10 Lessons I learnt from my 2 years at IIM Lucknow.

Sigh. (Image taken from the IIML Website)

I graduated a few days ago from IIM Lucknow with a Post Graduate Diploma in Management, which is a fancy way of saying MBA. Lucknow taught me a lot and I thought I’d record some of it for future reference.

This is meant to be a genuine introspection into what were an intense 20 months, rather than a self-congratulatory humblebrag, the kind that you’d find on “insider” sites that B-School students and aspirants frequent so often. If, at any point, it starts to sound like that, do call it out. Never enough brickbats. So here goes:

  1. Results >> Efforts

There were multiple instances where we felt we put in an incredible amount of effort into a project and that we’d “nailed” it. Only to then see the presentation fall flat, and receive mediocre marks at best. The lesson learnt from such experiences was two-fold :

  • Firstly, that you must be intensely aware of what is required. Even if you’ve done great work, if the Prof or your Boss on the other side doesn’t perceive it to be as valuable, then you’ll always be leaving something on the table. We’d see people who scrambled together a presentation in a couple of hours, and they’d receive a better grade because it ticked the boxes that the Prof had in mind and he was thus convinced of its quality. 
    The Gita might say that you mustn’t focus on the reward and instead focus on your efforts, and it’s right in saying so, but those efforts must be directed in the right direction. Otherwise, that effort is simply wasted.
  • Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, when you put in a lot of effort into something, there is a bias that creeps in, one where you tremendously overvalue the quality and impact of your work. It’s the same reason that every startup founder feels like he’s changing the world, whereas in reality, it might be a copycat idea with little usefulness. When you put in a considerable amount of effort into something, you lose the perspective required to evaluate it objectively. 
    Towards the end, you’re also probably exhausted from the effort, leading you to overlook minor flaws in your work, which would only accentuate this gap between your perception and reality (this happens with me a lot). This is apparently called the IKEA effect. TIL.

Takeaway: Focus on the effectiveness of your efforts rather than be blinded by your own awesomeness.

2. Drive for results or Stop half-assing everything

This is closely related to, but isn’t the same as the above point. Most people, particularly myself, tend to half-ass things. I start off with a surge of inspiration and decide that I’m going to achieve a laundry list of things. But very quickly, the inspiration fades and I don’t put in the requisite effort. And then, when I look back after a given period, I have very little to show for — only a bunch of false starts.

This is very evident in B-School because there’s so many things to do. So for example, I, like so many others, would sign up for a million case study competitions, only to submit exactly zero entries in total. This pattern would show up across the board.

Meanwhile, there were people, who had a greater degree of clarity and discipline than I did, who chose their goals, set their targets and then met them. This doesn’t mean that they won everything under the sun or were All-Stars, but they put in their best efforts in their chosen areas and over time, definitely produced good, if not great, results.

Going forward, this will be really important, because we only have a limited amount of energy, and we’d want to deploy it effectively. So, if you’re only led by inspiration and without the discipline to stay the course, it’s likely that you’ll spend all your energy in starting up without ever making it to the finish line. And this gets compounded over time. My list of false starts in life is now running into pages, and while I’ve learnt a lot from each experience, I know that I need to start pushing for results as well, because that’ll only get harder to do with time.

Takeaway: Stop half-assing everything. Do a few things, do them well and get the results.

3. Activity is not Action

As I mentioned earlier, most B-School curricula are structured so that there’s a lot going on, particularly in the first term, and there’s a tendency for the students to feel overwhelmed. The most common explanation for this is that they’re trying to simulate “the real world” and the aim is to not only get the students to expand their capacity for doing work, but also to make choices — it’s impossible to do everything. And decision-making is a key life skill.

All of the above is true, but it’s a lot harder in practice. What tends to happen is that you’re perennially busy all the time, which leads you to think that you’re doing a lot, but that may not be true in reality. Once the busy period is over, you may look back and realize that you were neither efficient nor effective. You just kept working.

This wasn’t true of everybody. There were many people who managed to do a lot and were still less stressed out than the others, while dealing with the same constraints.

The difference I think, comes down to clarity. If you know what you want, then you’ll know what to prioritize. So, rather than trying to catch every wave of activity that comes your way, you’ll have your own system for dealing with the large and diverse volume of work that you need to do. You know the metrics that matter to you, so you’ll know where to spend more time and energy and where to spend less (or none).

Another skill that would definitely help is knowing where you spend your time. Time Management is a bit of a vague term, so I’m referring specifically to the ability to be aware of where your time is leaking away. I was particularly bad at this. You’re switching contexts so often and meeting so many people, while also trying to follow social media and the news and what not, that the only way to describe it is that time leaks away without your realizing it. Time is the one constraint that’s common to all of us, so it’s vital to be aware of us where it’s going. Easier said than done though.

