Undefeated and Unbroken

My first year of business school will be over in three weeks.

That statement makes me feel a whole range of emotions. I’m relieved that the nonstop grind of the last ten months is almost over. I’m sad that I won’t see most of my classmates for three months, and that it will be the last time that we all take classes simultaneously. I’m thankful for the many friends I have made, and for their generosity and help in making my first year manageable. I’m excited for the opportunity to live in New York City for the summer, to intern at Pfizer, and for the many wonderful opportunities that lie ahead in the second year.

I look back on my hopes and dreams when I started orientation last August and feel like I am living the best-case scenario. Back then I worried about whether I would make any friends (a dumb concern in retrospect, but any time you are with a new group of people, you never know), whether I still had the brain cells to navigate an MBA curriculum, and whether I would have an experience that would justify both the tuition and the opportunity cost of leaving my job.

Although I am living the best-case scenario, it has not been a walk in the park. Like the rest of my classmates, I have had to fight for every success and have encountered many failures along the way. It is humbling (and also quite frustrating) to be rejected by so many employers, but one of my greatest areas of growth in the last year has been in handling rejection. Rejection is part of life. It always feels unfair because we know what we are worth and what we are capable of. Unfortunately, others have little information to go on besides a resume or a snap judgment.

As I reflect on the numerous ups and handful of downs from the past year, I wanted to write about two examples I saw recently on TV that got me thinking about the subject of adversity.

A couple weeks back I was watching the NCAA tournament. Kentucky was undefeated and in the Final Four, looking to fulfill their destiny of winning a national championship. No team has ever gone 40-0 in a season, let alone 38-0, which was their record at the time. The last undefeated team going into the Final Four was UNLV in 1991, with the last team to go undefeated being Indiana way back in 1976. These dominant teams come around once in a generation, and it could be argued that this Kentucky team was the best of the best.

As fate would have it, they ran into a Wisconsin team that was hungry for revenge from last year’s Final Four matchup, which Kentucky won in the final seconds. This time, the Badgers shocked the world and knocked out Kentucky 71-64, ending Kentucky’s chance at a perfect season. The Wildcats didn’t play their best game, and their dreams were shattered as a result.

I understand the disappointment of the players. There was only one goal in mind all season – to win a national championship. Many of them could have been stars at other schools, but came to Kentucky for the chance to win a title before heading to the NBA. With this one loss, all their accomplishments were for naught, and their season is now considered a failure, as cruel as it is to say.

After the game ended, many of the players walked off the court without shaking hands with their opponent. In the press conference, one of the players cursed a Wisconsin player under his breath, except that he made the mistake of leaning into a live mic, enabling the world to hear his true thoughts.

I am not going to sit here and write about how well I handled things when I was 18 or 19 years old. I made many stupid, cringe-worthy mistakes at that age. Kentucky had everything break their way during the season, so to have it all come crashing down from one bad game is unfortunate. However, we are often tested with situations like this in life, where everything is going well and then the worst happens. The better we deal with it at the source of the pain, the easier it is to overcome. There is no doubt that someday they will look back on how poorly they handled themselves after the loss and cringe. It is a part of growing up, and is unfortunately one of those situations we only learn from through firsthand experience. Handling it poorly makes the disappointment worse, but its hard to know that at the time.

The next night, tired after a day of homework, I decided to rent Unbroken. I read the book over winter break, about the amazing life of Louie Zamperini, and felt that I needed inspiration on that night. I was getting bogged down by schoolwork and was losing perspective on why I was enduring so much stress. I knew going in that the movie didn’t live up to the book, and it certainly didn’t. To be fair, it was impossible to jam everything that happened in the book into a 2+ hour movie, but it still felt like the CliffsNotes version of his life, even leaving out his troubles after the war.

Watching it still produced the desired effect – to inspire me to keep grinding. After all, my school stresses were insignificant compared to his struggles. I didn’t have to survive 47 days on a raft or spend three years in Japanese POW camps. It is always inspiring to know that someone can experience the worst that life has to offer and ultimately fight through it.

These two examples are proof that it is impossible to navigate life without having to deal with obstacles we’d rather not face. Yes they are extreme examples, but even in smaller doses we are going to face situations in life that we cannot control, that force us to remain level-headed under pressure. It is cliché but it is true – we learn more about someone by how they handle adversity than by how they handle success. Anyone can handle success well (although many still don’t), but it is when things go south that we see what people are made of.

The best part of this year has been learning that I can hold my own through these ups and downs. I’ve never experienced a year like this – stepping firmly out of my comfort zone, constantly meeting new people, navigating an aggressive curriculum. Every week has been a packed schedule with classes, projects, group meetings and other responsibilities that a business school student has to face. There were numerous situations that I could have handled better, but I learned from them and moved on. My GPA is respectable, my reputation is intact, and I can still amble around from class to class. If the spectrum of handling adversity is the Kentucky basketball team on one end and Louie Zamperini on the other, I like to think that I am a tad closer to Louie.

It still boggles my mind how fast life moves sometimes. I am almost at the end of year one. One year down, one to go. I can take it. I can do this. And that confidence is the greatest feeling of all.

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