Imagine canoeing for the first time in your life. There is little time, and a lot to learn. As stormy waters rock your boat, you forget about speed, and the only thing that matters is to stay afloat.
The first few weeks of B-school are laden with rocky waters and shocks for everyone. Some people try and reduce the element of surprise whenever they’re about to start a new job or college. Once I saw an outsider having lunch in our mess, only to find out he was due to join in a month, and was just trying out the food.
Though these measures may work to some extent, there is no better teacher than experience. Our learning from life can be summed up by a few cathartic moments, and the same applies to MBA. The story I’m about to tell is among the worst two of my MBA life.
Our first term included a subject called Managerial Communication. The professor was a woman supremely confident about herself, not at all intimidated by a bunch of millennials that was fond of accents and big words.
Public speaking was one of the evaluative components of the course. Each student was supposed to make a short speech of about four minutes. When our professor decided that the speech would be based on a book of our own choice, I was thrilled. Of course I was. I loved books, and I saw this an opportunity to showcase my passion. There was sufficient time given for preparation, because it had to be a book we hadn’t read before. The rule wasn’t enforced but despite the haze and craze of the first term, I knew I could squeeze in a relatively small book.
The book I picked was The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch. Many of you might be familiar with it, since the lecture itself is also on YouTube. For the uninitiated, the book is based on the last lecture given by Randy Pausch before he succumbed to cancer. I guarantee you, it is worth your time. Make some.
I didn’t prepare an exact speech which I could read out, time, and practice. This wasn’t overconfidence. I’ve always been more comfortable remembering bullet points, and filling the gaps spontaneously while speaking.
As I’d already seen the lecture before, I did not expect the book to contain a lot more. But it did, and it really moved me. My goal of the speech had changed. Now I wanted the audience to be encouraged to read the book after I was done.
On the day of the speech, I remember strolling in an empty classroom, gathering my thoughts. A girl from my class was also doing the same, and asked which book she’d read. It was Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell – the best work of an author who is unquestionably one of my favorites. As I prepared to launch into a discussion about my fondness for it, she asked me for the gist. Her speech was prepared from Wikipedia as she hadn’t read the book. My eyes couldn’t roll more, and she couldn’t care less about it.
As the class began and Miss Wikipedia finished her speech, the professor was full of applause. I whispered to my friend all the mistakes she made and how everyone just ate it all up.
Later when my name was called out, I walked up to the stage with a stack of print-outs. I’d planned to give them out at the end of my speech to drive a specific point. The student keeping time was ready. The palpable increase in heart rate was a sign of my nervousness. Those nerves sure know how to pick their moments, even when you’re sure they won’t.
The timer began, and I reeled off into the introduction. It wasn’t smooth. I suddenly felt thirty pairs of eyes on me, and I struggled for coherence. The part of my mind supposed to produce spontaneous speech just couldn’t kick-start. I tried to shake it off, thinking my love for the book will outshine my nervousness. Maybe it would have, but at that precise moment the student keeping time raised his hand to indicate I have less than a minute left. I was still setting the context, the book itself hadn’t even begun.
All hell broke loose in my head, the moment I saw that hand. My speech turned into a car speeding on a bumpy road. Forget handing the printouts and the fancy ending. The heart and lips raced each other. And just like that, it was all over.
At that moment, I was already in emotional turmoil, fully ashamed of myself. The marks weren’t important, and I wanted to apologize to the professor for not having made a proper speech, and how making bullet points for preparation was a mistake. But she started before I did, and the next few moments were beyond my wildest dreams.
“Any comments from the class?”. Not a single hand went up, and that really summed up my speech.
“You cheated. I know this book, and I’ve seen the video. You saw the video too and you knew nothing about the book.”
“No Ma’am, I read the book!”, I claimed desperately, feeling tears well up.
“No you didn’t. You tried to fool me. Now stop wasting everyone’s time and take your seat.”
I was numb with pain. It’s hard to describe what I felt, as I waited for the class to end. On the one hand I was ashamed of myself for falling below my own standards. On the other, Miss Wikipedia was applauded despite her deceit, and I was accused despite having read and loved the book. Emotionally overwhelmed, I left the class before anyone else, found a solitary spot in the volleyball court, and broke down.
I don’t know how long I sat there. I definitely don’t know how much longer I’d have sat there, if I hadn’t dialed my mom. Struggling to breathe within sobs, I told her of about how unfairly I was treated. She understood, as only a mother could. Her exact words are beyond my memory now, but it mattered little. In that moment, her voice was all I needed. She believed in me, and that is exactly what I needed to be reminded in that phone call. That I’m not alone.
Few things hurt more than injustice. This is why people don’t believe in hard work. If it doesn’t guarantee success, what’s the point they say. Some of you must have seen evidence of this already. You will see people speaking not because they have something to say, but because they want to appear smart. You will see it while they make presentations, answer questions in exams, or participate in class, despite spending barely five seconds on the actual preparation required.
And yet the lesson here for me was not to adapt, but to have more self-belief. You can be the most honest, hardworking person on earth, but if you don’t believe in yourself, jackals like this professor will pounce on you and break you. I have been often laughed at by friends when I prepared presentations and cases. They think I’m crazy. But after that day, these pin-pricks of supposed mockery had little sting.
Ignore the voices that ask you to betray your values. Look close enough, and you shall find that you are not alone. I definitely did. To me, theirs is the only voice that counts. The voice of reason. The voice of truth.