One of the things I’ve been doing in France to pay the bills is advising people on how to prepare their business school applications.
The people are bright and accomplished, sometimes preposterously so. They come from selective schools with big, juicy GMAT scores. They’re fast-trackers in competitive industries with impressive-sounding amounts of responsibility. Many of them are even interesting.
Despite their unblemished records of achievement, the B-school application process can be humbling. They have to dig deep to write essays about their long-term goals, what makes them stand out from the crowd, and what they regret—questions most of us would just as soon avoid. Mucking about in that gap between who we are and who we want to be is not for the faint of heart, and it takes a leap of courage to lay your dreams at the feet of others with only the hope that they’ll tread lightly upon them.
For me, though, it’s kind of fun. I get to play mother confessor, psychologist, life coach, writing teacher, and drill sergeant all rolled into one. The job is easier when the clients come to me already softened up. An evening of trawling the Internet is usually sufficient to find out that they’re just one among scads of smart, accomplished, and ambitious people aspiring to go to the same handful of programs.
You can almost see them glancing furtively over their shoulder, as if being pursued by a phalanx of candidates brandishing their Leadership Potential, armed with fluency in six languages and abiding interests in wine connoisseurship, kite surfing, and Noh theater.
“I’m not original enough! What can I write about?”
Their concerns are not entirely misplaced. After all, these are people who have succeeded largely by conforming, not by being particularly original.
“Everyone is unique,” I say, reassuring them. “The more your essays are a pure expression of you, the more distinct and compelling they’ll be.”
They eye me warily as I explain that it’s not so much about content as voice. They don’t really understand what I’m talking about at that point, but they can see that I do, so they go along with me, letting my confidence ooze into the gaps where their own has drained away.
Of course, I don’t mention how difficult it is to find one’s voice. The clients who come to me thinking that my job is to help them fix their grammar errors find out soon enough how many emotional buttons get pushed as they sort out the answers to three basic questions: What is your long-term goal? Why is an MBA (from school X) necessary to achieve that goal? What have you done up to this point that would give someone reason to believe that you are likely to achieve your goal?
And so I nudge them along toward their Joycean epiphanies. I help them spin a narrative arc out of the seemingly unremarkable flow of ordinary life, and when they get too comfortable hanging around with the easy-going “whats” I steer them back to the demanding “whys.” ‘Why did you make that decision? Why was that moment so important to you? Why does this episode stick in your mind?’
I can’t work miracles, but I can usually coax them into producing something that is clear, has a certain coherence of style, and, most importantly, is insightful and honest. And when everything goes well, they come out of the process with the confidence to pursue a life trajectory that they themselves had been unsure of at the outset.
I suspect that one of the reasons I was initially drawn to this work is because on some level I believed that by helping other people understand themselves it would help me bring the same lucidity and self-assurance to the task of sorting out my own life.
This has generally not proven to be the case.
I enjoy the catharsis of breaking something down and then building it back up. The predictability of the process is soothing—particularly when it turns out well for the client, as it usually does—and there’s enough variation in each case to keep things interesting. It’s like watching a genre film.
But that’s the problem—people watch genre films because their tropes are familiar, not because they’re likely to offer any great new insights. After a while, I realized that I was gleaning some interesting stories, but personally, I wasn’t learning a whole lot about myself.
At least not until Mae Lin came along.
She was the best of the best—she’d survived cutthroat academic competition in China and come to France without knowing the language to get a degree at the country’s top engineering school before getting another master’s degree at its most prestigious school of commerce. Now she was a star in the asset securitization department (think: credit default swaps) in one of the largest banks in the world and she had her sights set on an MBA from one of the top five schools in the U.S.
At our first session, I gave her my spiel on how to construct her essays. She wrote everything down, nodding the whole time, so I’d had high expectations for our second meeting.
Instead, her first drafts were catalogues of academic achievements with the standard bouquet of shopworn strengths—’curious,’ ‘hard-working,’ and ‘smart’—and confessions to weaknesses such as ‘working too much’ and ‘planning ahead too far.’
I sighed. This was the kind of stuff you get when you don’t have an initial meeting. I shuffled through the rest of the papers and skimmed through the main Stanford essay. “What is most important to you in life and how is this reflected in your professional objectives?”
