An unexpected education


An unexpected education

Libby reflects on her learnings from Hillary Term

I came to business school to crush the hard skills. I convinced myself that if I could just master the discounted cash flow and whip up a Monte Carlo simulation, my old friend—self-doubt—would magically disappear. Over the past 6 months, I’ve come to understand that as soon as I unlock one piece of knowledge, the next unknown glares its jagged teeth and those niggling demons make themselves right at home. This knowledge attainment relationship to self-worth, that drives many of us to business school, is like a treadmill with no end in sight. Many of us continue to feel like imposters, regardless of what we ‘know.’

But here’s the contradiction, as I reflect on my first 6 months at Saïd Business School, I do feel different. What surprised me is where this came from. It wasn’t from mastering a framework or an equation, but the unexpected and unconventional elements of the Oxford Saïd experience—those guiding not my outward skills, but my inner work.

Our Mindfulness in Business class helped me break down the neuroscience behind why we doubt ourselves (hint: outdated survival mechanism). I learned the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion and how the two impact the wiring in our brains. Self-esteem is inherently fragile. It’s based on external factors such as competition and comparison and is therefore contingent on success after success. Self-compassion on the other hand, is about relating to ourselves and humanity as we are. Working to cultivate self-compassion has given me permission to step off that treadmill and practicing mindfulness has helped me stay off it.

As part of the Skoll Centre’s Impact Lab I joined a peer coaching group which follows the Action Learning methodology. Every week I meet online with five classmates to workshop a group member’s professional or personal challenge. Uniquely, our role is not to problem solve on behalf of the problem owner (as many of us naturally gravitate towards) but to ask them good questions. Watching this process unfold I’ve learned that with the right prompts and a supportive group, we have it in ourselves to answer our own questions.

Another unexpected moment of growth was participating in the Oxford Aspen Leadership Seminar. I was expecting perhaps some Myers Briggs-esque personality surveys or inspirational speech about servant leadership, but what I got, was poetry. In small groups, we spent the weekend tackling big questions posed by the greats, Pablo Neruda, Hafiz, and Chaung Tsu. In a year where one of the biggest skills we hone is the ability to process information at lightning speed, it felt (at first) unfamiliar and uncomfortable to marinate on a single passage. At first skim, my interpretations were painfully one dimensional. But as we tackled the poems as a group, sharing interpretations, questioning each other and relating the literature to our personal experiences, each piece came alive. In that moment, the group truly felt like we were greater than the sum of our parts. I was reminded yet again, that this year is not simply about padding our collection of factoids and jargon, but re-sparking our curiosity and ability to not just learn from the books but from each other.

As we head into Trinity term, and a particularly nerve wracking finance course, I have no doubt those pesky wee self-doubt demons will be knocking on the door. But this time, I’ll invite them in for some tea and enjoy the ride.