Are we Happy at HBS?

The Harbus of November 2, I thought, was for some reason very different from the usual issue. I wanted to keep that issue and maybe you ask why. If you happen to read my regular culinary column, which I like to think you do, maybe you are thinking that’s why, but this issue was different in a different way.

It talked about depression, fear and uncertainty about a future after HBS – issues I have been seeing a lot around me over the last year, but issues I never really hear anyone acknowledge, let alone talk about. I wondered why? Was it that once you are at HBS – the place to be – you just have to be happy and without problems? Or is it that people don’t want to complain all the time? Or is it that everyone just puts on a game-face because everybody else also does so?

My conversations with a few students and partners gave me the feeling that many of us face these problems and are tense and invariably stressed out. Maybe I talked to the wrong people or maybe at the wrong time. But I was genuinely concerned. Are people at HBS unhappy? HBS and unhappy – the two words shouldn’t by general perception even fit. Then why did the Harbus talk about depression and fears? It was my chance to find an answer to my biggest dilemma – is everybody at HBS happy? And the Harbus team was game for it.

Harbus General Manager Matthew Grayson and the Harbus Section Representatives helped me run a poll across campus. We ran it for a week, and the response was much more than anticipated (thank you to all of you who took the poll!). It was a 12-question poll with multiple choice and short answer questions, and we had 345 responses with significant representation from both RCs and ECs. (Attached are the summarized results). There were a few critical questions I was looking to answer, and I’ll use this article to talk about them.

The good news first. A whopping 79.4% said they were happy. Great! I was happy, too. My question was answered. But then what about the rest? Are many of us unhappy? If so, is there a way we can be happier?

Two other numbers caught my attention also. A 51.6% majority said they feel stressed out more often than not at HBS, and 59% said they feel a need to maintain a certain image in front of their friends and classmates. So are we putting on a game-face most of the time, and is that stressing us out and making us unhappy? And if it is, is there a way we can feel better? I interviewed a few students on this, and a few things they told me were very interesting. I thought it might be useful to share them with you.

HBS, I figured out, means different things to different students. To some, it is a cake walk, but definitely not to all, and if it is not a cake walk to you, rest assured – you are not alone. If you’re worried about the comment you made or didn’t make in class today; if you’re worried about that dream job being tougher to get than you thought it would be; if you’re worried you don’t seem to fit in with your section or feel the section love; if it’s the first time since high school that you’re not the crowning jewel (cream) of your batch; if you’re struggling with your relationship; or if you are just plain unhappy – you’re not alone.

You’re just one of many and you surely have at least one friend who feels the same way. It’s only a matter of time before you bump into each other. If you are new to HBS, this place and everything it offers does get overwhelming in the beginning – the cases, the section, the social life, the recruiting, the clubs.the options are endless. A student I spoke with compared the experience to being at a huge buffet, with a whole array of things being offered, and not really knowing where to concentrate or even where to start. Not to forget the feeling that anything you taste comes with the guilt that it is at the expense of something else you’re missing out on (F.O.M.O. and the inescapable concept of opportunity cost make appearances).

Another student compared the experience to walking on a tightrope. It’s tough – but you can handle it as long as you concentrate hard on the task at hand. But when you’re concentrating so hard on the walking, if you unfortunately have a problem outside of HBS – in the family, in a relationship – maintaining the balance becomes enormously tough (if not impossible). This whole experience is even tougher when you don’t have a support system – friends on campus whom you think you can genuinely trust. This becomes important because once you are here, it is very rare that outside friends and family know what you’re going through. Maybe you don’t even want to tell them. It’s even tougher until you figure out what exactly in the buffet it is that you want to taste or focus on. I learned from students that once you figure out at least one of these, life at HBS gets a lot better. I also learned that this process of figuring it out is probably the toughest and the most transformational part of the whole rollercoaster experience. I spoke to a cross-section of EC students, and most of them seemed to have figured it out. But if you are in the RC year, you’re probably only in the preliminary stages of the process. I collected advice from your EC friends who were more than happy to share a few tips on how they effectively dealt with the process. I compiled the following list (reminds me of my recipe feature a bit!):

“Patience is a virtue” is what most ECs learned their RC year. They all acknowledged it takes time to settle down, but they all reassured me that it finally will. It is only a matter of time – for some, a little more time is necessary than for others. Ultimately, everybody gets through. Along with it came the advice on how important it is to prioritize. Now, everybody knows it, and that it is super tough, so how do you do it? “Visualize how you want to be on the day of your graduation. Is it a great job, average grades, your family and a few close friends that you want? Or [what]? Think about it,” said a smiling EC student. I loved that and thought it made a lot of sense. Think about it for a minute, and you probably have an idea of what it is that you should be prioritizing. “Be true to yourself,” said another. “Losing the things that got you here wouldn’t take you far.” Doesn’t that also make sense? Maybe a few points to help you get started: If it’s a great job and a career that is your top priority, invest in marketable skills, suggested an alumnus I spoke with.

A support system is what most recommended. To some it was the section, but definitely not to all. Some found the section overwhelming and didn’t think they fit in. To them, the learning teams, clubs, and sports groups were a few arenas that helped them find true friends. Building a support system is definitely not easy. It takes time and effort, but the wait is probably worth it. To start with, identify a few people whom you think you can trust, and test the waters, suggested Pat Light and Rachael Weisz from MBA Support Services, with whom I had a long discussion. A student who confided in not knowing anybody when he got to campus recommended that one set very low starting requirements for coffee. Just chatting with batch mates over a cup of coffee, outside of the Grille, maybe in the Square, may be a great way to discover a friend and potential confidante. To some, their significant others are a great source of support, but definitely managing the relationship is a task in itself. Integrate your partners as much as possible into section events, suggest students who bring their partners to campus. Communicate and explain to them how you are feeling and don’t expect them to read your mind, suggests another.

While these perspectives were interesting, a brief conversation I had with Professor Tom DeLong was very reassuring. “Remember there is someone who cares about you more than you do and everybody gets through it,” he said. Exercising regularly, listening to uplifting music and even writing a letter of gratitude once in a while were his strong recommendations.

My discussions with faculty, staff and students were very interesting. It was an eye-opener in many ways. I got to see a face of HBS we don’t generally hear about, but which I realized people don’t always mind talking about. Maybe we should pause the madness for a while and look around. I thought it was worth it. My dilemma got resolved, and it gave me a very different perspective of HBS. I saw diversity in every person I spoke with. Everyone had a different story to tell and an interesting one, too! The low starting requirement for coffee is indeed a great suggestion and if nothing else, just to know how interesting your batch is, it is definitely worth a try. (If you are a partner like me, and think nobody here really cares about you, the coffee idea is great for you, too. You’ll be surprised at the number of friends you end up making). But best of all, it was most reassuring to know that no matter how stressed out we are, how busy we are, and how difficult things get, we’re thrilled to be bits of Harvard Business School, and we would not change the decision to be here. Cheers to HBS! Cheers to all of us! Cheers to this wonderful experience!

I owe a big “Thank You” to Professor DeLong, Pat Light and Rachael Weisz of MBA Support Services, the Harbus team, the alumnus, and all my EC friends who made time to help me with this article. Student and alumnus names have been omitted for confidentiality purposes, but you all deserve a special mention. Thank you all!

Niranjana Neelakantan Gupta is an EC Partner and enjoys her newfound passion: writing.