Sasha Pang’s Three Most Important Lessons From Business School Have Nothing To Do With Business
In August 2015, my husband and I packed ourselves and our beloved cockapoo into our SUV, and drove from San Francisco to Boston. As we made our way across the country, I looked forward with anticipation to the challenge and privilege of taking two years away from being a “real adult” in order to pursue my MBA.
Since then, countless friends and curious strangers have asked me what the experience has been like, what I’ve learned. As I reflect on the three quarters of it that are already in the past, I realize that the most profound lessons are simpler than any academic discovery, business insight, or networking break-through could be.
Three principles have emerged as guiding posts in my life: (1) Balance Your Energy, (2) Just Show Up, and (3) Don’t You Dare Let the World Scare You.
Balance Your Energy
Have you ever noticed how some days you are full of energy, forging your way through the day, feeling unstoppable, and then suddenly, you hit a wall. Deflated. That energy is gone, the prospect of getting through your next meeting is intimidating, never mind getting through the week. Drudgery. You don’t even like yourself. How do you get out of that hole?
Healthy sleeping, eating, and exercise habits aside, I propose to you that paying attention to the balance of time you spend with people who give you energy vs. those who don’t is clutch.
About halfway through my first semester at business school, I went to meet with a professor whom I had heard speak to a club on campus a few weeks earlier. As I made my way from my classroom to the faculty office building, I found myself trying to think of reasons to cut the meeting short, or maybe postpone it all together. Wistfully, I looked at my phone to see if maybe her assistant had emailed me to tell me she’s too busy to meet with me today after all.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I wasn’t excited to have 30 minutes of one-on-one time with this woman: her work is phenomenal, and the talk I had heard her give inspired me — I was lucky to have the meeting. Still, the imaginary prospect of doing a 180 and running back to my apartment felt way more enticing.
A mere half hour later, I walked out of that professor’s office elated. Somehow, over the course of our conversation, she had made me feel like I could do anything, like I was the type of person I myself would look up to. There was no pep talk, no magical phrase, but I felt a tectonic shift take place inside of me. I walked outside with a bold posture, and marched over to my next project meeting with determination.
Later that day, as I was trying to figure out what had happened, I realized that this professor had simply made me feel energetic and awake. I also realized that this was in sharp contrast to how I’ve been feeling after too many other interactions in the last couple of days — slow and tired.
Right then and there, I resolved to actively and regularly plan time to spend with people who I know give me energy. My reasoning was simple: in busy, high-pressure settings, there will always be people and situations that drain me; so, instead of avoiding this, I might as well try to balance it with people and situations that I know will energize me.
Sure enough, it worked. It’s an obvious lesson, in retrospect, but it’s amazing how easy it is to lose that balance when you’re busy. That’s why I found it to be supremely important to 1) consciously identify the friends, professors, relatives, anyone whose company brings me energy, and 2) make sure that I seek out quality time with them at least on a weekly basis. During good weeks, this will happen naturally and much more often. But during those particularly tough spells, you’ll at least be sure to have a minimal antidote to get you through to the end of the tunnel.
Just Show Up
This next lesson dawned on me courtesy of a commonly dreaded first-semester experience: Finance I (FIN-I). For the quarter of my class who worked in private equity or financial services before coming to business school, FIN-I was a breeze. For most of the rest of us, however, it was the trenches. It will come as no surprise that this product of the tech industry met her mental breaking point on one cold late-November day, at the end of a particularly frustrating FIN-I class.
As my classmates and I gave our two professors a hurried version of the obligatory end-of-class round of applause, I felt tears welling up behind my eyes. Suddenly, I felt completely overwhelmed by the mountain of material I couldn’t seem to grasp, no matter how hard I worked. I’m not a cryer. I didn’t even cry during the first ten minutes of Pixar’s Up (to my then-finacé’s great shock and concern). But in that moment, I simply became overwhelmed.
To make matters worse, the next class after this was an interactive simulation for Financial Reporting and Control (otherwise known as FRC, or accounting). I gritted my teeth and waded through the next hour and twenty minutes, in a daze. The professor, who had been making the rounds checking on each group of students working together through the simulation, must have noticed that something was way off about me. As I made my way toward the door at the end of the session, he asked me some not-so-subtle version of “what the heck is wrong with you?” I responded to him honestly: “I feel like I’m drowning.”
What he said next would stay with me from that moment on: “Tomorrow, all you have to do is show up. Forget the prep work, forget how you’ll do in class. Just. Show. Up.”
That’s exactly what I did. Then, I “just showed up” for the prep work; then, for the next week’s case and analysis. A few weeks later, I showed up to study for the exam; and then to take the exam. Showing up for each little bit, I ended up with the top grades in both FIN-I and FRC.
In that low moment, it didn’t matter that how well I did in FIN-I was completely trivial in the grand scheme of things. We can’t always control what will be the last straw during a challenging time. Frankly, it’s not that helpful to add to the weight by telling ourselves how insignificant this thing we can’t seem to handle actually is.
Instead, we can help ourselves by ignoring the full size of whatever mountain happens to be towering over us, and focusing on the tiny pebble that’s closest to our feet. Forget moving the whole mountain, it’s too big to think about. Just show up to flick off the next little pebble, and eventually, the whole mountain will melt away.
Don’t You Dare Let the World Scare You
I was sitting in the back of the room at a Women Students’ Association board meeting, listening to a “fireside chat” with a renowned professor. As she spoke about the unique, persistent, and sometimes devastating challenges women face in the high ranks of academia, a student asked her if, knowing the enormity of the downsides, she would perhaps advise other women to make different career choices.
Without missing a beat, the professor responded: “Don’t you dare let the world scare you! Be nervous, scared, intimidated, but don’t you dare let the world scare you.”
I sat up in my chair, grabbed my notebook, and wrote it down: “Don’t you dare let the world scare you.” Brilliant.
This one has become something of a mantra that I repeat to myself in moments of uncertainty, sometimes audibly, under my breath. Sixty intelligent, articulate classmates staring me down as I stand up for an unpopular point of view? “Don’t you dare let the world scare you.” Steady your voice, make your argument, and stare right back. Recruiters telling me I can’t apply for product management roles because I don’t have a formal technical background? “Don’t you dare let the world scare you.” Don’t take no for an answer, trust in the hard work you’ve put in, and keep pushing until you get that interview. A supervisor at a prestigious internship telling me to pipe down and not be so aggressive? “Don’t you DARE let the world scare you.” Refuse to be silenced, assert your value, and don’t let a person in power define how you should be treated (and, if you can, don’t work with him again).
It’s important to note that by no means am I saying that any of these situations (and many others) weren’t scary or intimidating to me. They were, and they are. But every time, I think back to that little soundbite, and realize that there is a difference between feeling scared and letting something scare you. One is a natural reaction to a truly challenging situation; the other is surrendering to that situation.
Feeling nervous or scared is just your mind’s way of telling you that something is important to you. Don’t let it scare you into a pre-determined response — breathe, evaluate, and handle it on your own terms.
HBS can be as tough and daunting as it is inspiring and stimulating. These lessons have helped me make the most of it.
I hope these lessons can be a good starting point, a source of reflection, and maybe even a set of helpful principles that others can follow. They’ve made me bolder, and I hope they can do the same for you.
Sasha Pang (HBS ’17) grew up in Ukraine and Russia before moving to the US as a very confused 10-year-old. She found her professional calling in the tech industry and spent seven years at Google prior to HBS, in roles spanning Sales, Operations, and Strategy. An advocate for diversity in tech, she is passionate about products that change how people live their lives, communicate, and understand one another.