – about their background, their work experience, their goals, hobbies, and family life – their “why.”

For anyone who’s never been a mentor or a mentee, I can’t urge you more strongly to do it. Now. One of the most honoring things you can do is ask someone who you respect to walk through life with you. And, even if you think you may lack the experience to be a mentor yourself, find someone who’s just starting in your company or on your team, and offer to help them. You’ll be surprised how much you know and can offer to others.

Lesson 3: Attitude is Everything

Most students in the Evening program work full-time during the day. A lot of them are in their late-20’s, early-30’s, and starting a family. Getting to campus requires navigating weekday rush hour traffic through the heart of Seattle. Stress runs really high.

The only way I’ve found to make it more stressful is to have a bad attitude. There were a lot of nights and weekends that I dreaded coming to campus. But every time I walked into PACCAR Hall, I put a smile on my face and tried to bring a positive, optimistic spirit into that building. Did I fake it at times? Sure. But I’d rather try to force myself into a good attitude than let myself sulk and complain about how hard I have it. There are a lot of high achievers with massive talent that fail to reach their potential because of their bad attitude. Business is a team sport, and nobody wants to play with a complainer.

I’ve learned and grown at a faster pace over the last two years than at anytime in my life. I’ve improved in almost every area of my life – personally, professionally, relationally, and spiritually – and with less “free time” too! I’ve got one year left of school, and I plan to make the most of it. Thank you to the amazing faculty and team members in the Foster Evening MBA Program for all the work you do to create life-changing experiences for students like me. Your daily efforts make all our time and financial investments worth it.

Joel GravesJoel Graves is a member of the Foster Evening MBA Class of 2019 where he is concentrating on business strategy and marketing. He manages digital communication for the Washington Roundtable, a public policy nonprofit comprised of senior business leaders from major private sector employers in Washington state. His personal interests include education policy, tech strategy, leadership development, and Seattle sports.