Three months after my INSEAD MBA journey — Reflections and roads ahead

It’s been the whole twelve months since I wrote about my first week at INSEAD. It turned out that a journal is a promise impossible to keep. :)

I just landed in Stockholm, a city I had never visited before I decided to move here. The last twelve months were a whirling journey from Germany to France and Sweden.

Every time I meet someone new at my new job, I always get asked the same, tough questions, “Why do you want to do consulting?” “Why did you decide to move to Sweden?” “Why did you decide to do an MBA after working for a startup?” “Do you plan to go back to China?” Answering these questions has triggered me to think about the last twelve months. Long before all dust settles, there are already some observations I have made and can attribute with great confidence to my time at INSEAD. INSEAD, or more precisely the people I’ve met there, has turned me into someone who acts bolder, feels less alone, and truly embraces diversity.

I’ve become bolder and more confident.

Right before my MBA, I left a job that I had been doing for many years and felt comfortable with, and also took with me a job burnout. Very insecure and having no clue what I’m capable of after leaving a long-term job, I started my journey at INSEAD. It was through all those courses that I started to discover what I’m capable of beyond analyzing data: I can do financial modeling, make structured analyses and presentations, ask meaningful questions and write good content.

I even discovered things I didn’t think I’m good at. Being an introverted thinker means that I don’t often speak up in classes. One day at an Organisational Behavior class, I was called out to share my experience of working at a startup. Since it is based on some content we prepared beforehand I felt slightly more comfortable presenting, and it turned out well received. This gave me more confidence in speaking up more often in class—already progress for me although some peers always encouraged me to do so even more :) More often than before, I would stand up and help steer the discussion when I sense the team is stuck without worrying much about interrupting or embarrassing others.

I also realized that I need to show people what matters to me so that I can attract what I am looking for. This has helped me with my job search — I was not shy from “boasting about” my past experiences and openly sharing where I head to, even when I know there is a risk that it does not perfectly match the position I’m interviewing for. I ended up with offers I was truly happy with, and both acceptance and declination left me with no regret.

I don’t feel alone that often.

It is not that I’ve made many friends at INSEAD (as I’m not a very social person and don’t go to many parties or trips). It is a fact that most people I’ve met there are incredibly authentic and open — also thanks to the psychological safety that the school has created for us. Whether in public settings like classes or one-to-one conversations, people would openly share their struggles, challenges, pain, and how they make it through.

For example, in the Power & Politics class, we discussed a case where an MBA graduate worked so hard to build her network to get a return offer at an investment bank. When we finished I was sort of panicked: “What am I gonna do if this is expected from me at my new job?” And almost simultaneously, the girl sitting next to me turned around and said, “God, I cannot imagine I would be able to manage this at my new job!” Immediately I felt much relieved for finding out that I’m not the only one who felt challenged. We then exchanged our thoughts and I can see she got less nervous afterward.

This helped me a lot with my social anxiety. Previously I’m often worried about behaving clumsily on social occasions, e.g., knocking over my glass by accident, forgetting the name of someone I met last week, or saying something stupid or rude. Now when I sense unease while socializing with others, I would ask myself to shift my attention to observing others at the table. For instance, I noticed that the colleague sitting in front of me loudly dropped her knife on the plate by accident. Some heard the noise and turned around to check if everything is ok, others continued the conversation. I saw that my colleague just picked up her knife and smiled, and no one frowned at her. I asked myself if I would judge her negatively based on this accident and the answer is no.

On the first day at my new job, I messed up some basic stuff and felt completely crushed. On my way home, the conversation from the P&P class just popped up in my mind and an inner voice whispered: “Many fights await on the road, yet you should know you’re never alone.”

I’ve learned to truly appreciate diversity.

INSEAD offers one of the most diverse MBA programs in the world. No nationality exceeds 10% of the student body everyone is a minority — a fact that I already started to miss a lot after settling in where I am right now. Over time I’ve learned not to make any assumptions about where one comes from (if there is such a certain origin at all) based on their appearances and accents. This increased consciousness also led me to look at myself from a new angle.

Coming from China and having lived and worked in Central Europe for one-quarter of my life, I find it almost impossible to fit myself in a certain point on the culture map and this sometimes bothered me. After INSEAD I felt more comfortable with my cultural identity and never again worried about being “not Chinese enough” (i.e., not fitting the stereotype people may have or not fitting well with other Chinese fellows) or “too Chinese” (i.e., not fitting well in the local culture). For example, now in Sweden, I don’t hide my love for brewed coffee here but at the same time I don’t pretend to be passionate about cinnamon buns (still learning to :)). When local colleagues kindly invited me to a cinnamon bun, I either politely declined or just took a small bite and am not shy from sharing with them that I’m not used to seeing cinnamon in desserts as in China most of the time it is used in preparing savory dishes. In addition to being aware of others’ differences, I also start to get more comfortable showing the “me” part because without the “me” part there is no real diversity in the room.

It even meant a lot to me when I realized that diversity goes way beyond race and skin color. As mentioned earlier, as an introvert I don’t speak up very often in classes and I often feel bad about this. Until the end of the PIM class — a class I enjoyed so much that I felt guilty for not contributing enough to the class discussion, I wrote an email to Professor Spencer Harrison to say thank you and told him that I wish I had contributed more to the class discussion. He responded as follows:

Wenling,

It was truly an honor to have you as a student. I could see you approaching the class in a deeply engaged way — even without having to talk each session. I knew you were always “there.” You were contributing!

I cannot describe how warm and meaningful these words are to me. Ever since then I become less concerned about being an introvert, and focused more on the strengths an introvert can bring to a team, e.g., more thorough thinking and more inclusiveness (an introvert would be more aware of other introverts’ intention to contribute).

Three months after INSEAD and settling down in a new city, if I have to put my reflections so far into a summary, I cannot find better words than the ones I dedicated to my peers in the last class of Psychological Issues in Management. My MBA journey at INSEAD will eventually become a part of me, and I’ve started to find these words become powerful than ever:

Life is a non-stop journey of self-exploration.

Always, always,

Feel comfortable asking tough questions;

feel comfortable answering these questions;

feel comfortable not being able to answer these questions right away;

and feel comfortable changing these answers at any time.

Feel free to reach out to me if you want to talk about INSEAD, MBA, or a career transition from a Data Analyst to a Consultant.

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Wenling Yao

Wenling Yao

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INSEAD MBA 22J | Business Intelligence | Fintech | Realist | Explorer | Make well-informed decisions every day.