O n a sweltering mid-August afternoon, I dragged three bulging suitcases out of Logan International Airport, hiding a tired but triumphant grin behind my white Temasek Foundation-issued face mask. Five visa appointment cancellations and many soul-searching decisions later, I had finally made it to Boston. In a few days, I would join millions of graduate students worldwide, entering into the ritual of extended adolescence and self-discovery that is graduate education.
Earlier this year, as COVID-19 infection rates soared, schools and businesses shut down, and the world moved online, I, like many of my peers, reconsidered my decision to enroll in business school this fall. It wasn’t just about the idea of a “diminished” learning and social experience for the same hefty $200,000 price tag. With a Singaporean passport, I was also on relatively privileged footing to deal with uncertainty around the embassy reopening, visa application timelines, and post-graduation job opportunities. For me, the weightiest consideration was the opportunity cost inherent in spending the next two years in the ivory tower of academia, learning to “make a difference in the world”—the motto of Harvard’s business school—when ample opportunities existed all around to step up, stretch, and lead in a time of global crisis.
Yet in the midst of the death of an old “normal,” and the birth of a new reality taking shape, I decided that this would be the opportune time to step back and think critically about the kind of leader I want to be. The timeless existential question posed in “The Summer Day” by the late poet Mary Oliver seemed to urge even closer examination this year:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
What are the kinds of difference worth fighting for, the answers worth pursuing, and the questions worth asking in times like these? For the next two years, I have the opportunity to examine these lines of inquiry and more with a diverse class of 732 MBA students from over 50 nations, all making space to invest in our own growth so we can better invest in others. I recently realized, too, that stepping back does not have to be at the expense of leaning in. Rather, with the enhanced perspectives, tools, and networks it provides, the MBA community serves as a powerful platform for rapid-testing innovative theories of change even during our time as student-professionals.
When I originally decided to apply for an MBA, I saw these two years as a space in which I could take a giant leap of faith from who I was at the time toward who I wanted to become. After almost four years working in Indonesia’s education sector as a foundation professional, I dreamed of exploring a possible future path as a founder and social entrepreneur. I yearned to carve out space to test and exchange crazy ideas, learn from peers and professors who have started, scaled and closed down businesses, and gradually grow my own confidence and risk tolerance. I hoped to experiment with my leadership style and absorb wisdom from new friends with backgrounds as diverse as heading submarine intelligence units 250 meters below sea level, to developing digital solutions to eliminate malaria across the Southern Hemisphere. Most importantly, I planned to continue a focused pursuit of deepening my Christian faith and identity alongside redemptive rhythms of work, rest, and community that would lay an important foundation for the rest of my life.
It’s strange and beautiful, this notion of coming back to school in part to reconsider who we want to be when we grow up, when we’ve already grown up in many ways. I’ve chuckled reading Instagram captions from my classmates celebrating the experience of becoming a “freshman” again, or in one particularly tongue-in-cheek post, starting “seventeenth grade.” Granted, this second experience of being a freshman is distinctly different than the first. I, for one, know I’m radically changed today from the person I was when I began my undergraduate degree in the United States eight years ago; different even from the Felicia who, upon graduating, decided that she would like to spend the rest of her career working in community development in Indonesia and Southeast Asia.
This time, my worldview and sense of place in the world are much more firmly formed; my eight years and counting of following Christ serve as a unifying anchor, and my understanding of what it takes to realize systemic change in Indonesia’s education system has gained much-needed texture and nuance. Yet I’m full of adolescent excitement to discover the tangible paths and possibilities that lie ahead in pursuit of this mission. Most of my classmates, I’ve learned, share my sense of anticipation. For some, years of following the mold have left them hungry to discover their own true North Star and rechart their course. For others, the brevity of life brought to consciousness by the pandemic has provided new boldness and clarity to pursue, or perhaps double down on, a calling that makes their heart sing.
Ten weeks back into student life, I’ve also noticed, underlying the general atmosphere of excitement, an undercurrent of anxiety: a restlessness to figure out where we’re going, whether we’re on the right track, and how we can get on track to make this $200,000 investment and two-year opportunity cost count. A few weeks ago, something like half of my class began recruiting for their summer internships. Would-be founders began networking with increased fervor. Discussions about post-graduate plans suddenly took on a new flavor of urgency. We like to joke about being freshmen, but heaven forbid we actually feel as uncertain about the shapes of our futures as do most undergraduate freshmen. I wonder if over the years we’ve lost our sense of childlike wonder—the ability to live in joyful expectation as we move in nonlinear ways from one version of self to another. I must admit: I’m culprit number one. I came to business school with a commitment to explore and iterate courageously upon my hypotheses of who I will become and what I will do with this life; yet, I find myself almost daily battling the temptation to grasp at definite answers that I can tout confidently in coffee chats and networking meetings.
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote originally of the relationship between anxiety and possibility in The Concept of Anxiety:
[A]nxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself.