Takeaway: Just because you’re running around doesn’t mean you’re actually doing something. Knowing what you want and tracking your time can help remedy this.

4. Recover quickly from setbacks

I don’t mean this at a micro, day-to-day level, although that’s also an issue. You screwed up a quiz in the morning, but you have classes all day and then 2 submissions by midnight and then a committee meeting after that. So, you don’t have the luxury of sulking all day because there’s so many things you need to do. But this part is fairly obvious.

The larger issue I noticed were setbacks that affected people at a macro level. A breakup, a rejection or a big failure — something that really hit you emotionally and at your core. Often, this would lead to people going a month or even an entire term( ~3 months) feeling low. These things are hard to miss, even if you don’t know someone too well.

The course itself isn’t very long (it’s actually just 18 months, excluding a 2 month internship). So, letting something like this linger for an entire term can mean that you miss out on a lot for a substantial part of the course. In addition, when you look back, one of the stand-out themes of your MBA life would be this issue you faced, thus overshadowing many other positive experiences that you may have had. Ten years from now, looking back, you’d probably say B-School sucked because that negativity is what you remember most vividly.

We’re only human, so getting affected like this can’t be helped. But, as a friend of mine pointed out, perhaps one solution could be to tell yourself that this too shall pass, and continue to be actively involved in all that’s happening around you. This is true for life as well. You may not always be in control of your emotions, but you are in control of your actions. And so, sometimes you just need to tell yourself that you’ll get over it, and keep going.

Takeaway: Don’t get too bogged down by emotional setbacks (breakups, failures). You might regret all that you missed out on while you were wallowing in sorrow.

5. You can engineer serendipity

I read this story once about how Steve Jobs made sure there was just one restroom in the entire Pixar building, because he wanted people to bump into each other unexpectedly, especially people from different streams who wouldn’t normally talk to each other (animators, writers, etc). I remember thinking this was a silly idea when I read it back then, because striking up a conversation randomly seemed odd to me.

In IIM Lucknow, for the ~1000 people on campus, we had just one Mess. It was a giant, two-storey building with a huge kitchen, that could easily seat some 500 people at one time. Then, post dinner, the mess became the Night Mess — a canteen of sorts that served tea and snacks through the night from 11 PM to 3 AM (4 during exams). And even the other eateries on campus were located right next to the mess.

What this arrangement meant was that when you needed food at any point during the day or night, you had to go to the mess or thereabouts (just the Night Mess post 11 though). And invariably, you’d bump into someone or the other that you didn’t really plan on bumping into. What would ensue could either be a short exchange or a lengthy, animated conversation that could stretch long into the night. And this would happen multiple times through the night if you kept returning for chai.

This was the best part of the whole experience. The best conversations, where ideas were exchanged and debates took place, happened at these unexpected encounters. The best collaborations, where you realize that someone else shares your interests and that you’d make a great team, were born at the Night Mess. And needless to say, a substantial number of couples had their humble beginnings at the Night Mess.

And there’s no way you can make any of this stuff happen by itself. All you can do is increase the likelihood of chance encounters. And then magic happens. Steve Jobs was right all along.

Takeaway: It is possible to make serendipity happen. And since it leads to such great results, one must always try to increase its likelihood.

6. Don’t waste your knacks

Everyone has a knack, something that they’re naturally good at, that they picked up without much effort while growing up. It’s important that we treasure such knacks and use them well, because they’re really what make us unique.

As Aamir Khan put it so eloquently in Dangal,

“Yu to wohi baat ho gayi ke Sehwag ko bola jaye bhai tu Dravid ki tariyah khel. Na Sehwag reh jawega aur na Dravid ban pawega.”

Some people are natural hustlers, while some people are great at thinking up ideas. Some people naturally take to Finance, while others struggle with numbers. Some people are naturally artistic, while others struggle to design PPTs that don’t make you cry. Every person has a natural tendency towards something.

But what would happen often is that people (including myself) would ignore their knacks, in pursuit of some legacy goal that was handed down to them by someone else. I like to think that one of the principle aims of life is to maximize one’s potential. But I’d often see that people would get into roles or positions where there clearly wasn’t a fit between their natural tendencies and the requirements of said role.

The hardest part is that such incompatibilities are very easy to spot in other people, but we often miss it in ourselves. I spent a considerable amount of my time working on projects which were completely out of sync with what I’d be considered to be good at. And if I’d asked anyone who knew me fairly well before I came to B-School, they’d have told me that I was just wasting my time. But a heady cocktail of inspiration and stubbornness meant that I spent far too long on said projects before realizing that I was misdirecting my energies.

