The Top Ten Things I’ve Learned From My Mom (and how they helped me get into business school)
I’d like to publicly acknowledge the birthday of my mom today! Code name: Agnes. She is a type A, road warrior-ing, multi-tasking, getting-it-done-the-right-way-the-first-time, hard-working, functioning-on-little-sleep wonder of the world who, along with my dad, has taught me and my three sisters pretty much all we need to know to succeed in this world. I first came to the realization that approximately 95% of my success to date was a direct function of the way my parents molded me (as opposed to what I learned in school) when I started applying to business schools last Fall. These schools want to know all about you, and are interested in the key influences that have shaped you over the course of your lifetime. When I sat down and thought about it – really thought about it – it became incredibly obvious that the lessons instilled in me when I was very young have continued to influence who I am, how I operate, and what decisions I make on a day to day basis.
I have parsed out a few of the key lessons that my mom hammered into me from a young age that have proved to be some of the most invaluable contributors to my journey so far. Let me preface this by saying that it is only within the past several years that I have gained enough wisdom to look back at particular instances in my life and say to myself things like, “Ah ha! That day in the fourth grade that she forced me to re-do my homework three times until I got all of the answers correct and wrote everything neatly was actually an instance of her molding me! She wasn’t just being a witch – she wanted me to learn to never turn anything in if I hadn’t given it my all!” When you are actually in the process of being molded, it is hard to have the perspective to realize or appreciate what is happening at the time. However, it is when your character is formed and you start to use what you were taught out in the big-bad-world that you start to really reflect on why you are who you are, and to be grateful to the people who made you that way.
So, without further ado…below are the top lessons that I feel have played – and will continue to play – a critical role in everything I do, courtesy of my mom, the inimitable Agnes:
- Do things right the first time. Just do it. It may seem painful, but I guarantee you it is worth it in the end. I learned this one the hard way when I did homework in elementary school. My mom exerted strict oversight over all finished product, and if my work was sloppy or the answers were half-hearted, she was all over me like white on rice. The ultimate consequence was that I’d have to start over and do the whole thing again. Now, fast forward about thirteen years: I was an analyst in a management consulting firm working on a fast-paced project for a huge client. It was about midnight and we were still at work, and I had partners, senior managers, and managers all breathing down my neck to finish up a deliverable for their review. It was oh-so-tempting to just quickly finish it up and hand it in. However, I knew that if I just took ten more minutes to get it right and check my work, my output would be that much better. So, despite the obnoxious pacing in the hallway of the partner, the frequent watch-checking of the senior manager, and the absurdly panicked look of the manager, I took a bit more time, did it right, and they loved it. Guess who got a glowing review at the end of the project for always turning in deliverables that are well-done and correct?
- Read. I have always loved reading, thanks in the large part to the mountains of books available to me from a young age. My mom, especially, encouraged my passion, and made sure that I was well-supplied with all sorts of fabulous things to read about. I was the kid who brought my book to the dinner table, would stay awake until two in the morning to finish what I was reading, and who would secretly read under my desk at school when I was bored by class. Although I am from a tiny town of just 10,000 people, I had no idea how to get around once I got my driver’s license because, to that point, I had always had my nose in a book whenever I was in the car. Reading made me more informed but, also, more curious about the world. Looking back, I realize how lucky I am to have grown up in an environment where reading was encouraged and books were plentiful. Reading helped me to stay sane while living the crazy lifestyle of a traveling consultant. Even when I was all alone in the most depressing of cities in the grossest of hotels, I had my book with me, and could escape for a little while.
- Practice makes perfect. I shudder to think of how many hours my mom logged in her car, driving me and my three sisters to and from the variety of practices and lessons that we had growing up. However, she did it because she wanted us to have the opportunity to explore a lot of different things and see what stuck. If I wasn’t good at something, that was ok – I just needed to practice that much harder. Same thing applies to building a career – it doesn’t just happen all of a sudden, with little to no effort on your part. You have to practice, practice, practice!
