Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Black November -- Pitch Black or a Shade of Gray?

"This shirt is black...NOT!" ~ Borat

About a week or two into my Darden experience I first heard mention of the phrase "Black November", initially mentioned casually by members of the Career Development Center, then in my conversations with second-years. The implication seemingly was that we needed to prepare for some sort of business school apocalypse, with recommended courses of action including writing all of our cover letters and networking with all possible company contacts in September, stocking up on canned foods, boarding up our windows, and assuring our friends that just because we wouldn't be speaking to them for 30 days didn't mean we were dead.

In a way, they all were right. First of all, Darden does lie in the Northern Hemisphere, meaning that it is literally darker these days. Today saw a mere 9 hours and 45 minutes of daylight in Charlottesville, and extra gloomy daylight at that as we had overcast skies and drizzle all day today.

If I took a measurement right now on the Darden intensity meter, where:

1 is "still going to the gym and buying my own groceries"
5 is "down to 6 hours of sleep a night"
10 is "keeling over from physical pain"

...I'd estimate that most first-years right now are at about a 7 or an 8. The last four months have seen a gradual cranking up of this dial to the point where now we face a crush of deadlines related to exams, job searches, and the end of the calendar year. I do see my friends on the town a fair bit less now than I used to. Our old Thursday night social activities have greatly diminished. Over Thanksgiving weekend, I spent most of my time at home catching up on emails, coursework, and other unfinished school tasks, much to the dismay of my parents and siblings. Throw in my 10-year high school reunion and my family didn't see much of me at all.

This is not to say that Darden wasn't intense at the beginning. I received an email recently from a former coworker asking me if I was "surviving the Harvard-Bootcamp-of-the-South", and his portrayal of Darden wasn't entirely inaccurate. Darden's reputation is that of a very hard working business school, and with this reputation I definitely agree. The beginning of Darden felt very intense too, but in hindsight we weren't yet confronted with that many obstacles. You get acclimated to the intensity over time, at which point the Darden first year throws more at you and you frantically struggle to keep your head above water.

My walk home from Darden now looks rather dismal

Having survived this month, however, I don't think November was entirely black. Or as Borat might joke, "This month is black...NOT!" The simple truth is that business school is what you make of it. If you de-commit from joining activities, shun the ever-present corporate recruiters, refrain from networking your butt off to make job interview closed lists, and content yourself with average grades, you're unlikely to be overwhelmed here.

And I don't think that packed schedules are unique to Darden students. The holidays are a stressful time for many people, not just those at Darden. At other top-tier business schools, my friends all invariably seem to be busy, busy, busy. Business school is like a good buffet -- you walk through continually piling delicious foods onto your plate, but once you reach the end of the line your plate is overwhelmed by a mountain of stuff, and you're now sad that you haven't left room for dessert. You're going to need to leave something unfinished because there is no way you can eat everything you've selected.

Darden students choose to be busy. They choose to pursue lucrative investment banking and consulting jobs, knowing well ahead of time the rigors of these recruiting processes. They choose to network endlessly to build a group of professional contacts which will get them a step ahead in building careers. They choose to join clubs and get involved with volunteer projects. They choose to be prepared for case discussions and exams.

The overwhelming part about November is that all these activities converge simultaneously to demand extraordinary amounts of your time. Choosing which to pass up becomes very difficult. You still want a great summer job, but you still want to be prepared for the cold call, but you still want to raise funds for the local food bank, but you still want to sleep. Deciding which to eliminate can, at times, feel like choosing which of your sons to kill. Most students still try to do it all (except the sleep part, I think we've all given up on that).

Keeping a long-term perspective, though, I think we'll find that all this difficult work was worth the struggle. One look at the refreshed second-years here reveals that these hectic times do pass, and the wisdom we learn this month will help us focus our priorities in the world of business. Darden's mission is "to improve society by developing leaders in the world of practical affairs," and this time management crash course will be a valuable, practical developmental lesson for all of us.

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