Stoic philosophy and the MBA application process

How the writings of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius can help you domesticate the pain of this universally stressful process

Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome, 121–180 AD

“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome, 121–180 AD

“[People] keep themselves very busily engaged in order that they may be able to live better; they spend life in making ready to live!”

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Philsopher and investor, 4 BC — AD 65

If you’re currently applying for your MBA, you probably feel like you are facing a time of stress, pain and uncertainty. Many questions probably flash repeatedly through your mind in a repetitive cycle — will I get in to my dream school? What will happen to my career if I don’t get in? What will I tell my friends and family? Am I smart enough? Getting in would be amazing — but I probably won’t, or will I?

The truth is that all of this pain and stress is an illusion created by your own mind. Humans evolved in the plains of central Africa, continuously fighting violent aggressors such as predatory animals, winter exposure, drought and famine. We are built to continuously simulate the potential terrible tragedies which might befall us, and to rehearse our emotional reactions beforehand in preparation for our inevitable fate. However, we tend to ascribe too much power to these potential events, and whip ourselves into bouts of fatalism and sadness over the projected futures and failures of our dreams. Thomas Jefferson put it well in a letter to John Adams — “How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened!”

You might be thinking “Great, another blog post telling me not to worry and be happy.” The point I’m making is not whether to worry or not, but to approach the mind as a fallible animal which is prone to guiding us in the wrong direction, and having the strength and mindfulness to tug on the leash and bring it back into the realm of reason and rationality.

The tools to do this can be found within the teachings of Stoic philosophy, a loosely associated “school of thought” (not much of a school and more of a group of like-minded thinkers spread across 2,000 years). At their core, the Stoics see emotions as destructive, illusory and to be ignored during any serious decision making process. As the molecular-geneticists-turned-Buddhist-Monk has taught us: Negative and positive emotions are like passing clouds — as soon as you try to grasp at them, they’ll evade your grip drift away. Imagine you are sailing a boat in the ocean, and you saw a cloud passing by in the direction you want to go, would you try to tie your boat to it? That would be foolish. Emotions are the same, sometimes they’re going in the right direction, other times they are not, but inevitably they will fade away and be replaced with newer, different emotions.

The Stoics showed us that all pain is within the mind, not outside of it. People spend entire lifetimes trying to fix external conditions so that maybe their internal pain will cease to bother them, when the truth is that the person who treats emotions as passing clouds and focuses on finding out what their true values are will be happy in any circumstances. Stop asking yourself what you need to be “happy”, or how to get rid of what makes you “sad”, and ask questions which will build the foundation for the kind of work you want to build during your time on earth. Questions such as, “What is the most important problem in the world that I can use my skills and experience to solve?”, “What topic makes me jump out of bed and work like a maniac on, causing hours to fly by in seconds?”, “When I look back on my life, what core values do I hope I never lose sight of?”

The quote at the beginning of this text is by Marcus Aurelius, former Emperor of Rome and the most powerful man alive during his time. In between military campaigns, congressional hearings and making decisions on which the future of the entire Roman Empire rested, he wrote his thoughts and points of view in a journal, which later became a collection called “Meditations”. I look at this text for inspiration at least once every couple of weeks. To me it’s amazing that the thoughts which were most important to this epic historical figure were those which reminded him that true happiness, strength and balance were to be found inside his mind. By reflecting on this, it becomes easier to cast away the anxiety, pain and fear causes by the fickle fortunes of daily life. Wear life like a lose garment, since your own well-being is fully dependent on that which you control — your mind.

I believe the lessons above, and further reading into the subject, are the most powerful exercise an MBA applicant can pursue in order to improve the quality of their essays, their interviews and general outlook on the process. If it makes you happy to imagine yourself being accepted to your dream school, let it be only because it will give you the tools to be able to accomplish those goals aligned with your true values and how you want to spend your time alive, not because of prestige or brand. If you fear not being accepted, imagine the freedom and time you will have to directly pursue these goals instead.

The most powerful force for the anxious MBA applicant is to cast away the addiction to emotional states, and accept that they will always play a role in your life — happiness and anxiety will come and go, even the calmest Stoics had to deal with these emotions. The key to accomplishing what you wish to do in life is to stop paying attention to emotions and to listen to your core values, to what you define as “virtuous”, and to living a life where you are not enslaved to “preparing to live”, but are free to live in the present with the time you have.

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