She’d started the essay with a quote about making a difference in people’s lives and then used the rest of her 750 words to say that she is different because she excels at everything she does.
“Ummm….you kind of missed the mark on this one,” I said. “Making a difference in people’s lives isn’t the same as being different.”
She looked at me, apparently expecting more in the way of an explanation.
“The idea here is to identify some kind of fundamental principle or value—or even a specific goal—that guides your most important decisions,” I said. “’Making a difference’ is that kind of thing, but honestly, finance isn’t exactly one of the helping professions…”
“…and you have no record whatsoever of volunteer work or philanthropic activity, so I think that ‘making a difference’ is going to be a tough sell unless you’re trying to be ironic…”
I didn’t need a laugh—just a chuckle of comprehension so that we could move on.
“I don’t understand what they want me to say.”
“Think of it this way,” I said. “What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning? What excites you?”
She stared back at me blankly.
To be fair, this is the kind of question that elicits a deer-in-the-headlights reaction from most people, but typically they recover their wits, and within half an hour, we can find a few core values and primary objectives, and then trace out their influence at key life junctures.
She struggled in silence for a few moments, so I started tossing out ideas, hoping that something would come to her.
Finally, it did. “I want to be the best!” she said, her face lighting up.
“OK, good!” I said. Not a super promising start, but it got the ball rolling. “At what?”
“OK, good! So why is it important for you to be the best at everything?”
Her face went dark again. The ball had stopped.
“Why do you want to be the best?”
She thought about it for a moment. “I don’t know,” she said. “I just do. Isn’t that enough?”
Was it? She’d caught me off guard with that one. Maybe it was. It hadn’t been for me. I’d cycled through that life goal in adolescence and early adulthood, only to eventually realize that it was empty, nothing more than a deeply ingrained habit born out of so many years of trying to please people who could never be made happy.
I hesitated to press the question. This wasn’t about me, after all. I certainly didn’t want to project my issues onto her, but something didn’t feel right. It’s one thing to take pride in doing something (or, if you’re really driven, everything) as well as you can, but the idea of wanting to be better than everyone else at everything you do…that merits a few follow-up questions. In any event, we were still 744 words short of an essay, and this broad, unfocused ambition couldn’t explain why she’d choose one particular professional objective over another.
“Think about it…there must be some reason…” I said, my hand hovering at the white board, ready to jot down whatever she came up with. “Or how about this…what would happen if you weren’t the best?”
She gazed into the middle distance, nonplussed. That possibility had evidently never occurred to her before.
“Well,” she said slowly, “I guess it’s because I want my parents to be proud of me…I want to make them happy.”
I capped my marker and sank down onto my chair. ‘So this is it,’ I thought, stunned into a strange admixture of elation and despondence. With an anticlimactic fizzle, the lifelong search for my grail had finally come to an end. It was as if I’d stumbled on it—long after having given up looking—in some stupid place where I never would have thought to look, like behind the refrigerator. And yet there it was, right in front of me, bathed in a halo of florescent light:
The Daughter My Parents Had Always Wanted.
‘What luck!’ I thought. In all these years, it had never once crossed my mind that I could provide that daughter without actually having to be her. I considered asking Mae Lin if I could bring her with me to Arizona on my next trip to visit my father. She could fill in for me so that I could be both myself and the ideal daughter, at least by proxy, which was fine with me. I figured he’d be OK with it too. Heck, the last time I saw him, he looked straight at me as I approached in the airport arrivals hall, waving and shouting “Dad! Dad,” and didn’t show a flicker of recognition until I had stopped right in front of him.
“Seriously, you don’t even recognize me?” I said. It had only been nine months. “My hair’s the same color, the same length…I haven’t gained or lost weight…my clothes haven’t changed—”
“I just couldn’t figure out why some person was looking at me like that and waving.”