Building on Kierkegaard’s ideas, American existential psychologist Rollo May elaborates on the necessary role anxiety plays in creativity and self-development:
“Because it is possible to create…one has anxiety…. Now creating, actualizing one’s possibilities, always involves negative as well as positive aspects. It always involves destroying the status quo, destroying old patterns within oneself...and creating new and original forms and ways of living.”
Anxiety, then, is not inherently a sign of weakness. Rather, it is an expected, and to some extent a necessary, part of the act of “creating new and original forms and ways of living”: whether at the level of the individual or of society. Unbridled and left to fester, however, anxiety becomes incapacitating—the antithesis of freedom. I remember this from my darkest season of doubt in high school. I’ve seen it crop up again and again, in myself and others, as we grapple with the uncertainty and slow process of change associated with the conflated health, economic, and social pandemics our society faces today. How might we, then, position ourselves relative to our anxiety so that it powers creativity instead of paralysis?
Drawing inspiration from Kierkegaard and May’s work, as well as recent personal experiences, I’d like to suggest three lenses to help us—as individuals and as a collective society—to move from anxiety toward the fulfillment of our potential.
The first lens is to see anxiety as not only a natural byproduct of our growth process but as a powerful, educational tool. Anxiety alerts us to the unconscious beliefs we may hold despite the rational truths we subscribe to, and to the old ways of being we have not fully unlearned. It provides inflection points in which we can choose to reexamine our core beliefs and values, and to remember and act on our agency. For example, in my religious worldview, anxiety signals to me that I am imagining my future without God—believing that God is not in control, does not have my best interests in mind, or does not faithfully provide. In response, I have the opportunity to recommit to trusting God’s weaving in my life, and to daily choices and practices that stem from this core decision.
In one TED talk, investor and author Tim Ferriss goes so far as to suggest that we should practice “fear-setting” instead of “goal-setting” to help us make important decisions: envisioning and writing down our fears in detail, separating what we can control from what we cannot, listing the potential benefits of taking action, and, crucially, listing the costs of inaction. On my plane ride to the United States, I went through a similar framework as part of a letter I wrote to myself in preparation for business school. Whether your core philosophy is stoicism, like Ferriss’s, or conscious surrender to a higher power, like mine, the practice of unpacking one’s anxieties and fears can actually provide renewed courage to make the leaps of faith we need to make.
The second lens is to model an embrace of ambiguity in solving hard problems. In a particular case study I dissected, one innovative company defined tolerance for ambiguity as a core bedrock of their culture and critical enabler of their creative process. In a time when so much of our world needs to be reimagined, and yet so little is predictable, we need leaders who are not afraid to acknowledge, own, and wrestle with uncertainty, whether it is their own or others’. We need leaders who are okay with uncovering more questions for every possible answer we come up with in the process of creating systemic change. While our culture has idealized the notion of a confident, invulnerable leader, in this day and age, I believe the most credible leaders are those who are candid about their uncertainties and gaps of expertise while pursuing better questions and collaborative solutions.
The third lens is to practice disciplined and systematic inquiry, as both a mindset and a process. In my previous work with schools in Indonesia, one of my foundation’s most important theories of change was that inquiry-based learning, as opposed to the dominant deductive methods of schooling that have been widely adopted over the past few centuries, would best prepare young learners and their learning guardians to thrive in an increasingly volatile, uncertain world. It goes without question that I am a huge proponent of the power of inquiry, yet still I find it extremely difficult to apply this to my own life.
As I write now, I’ve come to realize that the season I’m in currently is a season of questions more than it is a season of answers—and that’s intentional. This does not mean that I take a laissez-faire approach to my educational and professional journey. Rather, borrowing principles from the design thinking world, I can commit myself to cycles of divergent and convergent inquiry. While they are not mutually exclusive, I have decided that my first semester will be primarily one of open-ended exploration and gathering of questions, while in my second semester I will start to put a few structured hypotheses to the test.
There’s an uncomfortable yet productive tension that comes with the process of identity evolution as graduate students, yes, but truly as humans at-large. In the journey of leaving behind old permutations of self and moving toward new possibilities, we often live in the spaces “in between.” These threshold spaces can be disorienting—dizzying even—but they are also the birthplaces of incredible transformation and hope. I’m aware that my fellow classmates and I occupy a unique space in the midst of a unique period in world history. I am determined to be a keen observer and engaged participant in the unique forms of creation and transformation that can take place in such times.
At the end of the day, I’m still not 100 percent sure—not even 80 or 60 percent sure—what it is exactly I plan to do with this one wild and precious life of mine. I’m not sure what the world will be like when I graduate or the kind of leader Felicia will be two years from now. I do have a general direction I am pursuing, a few lines and lenses of inquiry I have committed to, and a set of hypotheses that continue to evolve daily. For now, I’m content to trust I am where I am supposed to be.