- Don’t Quit. Quitting was not an option in my family. It just wasn’t. If I signed up to do something at school, for example, but then later decided it was lame and didn’t want to anymore, too bad. As irritating as this was when I was little, I really appreciate it now. If you commit to something, follow through. This lesson in particular played a very important role in my MBA admissions journey – I took the GMAT the first time, bombed it, and subsequently decided to quit. However, once I took a step back I realized that I had to see this thing through. I started studying again, took it for a second time, and got what I needed to apply to top business programs.
- Volunteer. Volunteerism was instilled in me from a young age. My mom fearlessly served as the Girl Scout troop leader not just for me but for all four of her daughters – and, among other things, we did a lot of volunteer work with our troops. By the time I reached college she had instilled in me a desire to give back, so as an undergraduate I independently sought out ways to contribute to my community because it had become an important part of who I am. I also got very involved in my community when I was working as a consultant after school. Ultimately, this worked out well in a couple of ways: 1) I was personally fulfilled by the volunteer work I was leading; and 2) When I decided to apply to business school I had a long track record of community service work that I was truly passionate about (as opposed to what admissions directors call “just in time” service work, e.g., volunteer positions that come up right before applications are due so that people have something to put down in that section).
- It’s OK to Fail. Let me be clear – my mom is definitely not one of those Tiger Moms whose sole purpose is to produce kids that win at absolutely everything. I’ve always known that it’s ok to fail, as long as I put everything I had into whatever it may be. It’s a good life lesson to realize that you’re not going to win at everything. There will always be someone smarter, more talented, more athletic, more <fill in the blank> than you are. Accept this. It makes things easier.
- Don’t Watch Too Much TV. My sisters and I were allowed a very minimal amount of TV watching as kids. Absolutely no TV was allowed during the school week, and I think we could watch thirty minutes per day on Saturday and Sunday. Sound Draconian? Perhaps it was, but in hindsight I am really grateful for the rule. Instead of watching TV I spent my time reading, playing outside with friends, riding my bike around the neighborhood, etc. Even now, I hardly watch any TV at all (though, I will confess that I am a total Gleek, and have also been known to catch an episode or two of Gossip Girl…don’t judge). When I was traveling as a consultant I probably turned on the TV in my hotel room a total of five times in two and a half years. My lack of reliance on the TV made it especially easy for me to study for the GMAT during the week, work on my essays, etc. because I didn’t have anything else to distract me.
- Send Hand-Written Thank You Notes. When I was little, I was forced to write thank you notes anytime someone even thought of giving me a gift. These notes were the bane of my existence, until one day when I was about ten my grandmother told me how much she loved receiving them from me, and that she saves every one. Since then I have tirelessly devoted myself to writing thank you notes to all of those who have so kindly hosted me at their house, given me a gift, done me a favor, or just been a great person in general. In addition to being a nice gesture in random life situations, thank you notes are also relevant to the business school application process. For example, I wrote thank you notes to all of my colleagues who took the time to write me business school recommendations. I also wrote a thank you note (*not just an email) to all of the admissions committee members who interviewed me at their schools. I promise you that, if done sincerely, hand-written notes are a much-appreciated, personal addition to the otherwise virtual admissions process. On this topic, I would leave you with this last bit of guidance (courtesy of my mom): Do not underestimate the power of a hand-written note.
- Leave things better than you found them. Ahh, if I had a nickel for every time my mom said this to me growing up, it could probably fund my graduate education. When I was younger, this primarily applied to tangible scenarios. For example: If I walked into the kitchen and there were dirty dishes in the sink, I should put them into the dishwasher, hence leaving the room nicer than when I found it. Fairly straightforward, no? But, as I have grown, I’ve realized that this concept applies to intangible things as well. Through being a leader and having a cause, you can make a difference…and ultimately you’ll leave our world better than you found it. Sound cheesy? It may be, but it’s also a powerful thought.
- Have Confidence in Yourself. We have a saying in our family. It goes a little something like this, “My name is <insert name>, and I CAN do it!” Growing up, this affirmation was said with much gusto at the urging of our parents whenever one of us faltered or lost confidence in ourselves. It may sound cheesy, but it works. When things seem tough, when you think you’re going to fail (or you already have failed), when you just can’t keep going, just shout out to the world, “My name is <insert your name>, and I CAN do it!” Feels good, doesn’t it?