My friend and I used to go on dinner dates back in college. We’d meet up at the dining hall or the the nearby Thai Restaurant and talk about our lives. The conversation always naturally shifted to school because she was in Business School, and just like in the real business world, it was majorly competitive and stressful.
“You know that job I interviewed for at the bank? Well, this girl from my Stats class was up for it too. We saw each other in the waiting room. It was awkward, but I powered on and I thought I did awesome in the interview. I nailed all the questions from HR and I connected really well with the manager. Honestly, it was the perfect fit. I loved the company. But it turns out that the girl’s boyfriend used to work with the hiring manager. She got the job yesterday!”
There were a lot of stories like that. They were normally about students cheating on exams, cutting corners on assignments, freeloading in group projects, and cozying up to connections to get the best internships/jobs. I listened in awe because those occurrences were almost unheard of in my Psychology major, where the competition was much less pronounced.
“How unfair is that? That’s just the business world for you. People will step on anyone to get what they want.”
I shuddered at the thought of competing against such ruthless people. Before hearing about the behind-the-scenes happenings at the Business School, I believed that success always goes to the people who are truly the brightest and most competent. Little did I know, humans have all types of tricks to “climb the ladder” and claim undeserved victories.
I got my first taste of the competitive world when I curiously tried Intro to Human Resources Management. I liked the class and decided to keep taking classes. Soon, I declared my major. The program was new and relatively small when I joined. I could count about fifty people in the whole HR program for my year. As we took more and more classes together, everyone became recognizable. Over time, I knew things about the people in my classes. For example, Johnny who sits in the first row, is talkative and has a way with professors. Michelle, the blonde girl who dresses well, is really good at acing exams.
There was an air of competition in the program. Who could answer the question first? Who got the most attention from the professor? And most importantly, who got hired first? On campus recruiting started early in our junior year. We watched as the best and the brightest got picked up by Wall Street-type banks and giant corporations. I suspect everyone felt a little envious whenever a smart peer was offered a coveted internship or incredible first job.
The professors had us working in groups constantly. They said it was good for our real-world skills, where we would be working with people all the time. As you can imagine, it was a little difficult to be collaborative in this type of environment.
There was one particular girl in my classes. She had amazing organizational skills, and she could time manage the heck out of her day. She participated in a million activities, got the highest grades in each class, and grasped concepts so quickly that I thought she was magical. She was bright and happy, and if she did notice all the within-program politics going on, she didn’t seem like she was affected by it.
Coincidentally, this girl was also a Resident Assistant, like me. In our last year, we were on the same staff. The job of a Resident Assistant is stressful at key times of the year. Opening the dorms in the beginning of the year is probably the most stressful time because of all the million things that need to be done and checked off before the students move in.
The night before our students were due to move in, I was running behind on building my bulletin boards. I had this huge, beautiful vision for my board, but did not plan for the fact that I might run low on time and energy before getting to finish. I tried so hard to power on. I kept telling myself that I could execute my idea, and my students would be wowed and feel truly welcome in their new homes.
So there I was, cutting construction paper at a furious pace at 3AM in the morning and feeling exhausted, when she showed up. She had finished her bulletin boards a full day earlier, and had been going around all the buildings, checking on her fellow staff members and helping when she was needed. Without a word, she slid into the chair next to me and started cutting, too.
I was in my zone so I didn’t even notice her until five minutes later. I said, “Hi! What are you doing here?!” in an excited tone and she answered
“Helping you, of course! I love your idea for your board. It’s going to look fantastic.”
And that’s when I learned the most important career lesson. Success is not just about rising to the top of your field, obtaining the highest reward, and accomplishing all your goals. Success is reaching for all those things and obtaining them so that you are have the resources to share and help others.