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The GMAT, Business School, and You: The Big Picture

There’s an old Chinese parable that runs something like this:

One day, an old farmer was working in his field with his old horse. When the farmer turned his back, the horse unexpectedly ran into the mountains. Soon after, neighbors from the nearby village visited, offering their condolences and said, “What a shame.  Now your only horse is gone.”  The farmer replied: “Who knows? We shall see.”

Two days later the old horse came back, now rejuvenated after a bit of freedom in the mountainsides.  He came back with a few new younger and healthy horses which followed the old horse into the corral. Word got out in the village of the old farmer’s good fortune and it wasn’t long before people stopped by to congratulate the farmer on his good luck.  “How fortunate you are!” they exclaimed. “You must be very happy!”  Again, the farmer softly said, “Who knows? We shall see.”

At daybreak on the next morning, the farmer’s only son set off to attempt to train the new wild horses, but the farmer’s son was thrown to the ground and broke his leg.  One by one villagers arrived during the day to bemoan the farmer’s latest misfortune.  “Oh, what a tragedy!  You must be very sad,” they said.  Calmly going about his usual business the farmer answered, “Who knows? We shall see.”

Several days later a war broke out. The Emperor’s men arrived in the village demanding that young men come with them to be conscripted into the Emperor’s army.  As it happened the farmer’s son was deemed unfit because of his broken leg.  “What very good fortune you have!” the villagers exclaimed as their own young sons were marched away. “You must be very happy.” “Who knows? We shall see!” replied the old farmer as he headed off to work his field alone.

As time went on the broken leg healed but the son was left with a slight limp. Again the neighbors came to pay their condolences. “Oh what bad luck. Too bad for you!”  But the old farmer simply replied; “Who knows? We shall see.”

As it turned out the other young village boys had died in the war and the old farmer and his son were the only able bodied men capable of working the village lands. The old farmer became wealthy and was very generous to the villagers. They said: “Oh how fortunate we are, you must be very happy,” to which the old farmer replied, “Who knows? We shall see!” 

Probably one story you have in your head is how good your life will be if you get the GMAT score you desire and get into the school you want.  You may also have a competing story, about how unpleasant it would be if you didn’t get that score or had to go to this school instead of that school.  Of course, there’s nothing to say either of those stories have any truth to them.  There are countless examples of folks who do brilliantly on the GMAT, go to great schools, but then for whatever reason are not as successful afterward.  There are also folks who never did well on standardized tests, who went to schools that others would consider unworthy, but still are fabulously successful in their careers.  Furthermore, while meditation and mindfulness practice are strongly correlated with greater happiness and fulfillment, wealth is absolutely 100% uncorrelated with overall life-happiness.  So, incidentally, is GMAT score.

Wait a minute!  It sounds like Mike is saying the GMAT doesn’t matter.  Not at all.  My goal on this blog is to support the readers in their success on the GMAT in whatever way I can.  I want to encourage you in doing everything that can further your success: studying content, learning strategies, taking practice tests, etc.  All that is wonderful.  Your stories, though, about what it all means: that’s a different matter. Your stories about what the future will be don’t contribute bupkis to your GMAT preparedness. In fact, if the stories you tell yourself generate anxiety or distraction, then they are positively detrimental to your GMAT preparedness.  The truth is: no one even knows what tomorrow will bring, let alone a year or decade from now.  As the poet W.S. Merwin wrote: “Today belongs to the few; tomorrow, to no one.”

We all imagine the future: that’s natural.  The problem is when we become convinced about stories about the future, and they cause us stress or fear or anxiety.  It is often enough to “unplug” the emotional drama of a story simply to step back and acknowledge: of course, we don’t know if that’s how the future will turn out.  None of us know what the future will be. What I am suggesting is a kind of detachment toward our stories.  Detachment is very different from apathy.  Apathy is cutting off, not caring. Detachment is a vital engagement that, rather than locking on to any one story, acknowledges, in all humility, that the future may well contain more than I can imagine right now.  In fact, I would even argue: if your future turns out exactly as you are able to imagine it right now, then that means you would be falling short of your potential, because your potential is always beyond what you can imagine.

As with what I have recommended in the other posts, this detachment from our stories about the future takes practice.  After a big surprise or big disappointment, it takes practice to be able to say, like the Chinese farmer, “Who knows?  We’ll see.” Of course, deep breathing and mindfulness practice will dovetail nicely with this practice. Insofar as you can practice this and develop this skill, you will find you have more of your focus and more of your emotional energy at your disposal in the present moment, and thus are ready to bring your best self forward on whatever is the task at hand.  And that is precisely what I would wish for you on your GMAT.

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