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How an MBA helps in redefining failure and success

Last updated on: June 12, 2014 11:45 IST

How an MBA helps in redefining failure and success

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Nisha Asher

Many times in my life, I have been challenged. Many times, I have made mistakes. Many times, I have experienced failure. Now, reflecting on my first year in business school, I realise that many opportunities were placed in front of me so that I could fail, so that I could learn how to fail effectively.

All of us came to business school as leaders -- as previously successful students, high-performing employees and/or managers, and as driven individuals with interesting and intense backgrounds. But I noticed a shift happening once I entered business school. I quickly realised that everyone around me is equally motivated, equally smart, and has done things that are mind-boggling. All of a sudden, we all moved from being at the top to taking our first statistics quiz and placing two standard deviations below the mean.

At the time, it seemed like this grade alone would prevent me from getting a good stats grade, would prevent me from getting good job interviews, and possibly keep me from getting my dream job. In hindsight, I’ve realised that Stats class was just another colour in the crayon box, and one low grade isn't the end of the world and doesn't mean that I'm a complete failure. I've continued to grow and find those new colours of crayon that have made me into a stronger person, friend, and leader at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

Until now, I never realised how well the interactions I've had over the past two years prepared me to face the disappointments that may come my way. I never thought that failure -- repeated failure -- would be a part of my MBA journey. I expected to come into business school and excel.

I had high expectations for myself; I was used to being a perfectionist. Of course, I knew there'd be some things to learn, and I wanted to learn, but overall, I expected to successfully overcome every challenge. But so far, my MBA experiences haven't been that easy, and I haven't been as glowingly 'successful' as I thought I would be.

I experienced failures, or at least, what seemed like failures at the time -- like not acing my first stats quiz. And it was tough, it was really tough to accept failure, especially since I had become so used to accomplishing my goals. There were times when I questioned myself and my abilities, and I wondered whether I could make it through the MBA programme.

A new concept of success

Now, with only a few weeks of my MBA programme remaining, I am realising that all of my experiences, and especially the failures, have led me to believe that nothing is impossible. The failures provided me with invaluable opportunities to test my strength, to learn, and to grow.

The failures also broadened my idea of 'success.'

For example, success is no longer about acing every quiz; instead, it is about really learning, understanding, and applying the concepts taught in class. Success is helping my fellow classmates through their troubles. Success is growing my values as an ethical leader.

I know this 'learn from your failure' attitude may sound like a self-help platitude, but I really believe it, and I learned the hard way. Along my journey, I also learned that I was not alone. At first, you think that you are.

Reminiscing about my undergraduate days in my organic chemistry course, I had been asked to create aspirin. At about the halfway point of the experiment, I waited for the reaction to progress -- for the synthesis to occur -- but quickly realised that I had not allowed my vial to sit in the ice bath for long enough, and my reaction foamed over.

I started the experiment again and got aspirin crystals, but then when checking for impurities found that my aspirin still had a lot of salicylic acid left in it. I was failing at this experiment multiple times. Those failures showed me the mistakes I had been making and allowed me another opportunity to do the experiment over -- this time more successfully and efficiently.

In time, I created aspirin that got me a 98 per cent, and I felt it was pure enough to take to help with the migraine I had created for myself in the process. I have faced experiences like this at Fuqua as well -- leading to me overcoming my biggest fear since childhood and allowing me to proudly say that I have made a great accomplishment.

It was in the first year that my management communications professor transformed my presentation skills and taught me how to effectively express my thoughts. I truly feared public speaking and wouldn't speak up in groups larger than five people. The professor gave me tools to help overcome my fear, and I began using tools, such as index cards, and writing down speeches to practice a 100 times.

It was also my Integrative Leadership Experience team that helped me grow from a quiet woman who did not participate in team discussions into someone who was able to speak proudly and confidently about my knowledge of the healthcare industry in front of a crowd of judges and spectators for a case competition.

I also became a woman who could voice opposition when I saw something going wrong in public and a woman who is now able to lead and mentor first-year students who are facing some of their biggest fears and challenges. Whether in class or at a friend's wedding, I can effectively give a speech impromptu, or I can even stand up in front of a large audience during a case competition and answer difficult questions (although I may be sweating up a storm).

I was able to overcome my inability to speak up, and though there were very uncomfortable moments and some failures along the way, I ultimately succeeded and was transformed, with help from the Fuqua community.

And more than just my classmates and professors, it is the global environment of the school that inspires me to move on and force my growth. As I now plan to travel the world (whether to visit Fuqua family or work abroad), I have realised that many students came only knowing the words out of the English dictionary but not understanding idioms and slang terms.

It has been their curiosity and dedication to understand the English language that showed me nothing is impossible. During my study exchange programme in South America, I was able to get lost on the roads, learn Spanish through the locals, and have moments (multiple) in which I was terrified. This experience has led to stronger memories, a greater sense of accomplishment, and an understanding of the importance of introspection.

It has lead me to better understand myself -- how I deal with conflict, how I act under pressure, and how I am able to overcome any difficulties that I may face. It continues to better prepare me for the consulting world, where I will face conflict with my clients, my superiors, and my teammates. It has allowed me to thicken my skin and to believe in myself. Failure is all about the effort you put in. The more effort exerted to overcome that mistake, the more likely success will follow.

I am realising that business school is about more than just learning statistical analysis. Business school should take you out of your comfort zone in order to make you stretch and grow. And it may be uncomfortable at times, but most transformational journeys are.

Business school prepares you for the rigours and realities of the working world, where you will face the same industry challenges day to day, encounter bureaucracy at its height, and of course, make some decision that causes a project to be unsuccessful.

But through all this, there is one thing that does not change. It is the people that you surround yourself with, the mentors that you follow, and the leader you aspire to be. Although we may fail at times, it is important to remember that failure is a natural part of life -- no one is perfect.

Through failure, keep your head held up high and be courageous enough to take a risk and accept the fall if it comes.

Life's path is made up of slabs: With each crack comes failure, with each slab comes a new experience. And when the road is finally built, it will lead to a home of great leadership, honest work, and genius business ideas.

Nisha Asher is a recent graduate of Duke University Fuqua School of Business Daytime MBA Programme. She will enter the consulting world as a Senior Associate for PricewaterhouseCoopers's Health Advisories group in Atlanta, Georgia.

This column was first published on Huffington Post. Republished with the author's kind permission.


Image: According to the author, business school prepares you for the rigours and realities of the working world, where you will face the same industry challenges day to day, encounter bureaucracy at its height, and of course, make some decision that causes a project to be unsuccessful.
Photographs: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images