Sadly, though, this was all coming too late for my mother. She would have really appreciated a daughter unencumbered by the notion that she’s a distinct person with her own desires. A daughter like Mae Lin wouldn’t have “made waves” with all those uncomfortable ‘why’ questions and inconvenient truths that I had been so fond of, even more so when I realized their power to antagonize. ‘My mother would have adored her—’
I leaned back and pushed the heels of my hands into my forehead, trying to stem the meltdown in my head, hoping that I appeared deep in thought over how to salvage this essay…
‘…I can’t even believe this…you waltz in here, and just like that…you don’t even have to do anything at all, and now YOU’RE the favorite one…all upwardly mobile with your perfect job and your manicured nails and your fur-collared coat…and to top it all off, you don’t even care why you’re doing all of this as long as you make mommy proud and happy??? ARE YOU F%&#ING KIDDING ME? I HATE you! How can you be like that? Why couldn’t I have been like that? Where did I go wrong? NO…it’s pathetic…who wants to be like that? But how do you do it? How is it so easy for you to be YOU?’
I was losing my mind. In less than a minute, I’d managed to conjure up a sibling and a rivalry with which I was roundly tormenting myself. It was familiar territory, though, which may seem odd given that I’m an only child. I suspect most people embellish their real siblings with all sorts of imagined qualities and intentions and motivations, and it’s the imagined versions who cause more psychological turmoil than their flesh-and-blood counterparts. The difference for an only child is that there’s no physical manifestation of the presumed Favorite One, just the persistent sense that it’s not you. When Mae Lin came along, I finally had an actual person to attach all these emotions to and recognize them for what they were.
So here I was, face to face with the Favorite One. She had everything that I was supposed to have had, from the lucrative career in finance (which I’d rejected) to the manicured fingernails (which I’d failed miserably at maintaining). She was responsible and industrious and eager to please, and she never betrayed the slightest hint of resentment about being that way. Most of all, though, she was nearing 30 and still hadn’t tired of being responsible for her parents’ happiness.
This is who they wanted me to be? Really?
They could have her.
We plodded along for the next couple of weeks without much improvement from draft to draft.
For the “most important thing in life,” she tried out ideas like “perfection,” doggedly unaware of how loathsome this made her seem.
“So you want to be perfect,” I said. “Are you perfect now?”
“Do you think you ever will be?”
“Oh, no, not at all—”
“So you want to spend your whole life striving for something that you will inevitably fail to achieve?”
There was an easy rejoinder to this. All she had to say was something about the importance of the journey, not the endpoint. She could have worked in her Asian origins and invoked the example of a quest for spiritual enlightenment—knowing that you will never totally achieve it doesn’t negate the value of trying.
Instead, she shrank away, traumatized.
‘Ha! The Favorite One’s not so clever, is she?’
For the essay on her biggest failure in life? Taking on too much work for her first securitization project. What did it cost her? She had to work later than everyone else on the team. What did she learn? How to say ‘no.’
She insisted that there was no ‘better’ failure in her life that we could use, so I called upon my white board and erasable markers to work their alchemical magic. Voilà, they came through for me again, taking this crappy raw material and turning it into a pivotal transition from academic to professional life. Indeed, it was nothing less than a coming-of-age moment in which she emerged as a self-directed agent, responsible for setting her own goals and capable of establishing her own boundaries. We ended with a flourish, suggesting that learning how to manage her manager had been her first step on the path toward assuming leadership roles.
Whatever we discussed, she’d nod and write it all down. It would come back to me a few days later for revisions, usually stripped of any subtlety and most of its insight.
As time wore on, finding her story felt more and more like giving her one. I actually did want her to succeed—if for no other reason than to honor my professional commitment and to further my own ambitions—but my resentment was starting to build.
‘Why is it my job to give her a personality?’ I fumed. ‘She’s the perfect Favorite One. If she’s so great, let her figure it out!’
Beneath this seething contempt, though, I did actually feel bad for her. Being the favorite is no great prize. I imagine it’s a gilded cage, difficult to leave because you have everything to lose by doing so. Now that I’d found the Favorite One and realized that it would never, ever be me, I could stop trying to bear that burden. I was finally liberated.
Ultimately, my moments of irrational anger were kept in check as it occurred to me that outside of my little manufactured reality into which Mae Lin had unwittingly stepped, things may have been quite different. Like me, she’s an only child, and if she’s still worrying at her age about what would make her parents proud, then maybe she too is still competing with an imagined sibling, desperately hoping that one day she’ll be the Favorite One.
Business dragging: © 3q2q1q
Two scary people pointing: © Netris
Edvard Munch’s company men: © Chrisharvey
Nothing there: © Tomloel