I’m not pushing for the Fixed Mindset over the Growth Mindset, or saying that people shouldn’t step out of their own comfort zone in order to grow. We need to grow and add skills that don’t come naturally to us. But we need to do it while keeping in mind what we have in hand and following a path that’s best suited to us. Sehwag became a successful test cricketer not by imitating Dravid, but by molding his aggressive style to suit the game.

Takeaway: Your knacks are precious. Use them to your advantage.

7. Find out the truths about you that everyone but you knows

More often than not, we don’t realize how we’re being perceived. There may be some truths about you that seem obvious to everyone else but you. It can be something as simple as you having body odour (easily rectified) to something such as you being a pain-in-the-ass to work with (not so easily rectified). And usually, most people have a problem stating such things to your face. So what happens is that everyone is bitching about you behind your back but nobody wants to tell you about it. And these are the hardest truths to find out.

This is only going to get harder as we grow older since we tend to become more inward-looking and fixed in our ways. So it’s even less likely that you’ll notice that people’s behaviours change around you and so on.

It’s all very well to say, “SCREW WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK!” and move on. It’s true, what someone else thinks of you shouldn’t concern you. But sometimes, how you’re being perceived could indicate a real problem, particularly one that could be notoriously hard to find on your own. So, it’s important to go out of your way to find out if you’re unconsciously creating some sort of a negative perception about yourself.

A follow-up to this is to not consciously do something that could wreck your credibility. Word tends to spread quickly, and your reputation will update itself with news of your antics. And as I said above, it’s unlikely that most people will actually talk to you about it, but will make sure to bitch about it behind your back and maybe will even try avoiding you. So be careful.

Takeaway: Be aware of how you’re being perceived. Also, don’t do stupid things.

8. Get to know lots of people

No, this isn’t about networking.

There were multiple occasions when I’d be talking to Person A and they’d say something negative about Person B, and then I’d be talking to Person B, and they’d say something negative about Person A. And Persons A and B don’t really know each other but are passing judgement about each other based on some commonly held perception about each of them. Knowing both Persons A and B, I’d just find it amusing. And this has happened many times with different As and Bs.

The point I’m trying to make is that as you get to know many different people, you stop being as judgemental. You realize that any sort of judgement that we tend to pass on people is usually ill-informed and inaccurate. And sometimes all it takes is for you to talk to said person for this negative perception to vapourize.

But what tends to happen is that we stick to the group that we’ve found for ourselves, people that we’re comfortable with. And we then stop trying to meet new people. And the longer this happens, the more critical you become of people whom you don’t really know.

Over time, I stopped believing most things I heard about people from other people, knowing that these things usually arise from snap judgement. Another side effect of this is there have been times when I’ve found people that I really get along with, long after I stopped trying to make friends. So, it’s always good to keep interacting with new people and expand your social horizon (if such a phrase does exist).

Takeway: Break out of your gang and meet lots of diverse people. It helps you be less judgemental.

9. You’ll find the people you need

I came into B-School thinking that it’ll be filled with selfish types who’ll screw you over if the need ever came up. And I think everyone came in with that impression, because in the beginning, it did feel like everyone was on the defensive.

But things worked out really well. It appears to me that the people you get along with, those who share the same core values as you do, those who’d complement you in a particular field, those who help you out when shit gets real, all these people find you. Or maybe you attract them. Or maybe you just come together at the same time. I have no idea.

But it really seems to me that the people you need in your life, in various areas and in various capacities will come to you when you need them. I know that sounds like corny self-help stuff. But I’m starting to think this is true, given the variety and the quality of relationships that I built in these two years. It’s not like I tried particularly hard to meet a lot of people. But given enough opportunities, compatible people do seem to attract each other somehow.

And I think that this will continue to be true, that at different stages in life, in different settings, we’ll find the people we need, even if we don’t know that we need them.

Takeaway: The people meant to be in your life, will look for you, will find you and will…help you?

10. Remember to have fun

I didn’t add this one just because I was trying to reach 10 (ok I did. sorta). But this point really is important. Like most people, I thought B-School would be filled with hyper-focussed and super-ambitious people who’re always worried about their own interests. It was a bit like that in the beginning. But over time, it was a lot of fun.

The definition of fun here isn’t limited to parties or social gatherings. There is a tendency for people to get too serious, especially under pressure. So, the ability to loosen up and have a good laugh, often at the expense of yourself, is vital. In fact, it may be the only thing that’ll keep you sane going forward.

Takeaway: Have a sense of humour, even under pressure. Also, have a blast in general.

So there. That took a while. I had a great two years and I owe it to a lot of great people. I’d relive these two years again if I could. But alas, now I begin the rest of my life.

If you recently graduated from B-School too and if any of the above resonated with you, feel free to comment. Or add something that you think I missed. Thanks for reading!